During the first few minutes of “Project Runway 4,” many of the 15 new designers introduce themselves by reciting parts of their resumes, desperately trying to justify their presence on the show. For the series that brought competitions based upon raw talent to reality television, this seems to be an odd way to kick off the long-anticipated fourth season.
But the contestants aren't discussing their talent because they lack ability or because they're insecure. Instead, they do so because they appear to be overqualified to be competing on a cable reality series. They're telling us why they need “Project Runway” despite their success.
Rami, who once designed a dress Jessica Alba wore to MTV's Video Music Awards, says, “I think that ‘Project Runway’ can introduce my work to a larger audience.”
Jillian, who once designed for Ralph Lauren, said, “It's not my dream to be contributing to someone else's vision.” Jack agrees.
“I've spent a lot of my career really working for other designers. I think it's a great opportunity for me to finally show my own individual creative vision,” he says.
Even mentor Tim Gunn notes the extremely high level of talent during his first few moments on screen. “Each season on ‘Project Runway,’ we raise the bar,” he says. “You are the strongest group ever.”
More than a year has elapsed since the third season of Bravo's breakout series concluded, and by including these sorts of statements from the cast members, the series' editors and producers seem intent upon re-convincing viewers that the series is about talent, and these designers are more than worthy of the show's pedigree.
“The Apprentice” may have cast competent professionals, but for the most part, it treated them like morons and didn't offer them much of a chance to actually demonstrate their skills or let them be evaluated fairly. “America's Next Top Model” is more of a boot camp and outlet for Tyra Banks’ ego than it is a talent-based competition, and “American Idol” eventually ends up with a talented winner, but thrives on the talent-less (hello, Sanjaya).
But is “Project Runway” purely about talent? If the return of the series and the designers' exceptionally high levels of experience reveal anything, it's that what really draws so many people to “Runway” is not talent alone.
Despite their competence and expertise, not much time elapses on the first episode of the new season before the pressures of series put the designers' talents to the test, grounding everyone in the reality of the competition.
Most of these designers already have enough talent to land themselves prestigious jobs, and many have already had those jobs. But they have not had the opportunity to test themselves.
Inevitably, there are the designers who, despite the impressive items on their fashion design resumes, appear to be incapable of performing under the challenges' demanding constraints and tight deadlines.
And that is what makes “Project Runway” so appealing and so successful. It's not just a showcase for talent, which by itself would be dry and boring television.
Instead, the runway and workroom at Parsons in New York function as fashion's coliseum, where the designers come to test themselves in brutal conditions. The challenges give the designers extremely limited amounts of time to brainstorm ideas, buy supplies, and plan their garments — nevermind actually construct and fit them to a model.
The demands of a reality television production add to pressure.
Cameras and audio engineers following the contestants constantly; they're working long hours every day, including hours of waiting for the judges to make their decision; and they're isolated from the outside world, especially from the support of friends and family.
Within these constraints, they're competing against other highly capable designers. Every week, someone will go home, and “Project Runway” offers its designers an opportunity to go up against the best in the worst possible environment and see if they have what it takes. Some do; many don't.
No one really likes to admit this, but watching people fail is often more fun than watching them succeed. Ancient Romans didn't gather to watch gladiators fight animals and each other because everyone would leave arm-in-arm at the end of the evening, but because failure would result in the ultimate consequence, death.
Exiting to Heidi Klum's cheek kisses and “auf wiedersehen” on “Project Runway” might not be the same thing as being carried out of an arena bloody or dead, but being eliminated is still an indication of failure, even if that failure is determined by judges with subjective tastes.
Those judges add another layer to the pressure. They're demanding, applying the same standards they would to clothing that had been developed over months, not in hours.
In preseason interviews, Gunn has already warned viewers that the judges' decisions will induce anger. And viewers' participation in the process — judging alongside the judges, even if our votes don't count — gives the losers a chance at redemption and sympathy from the audience.
All this explains why designers with increasingly impressive amounts of experience are willing to subject themselves to the possibility of national humiliation: they also have the chance at national acclaim.
Reality television is now the best shortcut to instant fame, and leapfrogging to the front of the fashion world to present at fashion week — nevermind jumping to the cover of gossip magazines — means risking failure.
Designer Ricky seems to recognize that risk, and in the new season's first few moments, starts crying about being on the series. “It's ‘Project Runway,’ and I'm on it. It's crazy,” he says. “It's not just a game, it's my life. ... Am I going to be good enough for this competition?”
Maybe, maybe not. He and the other 14 designers may lose, but either way, we win.