Westward, Sew! Thankfully, Gunn's Style Travels Well

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

After what has seemed like a decade of legal wrangling, hand-wringing and gossip-mongering, "Project Runway" returns to the airwaves Thursday night, after a contentious departure from Bravo to Lifetime. The talented but tormented designers now preen, fret and weep in a workroom at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles instead of Parsons in New York.

But no worries. Despite the palm trees, balmy breezes and California informality, Tim Gunn is still there -- in a dignified suit and tie -- to dish out tough love amid their emotional meltdowns.

To ensure that there will be as many hysterical implosions and personality conflicts as possible, the competitors include Ari Fish, 26, an avant-garde-ish flake who seeks design inspiration by performing a handstand and waiting for the fabric to speak to her.

The one-name-only Epperson, a 50-year-old New York design veteran, is old enough to be the father of many of those in the cast and, within about 30 seconds of the first catwalk show, looks to be getting impatient with his joyful young cast mates, who go all teary-eyed the first time they see one of their frocks on the program's truncated runway.

There's also Christopher Straub, 30, a self-taught Minnesotan who doesn't know the difference between a godet and shirring. Hyper-spunky, spelling-challenged Qristyl Frazier, 42, focuses on plus-size ready-to-wear -- a design category that had previous "Project Runway" contestants running from the workroom screaming.

And finally, the audience meets Johnny Sakalis, 30, a former meth addict. We are told of Johnny Addict's troubled past so abruptly after his arrival that the audience would be forgiven for thinking it had tuned into a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous by mistake.

In the premiere, not much has changed from the show's Manhattan-based Bravo days when the contestants' world consisted of their dormitory-style, mod apartments, the accessories wall and Mood fabrics. It's all still there in Los Angeles.

The competitors arrive one by one and offer up their names, home towns and a key biographical detail that will become their defining characteristic for the season. The show's host, Heidi Klum, sends them a note that beckons them to the roof for a cocktail reception. There, she and Gunn await the 16 contestants.

And then, as if to reassure longtime viewers that the shift to Los Angeles will in no way alter the frenzied rhythms of the show, Klum tells the designers to enjoy the beautiful California weather now, because they won't be seeing it for the rest of the competition. They will be locked in their workroom for the duration.

The first challenge is to fashion a dress for the red carpet that is both innovative and indicative of each designer's aesthetic sensibility. And while the cast makes a field trip to the actual red carpet for the Emmy Awards, that's about it in terms of a Hollywood backdrop. Honestly, for all that Los Angeles functions as an additional character, the show could be taped on a soundstage in Podunk.

The designers have $200 to spend on fabric and they are dispatched to Mood for supplies. Much running ensues and as usual, at least one contestant can't figure out how to pull a single bolt of fabric out of a large pile. Is it really that complicated to dislodge a few yards of fabric?

Because the audience is introduced to Johnny-the-recovering-addict practically as soon as the opening credits end, we assume that recovery is going to play some role in the first story line, and we are not disappointed. Johnny blames his inability to focus on his red-carpet design on the fact that as a recovering addict, he needs his support system -- ignoring the more likely explanation, which is that he's just freaking out under stress like some of the other contestants and it's no more complicated than that. He needs a timeout.

The ever-wise Gunn arrives to soothe and to counsel and to reassure Johnny that he can pull himself together and get to stitching! The scene is Gunn at his best. He remains the heart of the show, the reason that "Project Runway" stands out amid its competitors. He never emotes for the cameras; he doesn't gush. But he's not an exaggerated tough guy, either. He gives Johnny Addict a hug and tells him to buck up. That's the kind of good advice Johnny needs. Gunn wants people to succeed; he doesn't sabotage them for dramatic effect. (Still, the bad, bad TV viewer in your dark and twisted heart almost hopes for another moment of soul-searching angst just so Gunn can come to the rescue.)

In the past, the first challenge has provided strong clues about which designers are likely to make it to the finals -- or at least into the top five or six. In this new season, none of the designers' work really stands out, in a good way. But "Dexter" doppelganger Mitchell Hall, 26, has to rework his garment at the last minute and ends up sending out a model wearing a beige translucent caftan/shmatte that looks as though it had been assembled from the remnants of Jennifer Lopez's revealing gowns throughout the ages.

The work of the family-man Epperson, for instance, is no more inspiring than that of 24-year-old pretty-girl Shirin Askari. The contestants have realized, for the most part, that attempting to do too much is a recipe to be auf-ed.

This first challenge references the show's new setting -- although only barely, because there were red-carpet challenges in New York -- but it includes no pratfall-inducing hurdles. The designers don't have to create a red-carpet gown for a 16-year-old prima donna. Or from foliage. Or candy. It is almost as though given such a straightforward challenge, the designers fail to rise to the rollicking creative standards of the show's history.

The preview didn't reveal the final judgments or even an assessment of the designs. But we suspect that returning judge Michael Kors will be unimpressed -- and the phrase "mother of the bride" might pass his lips. Judge Nina Garcia will probably be bored; she might have to be nudged to pay attention. We are pessimistic that the guest judge, Lindsay Lohan -- who knew she was such an expert on flawless style?! -- will offer anything profound on the subject of aesthetics. The best we can hope for from Lohan is a bit of blissful, oblivious absurdity.

We can only be assured that Gunn's presence in the workroom will keep "Project Runway's" creative fires burning bright and any maudlin meltdowns to a satisfying but tasteful minimum.

Project Runway (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on Lifetime.

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