By bringing back contestants, Project Runway has succumbed to the worst tendency of its genre: rewarding self-aware "brand building" over talent.
As a Project Runway fan, I have stuck with the show through its many cycles, the rocky network transition from Bravo to Lifetime and the ill-fated Los Angeles-based season that forced dapper Tim Gunn into casual wear. I remain loyal because I've never stopped admiring what the designers can create with fabric, gum wrappers (or whatever crazy material gets thrown at them), and gumption. When the show debuted in 2004, it was one of the pioneers of the concept that reality television could foster—or at least reward—genuine talent.
When the Project Runway All Stars edition launched early this year, bringing back a collection of almost-winners and memorable also-rans from previous seasons, I started watching it for the obvious reasons: because it was on, and because I thought it might fill in for Michael Kors's runway bon mots, which I'd been missing. But now, as the spin-off slogs its way through a second installment, it mostly just makes me sad for everyone involved.
Without the involvement of sparkling host Heidi Klum, Kors, and Gunn, the whole endeavor feels like something that came off the irregulars rack. But the main problem with Project Runway All Stars is that the contestants aren't actually competing to become designers—their ultimate goal is to become marketable personalities. Its only merit now is as a cautionary tale about how even the smartest reality-TV shows can end up as empty celebrations of not talent but rather fame itself.
"This is All Stars!" the designers and judges keep intoning breathlessly, stressing the heightened expectations that come with being the best of the best. But it's clear that no one's really buying this. The first installment of All Stars at least had some relative star power with breakout fan favorites Austin Scarlett and Mondo Guerra going head-to-head in the finale. The show's existence could be justified as a do-over for Guerra, whose loss at the finish line in Season 8 is universally accepted as Project Runway's biggest screw up. Guerra was also the only one among the initial slate of all-stars who treated the show as if it was a real competition, suffering multiple meltdowns on his way to the final runway show. Instead of the coveted prize of showing at New York Fashion Week, the finalists showed off their final collections at a makeshift fashion show in a rented hall.
The sophomore season, however, is populated with mostly forgettable figures. Some, like Season 1 villainess Wendy Pepper and Season 8 mean girl Ivy Higa are on a redemption tour. Others, like Season 5's Suede Baum, simply want to remind the world that they exist and can still use a sewing machine. (A propensity for referring to oneself in the third person is a depressingly low bar for an all-star.) Instead of the wise and majestic Gunn, the designers' mentor is Marie Claire Editor in Chief Joanna Coles, whose sole contributions are to lobby for the bra-wearing women of America (admirable), and to soberly ask each designer what shoes and jewelry he or she shall select from the Nine West accessory wall to complete the ensemble.
Bringing back contestants is an easy way to hook viewer interest, but also an unpleasant reminder of the cynicism at the heart of shows dedicated to uncovering talent.
Sponsor name-dropping is a necessary part of the gig. Even on regular installments of the show, the designers routinely gush about the accessory wall offerings and the awesomeness of their HP digital sketch pads. But the all-stars slobber over the products like they're contestants on The Price is Right. In place of ego clashes and competitive spirit, they beam at every ensemble that comes down the runway and are boringly gracious in defeat. Most of the competitors seem to understand that a carefully cultivated image is part of the game—this is no one's first time at the rodeo.
This level of pandering leads to challenges like the most recent episode, where the designers had to draw inspiration from personal photos tweeted by fans of the show. In a bizarre marketing tie-in, the winning designer would be featured in a spread in USA Today, which one designer enthused could land him at the door of every hotel room in America. In an on-camera confessional, designer Kayne Gillaspie over-earnestly explained, "It's important to have a challenge like this because we actually get to draw inspiration from the fans. They're the people coming back, wanting to see what I'm going to be designing next."
The all-star edition has become a trend for reality shows—Top Chef, Dancing with the Stars, The Amazing Race and America's Next Top Model have all had their own iterations. But at least when ANTM staged its version, Tyra Banks was honest about what the competitors could hope to accomplish: using the additional exposure to build a reality TV brand. Bringing back loved or hated contestants is an easy way to hook viewer interest, but the gimmick is also an unpleasant reminder of the cynicism at the heart of shows dedicated to uncovering nascent talent. While a very lucky few may use the competition as a launching pad, the vast majority of hopeful designers/chefs/performers are just willing grist for the reality TV mill.
That's why when all-star Emilio Sosa—who seems the most dedicated this season to taking the competition seriously—said of a fellow designer: "I don't see him as a designer, I see him as a personality," he was actually paying the ultimate compliment for an all-star.