Make It Work

Project Runway celebrates creativity and innovation. It also conveys tough-minded lessons about work in a competitive, market economy.

Forbes , March 11, 2006

Project Runway is a hit series on the BRAVO TV network. In its second season, it attracts more Wednesday night viewers in the U.S. than any other cable show. Its audience gets larger every week, with the season’s eighth episode topping 2.3 million. That’s good news for the network and the show’s producers. And it’s a good sign for American business culture.

Project Runway celebrates creativity and innovation. It also conveys tough-minded lessons about work in a competitive, market economy.

That may sound odd. The show, after all, is about fashion design, a pursuit hardheaded businesspeople usually think of as frivolous. What could a bunch of contestants creating dresses possibly teach an aspiring executive?

But design in all its forms is not only big business. It’s also part of what political writer Michael Barone calls Hard America, “the part of American life subject to competition and accountability.” While M.B.A. programs water down courses and curb classroom questioning for fear of offending their student “customers,” becoming a designer still means developing adaptability and a thick skin.

Hence Project Runway judges say things like: “The hem is a mess”; “Your taste level wasn’t there”; and “You’ve let us down this time.” The show’s young audience--73% female, median age 33--is absorbing attitudes that directly contradict the culture of entitlement and everything’s-good self-esteem.

Like all reality shows, Project Runway is sometimes unrealistic. No employer is going to ask a fashion designer to create a garden-party dress with $100 of materials from a floral shop. Models wearing dresses made of leaves and flowers make good tv.

But not all the challenges are so gimmicky. Contestants also create outfits for Banana Republic, as well as for individual clients like socialite Nicky Hilton and ice-skater Sasha Cohen.

Even with the far-fetched projects, the show portrays fundamental truths about creative work. Designers work with limited time, on limited budgets. As in every business, they face unexpected problems--broken sewing machines, models who don’t show up, fabrics in the wrong colors.

“Make it work” is not just coach-mentor Tim Gunn’s catchphrase. It’s the show’s overarching philosophy: Strive for perfection and brilliance, but first and foremost, get the job done.

Every designer on the show is talented--no American Idol duds here. But some are more talented than others. And talent isn’t the only thing that matters. So do skills. So does time management. So does personality. So does teamwork. So does luck.

To succeed, a designer has to work hard and play by the rules. But that’s the minimum requirement, not a guarantee.

“In fashion, one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out,” says host Heidi Klum on every show. Not only in fashion. Ask the folks at Blockbuster or Sony. Consider Coca-Cola or the Ford Taurus. The marketplace is dynamic. Yesterday’s hot product is today’s stagnant brand.

Project Runway’s most interesting and important lesson is that merit and subjective judgment coexist. Unlike the SAT or the 100-meter dash, the marketplace doesn’t measure value on a single dimension. Neither does the show.

Fans, who can vote online, liked other designs better than the one Nicky Hilton chose. But Hilton was the client, and she was as charmed by designer Santino Rice’s schmoozing as she was by his ice-blue party dress. He won the challenge, made the sale.

The “best” doesn’t always triumph, because what’s best for one person isn’t best for another. Judges and fans generally agree on which of several designs are good and which are bad. But picking a winner and a loser--the best and the worst--requires ranking incommensurable achievements.

Which is worse--a boring but structurally sound skating outfit or an impractical, ambitious mess? To illustrate “inspiration,” which is better--a glamorous gown inspired by gutter water or a tweed pencil skirt and poofy silk top inspired by a potted orchid? If both are equally creative and well executed, do you reward the designer who turns the ugly into the beautiful or the one who creates a new silhouette? There’s no right answer, only a debate.

“I love Project Runway,” writes San Francisco designer Zoe Hong on her Verbal Croquis blog. “Not only is it just a really fun show, but it’s realistically indicative of what the industry really is like for designers.”

Not just for designers, but for all sorts of creative professionals. Everybody has to learn to “make it work.”