DVD Review: Project Runway - The Complete First Season
by Rachel Jaffe
Published: December 16, 2005
At the last Emmys, there were five nominees in the category of Outstanding Reality Competition. Four of them (The Amazing Race, American Idol, The Apprentice, and Survivor) were established shows from the broadcast networks. The fifth, however, was a brand new show from Bravo, called Project Runway. While The Amazing Race ultimately took the award, the fact that Project Runway was nominated at its first time out, with limited viewership, indicates just what a ... well ... stylish show it is.
Every Reality Show needs a concept. For Project Runway, the concept was an elimination contest among unknown fashion designers, who each week would have to accomplish a certain challenge. In the first episode, the challenge was to create evening wear using only items found in a grocery store. On The Apprentice, where generalists compete in marketing tasks, this is the sort of challenge that can lead to slapstick. Project Runway was able to distinguish itself as a serious show about fashion design by showing how such a task is handled by people with expertise in this area -- the creations ranged from a slinky number made of brown socks and stockings to a hot mini-dress from a lounge chair and placements to a stunning dress of woven corn husks.
In addition to concept, every Reality Show needs casting. And Project Runway had a great cast. The contestants, who were chosen on talent and not their bikini appeal, were older, eccentric, and had the depth that life experience provides. (In that, they were somewhat similar to the cast in the first season of Last Comic Standing, which also skewed older and had experience in their chosen profession -- and which also led to a surprise hit for NBC. Casting producers, take note!) In addition, because the fashion designers were in the arts, many of them had unique, flamboyant personalities, such as the fabulous Austin Scarlett or the riotous Jay McCarroll. And of course Project Runway brought us Wendy Pepper, a suburban Virginia mom who turned out to be the most deliciously evil "villain" since Richard Hatch. (Intriguingly, although she saw Project Runway as her last chance to make her mark as a designer, Wendy has also been one of the most frequently seen cast members on the Reality TV Circuit, having participated in both the Battle of the Network Reality Stars and Celebrity Poker.)
The best casting move, though, was Tim Gunn, chair of the Department of Fashion at Parsons School of Design, who acted as an avuncular mentor to the contestants. While supermodel Heidi Klum handled the hosting duties of introducing the challenges and announcing the departures, and half-a-dozen experts in the fashion field (such as designer Michael Kors or Nina Garcia, fashion director for Elle Magazine) did the actual judging, Tim was the one who entered the workroom and gave the designers feedback about the projects. More importantly, he guided the viewers in evaluating the work and the designers as well. (And, for those who want even greater depth, his blog on Bravo's show site gave the best commentary I've ever seen on a Reality Show.)
For me, the most enjoyable part of watching Project Runway was feeling that I came out with a better understanding of design and the fashion world. The final three contestants participated in Fashion Week in New York, and I was surprised in viewing the finale how much greater my appreciation was both for the techniques used in individual items and for how a collection can express a point of view for a designer. Like the contestants, I, too, had undergone a journey.
Season Two of Project Runway has just started on Bravo (including the return of one of the first designers eliminated from Season One). For those who missed the journey that was Season One, this DVD set is a great way to get that experience. And if you saw the first season when it aired, it's still worthwhile to watch it again on DVD, to see the development of the designers in a sort of time-lapse photography and to appreciate the craftsmanship of the camera work -- also excellent! -- that was put into this show.
The best bonus feature is 40 minutes of "Wear Are They Now?", which catches up with the top five designers. About half of this feature discusses the photo shoot in Elle magazine that the winner receives, and it plays like an extra episode of the show. Additionally, Tim Gunn provides his excellent commentary on each of the designers.
There are also 15 minutes of deleted scenes, which are mildly interesting but do not add a great deal (although seeing some of the camerawork provided a bit of a "deconstructionist" look at the show, to borrow a fashion term). There's a "Designer Gallery" consisting of stills of some of the designers work, but I found some of the photography amateurish or distracting.