Who would have thought a TV show about designing clothes would be such a runaway success? While other longtime reality TV shows are losing steam, Project Runway keeps chugging along in its 12th season, which has certainly been one of the most dramatic.
Eila Mell, the author of Project Runway, The Show That Changed Fashion, asserts that the show has had an enormous impact on the fashion world.
"Before Project Runway, there was a lot of mystery around what designers actually do. People didn't know," Mell told me before the start of the taping of the season finale at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week on September 6. "But now you get to go into the workroom and see what designers do.
From observing the taping of previous finals, I've found that many of the ones who gush the most know they have made it to the finals, even if the audience doesn't.
"Parsons and other design schools have said that after Project Runway, they get so many more applicants than they had ever had. Anyone who could sew a little bit wanted to be a designer."
But the show also has a universal appeal that transcends the insular world of fashion.
"People really enjoy seeing creative people do what they do best. You don't have to be a fan of fashion necessarily to like Project Runway. It's just watching the creative process," Mell said.
Even though the season finale doesn't air until October 18 on Lifetime, the eight remaining contestants got to show their collections at New York fashion week. Through the magic of editing, it will look like only three or perhaps four finalists are at fashion week in the season finale. (That's Project Runway's dirty little secret, as I have written about previously.)
There wear a couple of revelations: Scandal's Kerry Washington is the guest judge on the season closer. And, as a twist, host Heidi Klum revealed that, at the last minute, each finalist was asked to create a look made from an unconventional material.
"You'll have to see if you can spot it," Klum told the audience that packed the largest theater in the tents at Lincoln Center.
But which finalists will remain this go-around? As a veteran PR watcher, I searched for clues. Usually it's easy to spot the potential winners, but this season is much harder, because most of the collections shown on the runway were really quite good.
So I looked for other telltale signs.
Who talked the most?
From observing the taping of previous finals, I've found that many of the ones who gush the most know they have made it to the finals, even if the audience doesn't. Kate Pankoke, who got a second chance this season after being eliminated last year, seemed truly overwhelmed to be here. Her black-and-white collection with a hint of orange was polished and sophisticated. I'm guessing she's in.
Tattooed chick Helen Castillo, also babbled on a lot, emotionally telling the audience that this was her first show "ever, ever." But her collection had odd color combinations (orange mixed with a blue floral pattern), and some of the looks are virtually unwearable because the models are so swathed in fabric they can't lift their arms. She's out.
LA ballet dancer-turned-fashion designer Brandon McDonald talked a lot too, but his collection, a tribute to the first crocus that pops up out of the snowy ground in spring in upstate New York, had too much going on, with scrunched-up fabrics, cheap-looking Lurex and few too many crocus patterns.
Dom Streater talked a lot too, and her family members were on the front row — two good signs she made the finals. Her "retro-redux" collection of past and future looks was interesting, if a little too thought out.
Who seemed the unhappiest?
Alexander Pope's navy and black collection was dramatic, with one of the best showstoppers I've seen. At the end of the runway, a model in a blue gown with braids tied above her head pulled a string to drop the braids and make an overskirt. The audience actually gasped in delight. But Pope barely spoke to the audience and seemed not into the game. He's out.
Same with Jeremy Brandick, whose ill-fitting collection didn't seem up to snuff.
Alexandria von Bromssen's minimalist collection of slouchy monochromatic pants and woven shorts and tops is hip and modern. The collection also has the most sales potential, although the judges might find that a strike against her. She didn't talk a lot, but she did cry.
Justin LeBlanc, the first deaf contestant, has the most compelling story in Project Runway history. He was certainly the audience favorite, with a crisp collection that had some highs (a cool white evening gown made of porcupine plastic needles) and some lows (a beige dress with full skirt looked like something a cocktail waitress in a yoga studio might wear).
Panoke, von Bromssen, Streater and LeBlanc make it to the finals. If I were a judge, I would vote for von Bromssen, but I'm betting Streater will win.