“Project Runway” returns Thursday for its 13th season with yet another Emmy nomination for best reality television show, respectable ratings and a modest list of upcoming celebrity guest judges. What it does not have are bragging rights to a dazzling designer success story. There is no true-life example of the wondrous fairy tale that has been at the heart of the show’s premise since its premiere in 2004.
From its beginnings, “Project Runway” defined its mission as discovering a breakout fashion star, someone who could follow in the spotlit footsteps of New York heavyweights Calvin, Ralph and Donna. It has been searching for that elusive savant in a thicket of costume designers, home sewers, freshly graduated 20-somethings, boutique owners and backroom assistants. As thousands of dreamers lined up to audition for the show, with their portfolios of sketches and their garment bags of frocks, they were asked: “Why should you be America’s next big name designer?”
The winner with the highest post-show profile is Christian Siriano, the victor of 2008’s season four. From the first episode, Siriano’s personality leapt from the television screen with the help of a hatchet haircut and signature catch-phrases.
He put his post-show celebrity to immediate use penning a book, “Fierce Style: How to be Your Most Fabulous Self,” producing a collection for HSN, appearing on “Ugly Betty,” and, of course, mounting a runway show for New York’s fashion week that was reasonably well-received.
In the succeeding years, he has built a privately-held, New York-based business that he proudly describes as “profitable.” The key to that accomplishment is Siriano’s refusal to be a snob.
“At the end of the day, it’s just clothes. You never know where your customer is going to come from,” Siriano says. “I wish I was a downtown, cool kid. That’s not what the [fashion] world had planned for me. And [trendy sportswear] is not what I love to make.”
Siriano has focused on cocktail and evening attire. He has a long-standing collaboration with Payless ShoeSource, where his booties and stilettos are priced around $40. This fall, he’s introducing a fragrance that he emphatically describes as “not a trend-driven anything.”
“We’ve found a little niche,” Siriano says. “The first key to being successful is having people wear the clothes season after season. It’s easy to get a customer once. But to get them coming back . . . you can’t have one great season and then have the next season kind of bomb.”
Siriano has been rewarded with a minority investor to help grow the business; membership in the industry’s leading trade organization, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, celebrity clients and floor space at Neiman Marcus — as well as Saks Jandel.
But Siriano, with his modest — but highly visible — success, is the outlier. “Project Runway” hasn’t told a story of triumph as much as it has, over time, offered a nuanced tale about what success means in today’s fashion industry, why it is so difficult and why it mostly has nothing to do with having one’s name up in lights — or on the New York Stock Exchange.
In its particular failure to produce another Michael Kors, the show has brilliantly illuminated the realities of fashion for the public to see.
“Project Runway” debuted on Bravo with a thud, attracting an audience of 354,000. With the help of relentless reruns, however, the first season finale drew more than 2 million viewers. “Project Runway’s” popularity grew swiftly, with ratings topping 5 million by the third and fourth seasons as designers Jeffrey Sebelia and, then, Siriano, took home the prize package, which included $100,000 and a promise of mentoring.
Original judges Kors (who has since been replaced by Zac Posen), model Heidi Klum and fashion editor Nina Garcia took their jobs seriously — and continue to. As does Tim Gunn, the former head of the fashion department at Parsons The New School for Design, who serves as a mentor in the contestants’ workroom. Gunn spends hours off-camera counseling the competitors. And former guest judge Fern Mallis, who established New York’s fashion week in Bryant Park, was surprised by the long deliberations during which the group discussed the merits of each designer’s work.
“On TV, it’s 60 seconds of conversation. When you’re there, you’re spending an hour with those contestants,” says Mallis, who now works as a fashion consultant. “There’s some really serious, intelligent dialogue going on.”
But in recent years, the show’s sheen has dulled. It slipped from about 4 million viewers to its current audience of about 2 million, now on the Lifetime network, where it moved in 2009. “One of the reasons it petered was it failed to do what it claimed it would,” suggests Teri Agins, a former guest judge and author of “Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers.”
The failure of “Project Runway” to produce a high-flying designer is even more pronounced in light of other reality competitions that have produced prominent success stories, such as “Top Chef’ and “American Idol,” which still attracts about 15 million viewers and has Grammy winners Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson among its alumni.
With “American Idol,” viewers can purchase a song on iTunes. “With the clothes, they don’t exist,” Agins says. By the time a winner is crowned on “American Idol,” “there’s a fan base that has already made a purchase, that’s already invested.”
The winning designers of “Project Runway” have faced other head winds. “Half of the shows, if not more, were taped during a terrible economy,” Gunn says. Even the most established fashion houses reeled as department stores cut back on orders and slashed prices.
Yet even without acute economic woes, the retail environment has substantially contracted since the 1970s and ’80s when America’s big three designers were building their brands and relying on department stores to nurture them until they could stand on their own.
Today, fashion is a slower, bumpier journey. Kors, for instance, had a lucrative initial public offering in 2011 and recently became a paper billionaire. But he arrived on Wall Street 30 years after he created his first collection and 18 years after having to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Despite the importance of it, business acumen is minimally discussed on “Project Runway.”
“You need all the pistons working simultaneously,” says former contestant Daniel Vosovic about the fashion business. “That’s a very difficult thing for a young person to understand — the scope of the business. If one thing fails, if one piston stops working, the whole thing can fail.”
While the $100,000 prize money might sound substantial, taxes consume nearly 50 percent and the rest can easily be spent on fabric — just fabric — not the pattern-making, production or shipping.
The money, Gunn says, “will blow out of your hands in a nanosecond. Relatively speaking, it’s nothing.”
Many of the contestants also have another disadvantage: They’re self-taught. “I think of it as a disability,” Gunn says. “You’ve never been in a critique situation; your knowledge of fashion history is limited; you have no business practice; you’re not used to de-personalizing criticism. Those [contestants] worry me.”
Instead of sussing out the next great American designer, “Project Runway” has indirectly posed a more salient question: “How do you define success in fashion?”
Chloe Dao was 34 years old when she auditioned for the second season of “Project Runway.” She already had built a small business in her hometown of Houston. She was in the mood for an adventure and, frankly, her boutique was in need of a little press.
But she wasn’t looking to become a fashion star. Dao, who had spent eight years working in New York, didn’t want a Seventh Avenue showroom or the stress of negotiating with national retailers.
“My dream job has always been to have my own boutique, a nice house, a decent car and two weeks vacation,” Dao says, laughing at her exaggerated modesty. “Just being able to make the clothes and sell them is success.”
When she won, thanks to her figure-flattering and sophisticated designs, Dao took the money and returned to Houston, where she has created a manufacturing network that allows her to produce her collections there. She and two assistants form the design team. And now, at 43, she has been in business for 14 years and has customers with whom she has grown up — creating everything from their prom dresses to their law office workwear.
In some ways, Dao’s accomplishment is akin to that of some of the “Top Chef” alumni. It is local, closely aligned with the customer and especially hands-on. Other “Project Runway” designers are similarly focused. Leanne Marshall, winner of season five, puts her emphasis on bridalwear. Jeffrey Sebelia, the winner of season three, now has a children’s clothing business. And the first winner of “Project Runway,” Jay McCarroll, works in Philadelphia as a textile designer.
Vosovic, who was the runner-up to Dao, worked anonymously at various fashion companies. “I was okay to let my 15 minutes of fame go,” he says. “My five-year plan was to start my own company.” He recently finished two-years in the prestigious Fashion Incubator, a business development program sponsored by the CFDA.
A new crop of 18 competitors — plus one returning fan favorite — have been assembled for the new season of “Project Runway.” Like those who came before them, they are undeterred by the industry’s level of difficulty. They range in age from 22 to 45. As a group, they are enamored with shades of turquoise, mint green and dusty rose. Solange Knowles is a favorite style icon. Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen have had outsized influences on their aesthetics.
They want to build their own companies. But more than a few of them want to build them away from Seventh Avenue. If they win, they want to return home in triumph to Minnesota, Florida, Hawaii or elsewhere.
They are not out to dress the world.
“I see ‘Project Runway’ as a launching pad,” Gunn says. “The scale of the success can only correspond to their ambition and resources.”