The Seams Are Showing on Project Runway

In a paradox of Reality Television, this season’s

expansion of Project Runway from 60 minutes to 90

has made the show seem less complete. Instead of a tightly edited sewing competition, the new format creates room for open-ended conflict—among the contestants, as intended, but also between what appears on camera and what occurs off camera, where the invisible producers and editors are shaping the extra time.

Before, the producers really only tipped their hand in the judging. Heidi Klum would get a particular immobile, shining look in her eyes, and she would contradict the other judges’ criticisms of a bad garment, or their praise of a good one, and the viewer would know that the fix was in.

But this season, the subtext haunts the whole process, rather than the outcome. The challenges seem baroque and confusing, engineered to ensure hurt feelings, rather than attractive outfits, on the runway. The contestants handicap one another’s chances face to face, in the agony lounge, in mid-judging. The question that runs through each episode isn’t “Who is making the best clothes this week?”—it’s “Why is this happening?”

In the old days, the manipulation and deception had a clear purpose. Why did Emilio not get sent home last season for sending a model out

nearly naked under a tangle of string and washers

? Because the producers thought he was worth keeping for future rounds, duh.

Compare that to the mystery earlier this season, when the put-upon

Michael Costello


accused of disparaging

the tightly-wound

Ivy Higa

at a meet-the-public event—in self-referential Reality Television terms, he allegedly called her “the bitch of the show.” This was treated as an irresolvable he-said-(she-rolled-her-eyes)/she-said-(he-rolled-his-eyes) conundrum. Why? Everyone involved was miked and on camera the whole time. It was like having a Bunim/Murray staffer walk on and put a hand over the camera lens.

And now, the little voice in the viewer’s head that keeps asking what the hell is going on has a name: it’s Tim Gunn. The show’s in-house fashion mentor

posted and removed a video-blog entry

complaining about the producers’ bungling of last week’s episode, in which the designers were supposed to look at pictures of Jacqueline Kennedy and come up with “classic American sportswear.”

The details of behind-the-scenes wrangling were newsy—originally, he said, the idea was to get the designers, through indirection, to come up with a costume for Katie Holmes to wear on a History Channel program about the Kennedys. More than that, though, it was just nice to hear someone dismantling the entire muddled concept, top to bottom:

The whole notion that we would even associate Jackie Kennedy with American sportswear is—a stretch. I was about to say “preposterous” but it’s really a stretch. If anything, she brought European designers into the vocabulary of America. That’s what she was all about. Did she wear American designers? Occasionally in the ‘60s she wore Oleg Cassini—Italian, but moved to America—she wore Donald Brooks. And wasn’t until the ‘70s that she wore Halston, and I think that’s the limit of her American sportswear vocabulary. So the whole challenge at the beginning is cuckoo.

Also, he said, the producers forbade him from referring to the former first lady as “Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.” (“This revisionist history is crazy, and it had to do with the Kennedy estate.”) That did seem weird at the time, too.