Advice

Fashion Lessons for Graduate Students

Brian Taylor

October 12, 2009

If you've been living in a cave, or, I don't know, doing academic work, you may have missed the big news of the fall TV season. Project Runway is back for Season 6, after a lawsuit and a move from Bravo to Lifetime. Why should you care?

This I believe: The first season of Project Runway should be required viewing for every graduate student. (This I also believe: Thank goodness for Netflix for those of us who are too cheap to pay for cable.)

If, like me, you are late to the party, here's what the show is about: For a season the program takes a dozen or so beginning designers and puts them in a reality-show pressure cooker. Each week the designers are given a specific challenge, a budget, and a short time in which to complete it. Tim Gunn, at the debut a little-known professor at Parsons School of Design, acts as graduate mentor and mother hen to the flock of fledgling fashionistas. The designers present their work on runway models (who are also competing), and the panel of judges gives them feedback and selects a winner. Each week someone is booted off.

What's interesting, for those of us in academe, is that it's as close as you can get to showing what goes on in a graduate program, and to laying bare a process that is pretty well analogous to scholarly publishing.

First there's the selection of contestants. As I've learned from doing graduate admissions, it's a hard call to evaluate someone on the basis of one or two pieces of work. You just don't know whose fingerprints are on the sample: How much does the final piece represent a student's own work and how much has it been pored over and edited by someone else? In admitting graduate students, you look for promise and potential as much as prowess. You look for teachability, and for students who will mesh with, and add verve to, the composition of the class. And then you cross your fingers.

On Project Runway all the contestants live together. That is just a slight exaggeration of what happens in graduate programs. When students spend time working and playing together, they become a community. Of course, on a reality show, we get to see them brushing their teeth and squabbling. In graduate programs, we just see the consequences of those actions.

The deadlines on Project Runway are intense and often seem impossible. Again, that will be familiar to anyone who has pursued higher education. The assignments on the show are surprising and taxing. On the first show of the first season, in a challenge called "Innovation," designers are told that their task is to create a sexy, on-the-town outfit, and that for their materials, they will be taken to the place where all the top New York City designers shop. The contestants are atwitter—until they arrive at Gristedes supermarket and are given $50.

That's when I was hooked. You watch these people, frantic in their efforts to come up with a vision, rush around in a few minutes trying to gather the goods to carry it out. Some use supplies that are expected—aluminum foil, trash bags, shower curtains, wrapping paper. But you also get to see real creativity in action. The designers come back to their workroom at Parson's with lounge chairs, mop heads, feather dusters, and a bushel of corn on the cob.

And then we view them go through the process of making art.

They have a teeny amount of time to create a garment, fit it on a tiny model, and then watch as it comes down the runway in front of a panel of judges—the host Heidi ("in fashion you're either in or you're out") Klum, the designer Michael Kors, the fashion-magazine editor Nina Garcia, and one other person, often someone famous.

The judges not only judge, but comment on and evaluate the best and worst work. They are a little nicer than book reviewers, since they have to say what they think directly to the designers (who sometimes cry), but they are frank, which can come off as sort of mean. Most of the designers know enough to shut up and listen (though in later seasons, they get kind of obstreperous and uppity).

The challenges exercise the designers' ability to follow directions and remain true to their own vision and style. They are expected to know the fundamentals of fashion, prove that they have mastered the basics, and then go a step further and, in the now much-mocked words of Tim Gunn, "make it work."

Indeed, Gunn is in many ways a role model for a graduate adviser. His initial responses are helpful, and keyed to what he believes are each designer's strengths and weaknesses. He is generous with praise and never fails to express skepticism—his catch phrase for when there's a disaster looming is a sweet "I'm concerned." Indeed, on his face you can see concern.

We don't often get to eavesdrop on the relationship between mentor and mentee in graduate school. What we know of it is usually the experiences we've had during our own training; we become mentors who either model our behavior on or against the kind of criticism we were given. Sure, we hear what students say about other advisers, but we're rarely in the room with them when the work is being assessed. We know that conversations recounted in this emotionally charged venue are frequently like a game of "telephone."

Watching Project Runway, we get to hear not only what is said, but how it's heard. "Tim hates what I'm doing," a designer will moan after the man in the beautifully cut suit has left the room. We'll think, No, he doesn't, you insecure little freak. He seemed only to be worried about one aspect of it. Watching others make mistakes of interpretation might just make each of us better able to listen to criticism.

We begin to see that it's at their own peril that designers disregard critiques. There are things that are matters of taste, and then there are basic principles. When Tim has a problem with something, the judges usually have the same problem. He stands for the informed, sophisticated audience. He is both a good first reader and a representative of the ultimate consumer.

I like the way Tim Gunn gives advice. His "I'm concerned" expresses, I think, a healthy relationship between mentor and advisee, and indeed, by extension, between editor and author. It's a good way to say, "You've taken what I think may be a wrong turn. If I were you, I might not make the same decisions. But I trust you to figure this out."

His signature parting remark, "Carry on," is, I think, an elegant expression of the nudge we are expected to give our students.

Since it is a TV show, Project Runway is rife with dramatic intrigue. On the first season there's a bitchy, back-stabbing, middle-aged woman who makes a great villain. There are also a handful of gay men who—since we find out a little about where they're from—we can assume were tortured during childhood for their artistic manners and fey tastes. It's interesting to see what tolerant and kind men they grew up to be, under their divalike dramatic exteriors.

Project Runway was, as most people know, a hit. Subsequent seasons have featured increasingly more professional designers and lost some of the freshness of that first season. It has spawned copycats in other arts. Top Chef brings the format to cooking. A friend of mine tells me that Cake Boss is even better. In real life, I prefer food to fashion.

But when it comes to viewing, I've found little more pleasurable than watching designers at work.

Some of my colleagues and I have joked about doing a show on graduate school. Can you imagine Best Historian or Grant-Writing Challenge? (We've also wanted to satirize a writer's conference along the lines of Best in Show, but decided it would be too easy a target.)

The truth is, while the judges' language is sometimes arcane and a little prone to jargon, we all wear clothes and experience the world visually. We think we can make evaluations of these pieces. On Project Runway, fashion becomes a metaphor for every creative endeavor: the necessity of training and hard work, requiring the ability to manage time and budgets, the importance of being current in your field and having a historical perspective, and the realization that bad luck and happy chance sometimes play a part.

It shows, too, how the final results are made better when the artist is able to listen to—and incorporate—constructive criticism.

I know many academics who are proud to say that they don't own a television or have never seen a reality-TV program. Sometimes, though, shows like Project Runway can provide a revealing—and amusing—mirror for our own practices.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, in Spokane. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com, and her latest book is "Personal Record: A Love Affair with Running." She welcomes comments and questions directed to her attention at careers@chronicle.com.