It isn't about eating bugs or luring studs. Yet Project Runway, which begins its fourth season in the US Wednesday, is one of the most popular reality shows on TV.
How did a series about watching creative people think, draw and sew end up setting ratings records for the Bravo network, inspiring a passionate Internet community and becoming an influential force in fashion?
Because on TV, fashion is the new food.
Early in this century, bammed-up by Emeril Lagasse and the Food Network, the US became a nation of culinary junkies. We got addicted to shows about eating and cooking, which we watched while lying on the couch in our sweats scarfing down frozen pizza. We found endless discussions about real vs fake wasabi fascinating. We turned chefs into rock stars.
Eventually, some of us got bammed out. Still on the couch in our sweats, we began noticing that Sex and the City wasn't the only clothes-happy show on TV. We found the Style Network and soon were obsessing over makeover shows, shopping shows and celebrity red-carpet shows. The great debate became Jimmy Choo vs Manolo Blahnik. For us, fashion arbiters became the new rock stars.
Best case in point: Tim Gunn, Project Runway's den mother to the designers. He has gone from relatively unknown teacher at the prestigious Parsons School of Design to a nationally worshipped fashion commentator with a book (A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style); his own makeover show on Bravo (Tim Gunn's Guide to Style, which returns with new episodes today in the US); a job as chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne Inc; and a catchphrase: "Make it work."
But when Project Runway began filming in 2004, neither Gunn nor co-creator-producer-host-supermodel Heidi Klum were confident it would succeed because of its rather cerebral premise.
"When we were taping Season 1," Gunn said in a conference call last week, "I was looking at what we were doing, and I thought, 'Who's going to really want to watch this? Who's going to be as caught up in the intensity of creating this work as we are?'
"I underestimated our viewers, that's for certain."
In each episode, contestants are given a creative challenge: make something out of US$50 worth of items from a grocery store, make an outfit for another designer's mother and the results are sent down a runway and judged by a panel of four: Klum, designer Michael Kors, Elle magazine fashion director Nina Garcia and a guest fashionista. They pick a winner and a loser, who gets sent home.
Klum, who says she came up with the show's premise, thinks that the focus on the creative process is why Project Runway is so popular.
"I think people just really love talented people … . People on the street, young and old, they say, 'Wow that was amazing when they did this, that and the other.' They remember."
In its first season, Project Runway was dominated by inexperienced young designers seeking a break. Its place in fashion and pop culture is now such that it attracts experienced designers who have good careers and want more exposure.
This season's 15 finalists include a designer with a Los Angeles store who once dressed Jessica Alba for MTV's Video Music Awards; one who designed a jeans line for Victoria's Secret that was featured on a catalog cover; one who has her own line and has co-authored a makeover book; and one whose lingerie line is sold in stores including Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.