‘Project Runway’s’ pattern of success


“Project Runway” is one reality show that actually dabbles in reality. There is no script, no writers feeding lines to the cast. The goal isn’t to destroy an opponent; it’s to launch a career. The program has lifted the veil on the fashion industry, revealing the unglamorous hard labor behind it. What you sew is what you get. And stay tuned, because fans are going to be getting more than ever this summer.

For seven seasons, in-house mentor Tim Gunn has been guiding flocks of designers through challenges that run the gamut from inspired to bizarre. The call to make a dress out of a potato sack yielded some extraordinary results. An attempt to remake divorced women’s old wedding dresses into new outfits proved the undoing of a few.

Throughout, the competitors hear Gunn’s iconic admonition: “Make it work!” “If anyone wants to attribute that line to me, they’re welcome to, but God knows I didn’t originate it,” insists Gunn, who used it on his Parsons design students for 29 years. His other line must chill the heart of any designer it’s aimed at: “I’m concerned.” “Yeah, well I utter that several times a day,” Gunn notes wryly.

Both statements speak to his “single, solitary motivation in all of this,” he adds. “I want to help them succeed.”

If Gunn is the supportive, clucking parent, helping his baby birds find their wings, host Heidi Klum is the one who pushes them out of the nest. Klum, an executive producer, started the first season afraid to speak her mind on camera. That shyness has evaporated, and as she judges the work with Nina Garcia and designer Michael Kors, she doesn’t hold back.

Garcia, the fashion editor for Marie Claire magazine, is often feared for her brusque assessments. “I’m very frank and direct,” she concedes, but only because she’s holding the designers to the same standards she finds among professionals in the industry. “I think Heidi has become far meaner than I am,” she says, laughing. “She’s tough.”

Klum, speaking by phone from Cologne, where she’s taping “ Germany’s Next Top Model,” demurs. “I don’t think my part is to hurt anyone or make anyone feel bad about themselves. It is entertainment, and when they do something silly that resembles something that you know, then you say it.” Commenting that an outfit reminds her of “a dirty vacuum bag” or “a cat in a baby’s sling,” the gorgeous supermodel channels her inner Don Rickles.

Comedy is welcome, as are workroom meltdowns and such characters as Season 4 winner Christian Siriano, who captured the audience’s attention while wearing out the word “fierce.” But through it all, the designers’ creations are the real stars of the show.

“If something ridiculous does happen, we’re not going to turn the camera off and not air it,” says Klum. “But we don’t instigate anything; we don’t cast people just because they’re funny. They have to be good designers. That’s the No. 1 priority for our show, and I think that’s why it’s lasted so long.”

And it’s why the show has garnered 16 Emmy nominations, including outstanding reality-competition program for each of its first five seasons and two for Klum as host. (The show has won one Emmy for editing.)

The first few years saw the ratings climb to a Season 3 finale high of 5.4 million. A move from Bravo to Lifetime in Season 6, after a lengthy legal battle, saw its highest premiere numbers, but last season, viewership fell below 3 million. “We were still the highest rated cable show many of those weeks,” executive producer Sara Rea points out, adding that it was a lackluster television season in general. “We’re definitely looking to improve things, but we don’t feel like it’s broken.” She’s tight-lipped about any improvements coming in Season 8, set to premiere at the end of July.

Klum is more revealing. “I’ll give you a little inside scoop. We’re going to have more time next season,” she announces. How will they manage that? “We’re going to make the show an hour and a half long,” adding a half hour to the running time. “It’s for all the people out there who need to know just a little bit more of what’s going on.” Designers, start your hemming.