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Excellence pays off for ‘Project Runway’

Just when reality TV seemed to be going out of style, enter “Project Runway.”

The Bravo series, which wraps up its first edition tonight, has found so many passionate fans and inspired so much water-cooler chat that it almost seems to have reinvented the genre.

In all reality, “Project Runway” – which has fashion designers competing for a chance to launch their own clothing lines – is hardly revolutionary.

“The Apprentice,” “America’s Next Top Model” and HBO’s “Project Greenlight” all were quicker to feature wannabes battling it out for a break in their chosen profession. Early reviews complained that “Runway” seemed to be cobbled together out of spare parts left over from other reality shows.

But all the pieces came together in remarkable fashion. Every step of the way, “Project Runway” has gotten it right. As a result, it has become one of Bravo’s biggest hits, drawing an average of 1 million viewers (a large number for the cable niche network) per outing.

The smartest decision by the producers – including supermodel Heidi Klum, who also hosts – was to celebrate excellence, not focus on manufactured conflict.

That meant casting aspiring designers who were genuinely talented, not just odd or abrasive. But as luck would have it, talented and abrasive oddballs apparently abound in the fashion industry.

So “Project Runway,” in its original dozen, introduced Austin Scarlett, a heavily made-up, 23-year-old (male) amalgam of Carson Kressley and Bette Davis; Jay McCarroll, 29, a chunky, bearded vintage-store owner from a tiny town in Pennsylvania; Wendy Pepper, a 39-year-old mom from Virginia; and Kara Saun, 37, a professional designer as classy as the clothes she turns out.

They made it to the final four, but what all the competitors turned out to have in common was talent. Every one of the starting 12 showed real skill and creativity from the first challenge, which required them to design outfits entirely from materials available in a supermarket. (Austin’s corn-husk gown was still a dazzler after it wilted.)

And even when a project – like most of the postal-carrier uniforms they whipped up in the Feb. 2 installment – proved disappointing, the talent still shone through.

Living together in a cramped New York apartment, the competitors have clashed, cried, bonded and boozed, but their behind-the-scenes shenanigans don’t grab the “Project Runway” spotlight.

Instead, the focus stays on the work. The process of creating a piece of clothing, an outfit or a whole line turns out to be riveting, even for those who aren’t particularly interested in fashion.

Skillfully edited, “Runway” shows us just enough of the work-in-progress to let us see the pieces fit, but never so much as to feel like a high school home-sewing class. By the time the models strut down the catwalk in the clothes we’ve seen come together, for better or worse, we’re not just rooting for our favorites, we know why.

Helping to make viewers feel smart is the fact that “Runway” landed the famous Parsons School of Design and its acerbic fashion director, Tim Gunn, as partners, lending the show an immediate aura of respectability. Gunn is also a natural TV star, whether coaching the designers, critiquing their works-in-progress or reacting dryly when projects seem to have taken a wrong turn.

Attracting designers like Michael Kors and Betsey Johnson as judges also helps to make viewers feel part of the in crowd, especially when the big names agree with our taste.

By the time the three finalists (McCarroll, Pepper and Saun) show their clothing lines during New York’s Fashion Week in tonight’s finale, plenty of people who’d never thought twice about Fashion Week will be watching eagerly.

The prize, including $100,000 in seed money to launch their own line and a spread in Elle magazine, is very real for the aspiring designers, most of whom would have found breaking into the fashion world very difficult without the springboard of “Project Runway.”

By contrast, consider CBS’ ongoing flop “Wickedly Perfect,” which has marginally talented people pointlessly competing to become the next Martha Stewart (a job that’s not actually available). Each week, someone is eliminated based on “personal projects” that viewers rarely get to see come together and that, in any case, generally look cheesy and amateurish.

If “Project Runway” sets new standards for unscripted shows like this, well, that would be perfect.



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