Citizen Mondo: ‘Project Runway,’ parable of the meritocracy, has found its ideal protagonist

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Mondo Guerra in the workroom. ()
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Tom Scocca

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The television cameras of "Project Runway" did not love Mondo Guerra when they first encountered him. The cameras sort of winced: here was this small, pale person, garishly dressed yet totally inward-turning, speaking with sour pauses, a human sinkhole draining the Television Energy whenever he appeared. It was not a bad effect, amid the frenzy of nervous cheerful aspiration of the season opener, but it was hard to imagine him going much of anywhere.

In case you have blocked it out, "Project Runway" is the television show that selects 16 (or 17) aspiring or working fashion designers and has them compete against each other in trials of design and construction, eliminating at least one contestant each week. The last three contestants are awarded the time and money to develop a small collection to display among the spring or fall New York fashion shows, the events that go by the name "Mercedes Benz Fashion Week." The one judged to have put on the best runway show gets money to start a fashion line and a collection of swag and/or recognition supplied by the show's evolving brand partnerships, currently HP and Marie Claire magazine. Tonight, the episode airs in which the contestants show their collections at Fashion Week and the winner is announced, which aside from the inevitable reunion show and other extras rolled out by the Lifetime channel, effectively ends this season.

This was the eighth season, and the show by now deals in archetypes of its own devising. Its characters are either cast because they fit an archetype that has worked, or they have seen enough of the show to occupy those roles voluntarily once they arrive, or some subconscious mix of the above. There is the Understated One, the Kitschy One, the Self-Taught One, the Pageant Dress Maker—each contestant with an identifiable style in which, for most of them, there is already embedded a fatal flaw. Guerra seemed a safe bet to be the Weirdo, and when he started sending garish clothes in aggressive patterns down the runway, you could see the day coming that the judges threw up their hands, said they couldn't imagine what he was doing, and sent him home.

But Mondo Guerra is a great American, and I will be surprised if he fails to win "Project Runway." I am already surprised that the coming attractions for the Project Runway finale imply that there was some sort of narrow decision involved, though I know that the coming attractions are always edited to be as deceptive as possible. "Project Runway" teaches the viewer how to think about "Project Runway," how to answer the question posed by "Project Runway," and if the answer is not Mondo Guerra, what could it possibly be?

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"PROJECT RUNWAY" IS A PARABLE ABOUT THE MERITOCRACY of New York, and its narrative engine is assimilation—even when the language of the judges sometimes expresses the opposite. "We need to see your point of view," they say. The contestants who hear "your point of view" are the ones who wipe out in the middle rounds. The ones who get to the end game are the ones who hear "we need to see."

The ones who are doomed to lose right away are the ones who can't sew. It is a sewing contest, this show. In China there are game shows for the proletariat, where master forklift drivers have to stack strays of delicate stemware and pastry chefs have to roll out dough on a board resting on fragile raw eggs. Underneath the Reality Television character-narrative arcs and the idea of winning membership in the creative class, Project Runway is built on the unglamorous ability to cut cloth accurately and stitch it together quickly, the skills that got my immigrant forebears through the Great Depression.

It is the antithesis of the showbiz game shows, the ones about how maybe you too could be a singing superstar if you could get up in front of America and convince America to text in its votes. The public is not invited to vote on "Project Runway." (That doesn't seem to keep the producers from fudging the results, in a misguided attempt to serve their best guess about what the public might want; a disclaimer in the show's closing credits gives them room to.)

The judges are looking for professionalism, and there can be no professionalism without competence. Mondo Guerra has his fearless-just-short-of-reckless enthusiasm for smashing bold patterns together, and there are layers of reasons why he gets away with it, but none of the more conceptual or aesthetic reasons would exist if it were not for the fact that whenever two pieces of cloth covered with giant houndstooth check do meet up, Mondo joins them together with unerring precision. Does Mondo know what he's doing? QED.

Most of the time—except in the lost season in Los Angeles, with the show uprooted from its New York garment-industry context and the relentless Irina Shabayeva sewing racks upon racks of dull bountiful luxury-ish sportswear—competence alone is not quite enough. "Surprise us," the judges say (or more often: "You didn't surprise us"). But the judges have fixed ideas about fashion, about clothing; the judges are there as representatives of the industry of making and marketing and selling clothes. The contestant is supposed to play the role of a member of the industry as accurately as possible. Challenge, but don't defy. Stand out, and assimilate.

Is it any wonder so many immigrants or children of immigrants thrive on the program? Especially the boys, who have already been through two gantlets: getting into mainstream America, as a foreigner, and then getting out of mainstream America, as a homosexual. The producers, the same people who brought America MTV's "The Real World," have made sure to present all this as character storyline; they have given us Guerra's into-the-lens confessions of feeling like a misfit and the Brave Revelation of his secret H.I.V. status, when he made pants covered with plus-signs and then was encouraged to explain the symbolism, which was fine and awful all at once. Maybe that Big Moment helped some people, the theoretical lonesome frightened outcasts who were just waiting for television to give them the courage to be themselves.

But meanwhile the pants, as pants, would have won the heartfelt-print-design contest even if Guerra had kept the message to himself. Guerra was winning everything by then, because his clothes had convinced the judges that he was making things look a certain way for a reason. The real message from the judges is "Persuade us."

How are they to be persuaded? Their instructions are confusing and seem to be contradictory. They are fickle because fashion is fickle, because the meritocracy does not run on merit or talent alone. Tim Gunn, the contestants' mentor and ally, tries to encourage talent, to steer it through the shoals of unfair and nonsensical game-show business, to anticipate the ways that the judges will be unreasonable and to translate their demands into something the contestants can do. He is an educator, and he tries to teach them the parts of the success-formula that can be taught.

It doesn't always help. "This looks like something I could buy at a mall," hostess Heidi Klum says, dealing her deadliest insult. (Her highest praise: "I would wear this right now.") Then Heidi Klum tells the contestants to design something for her sportswear line for New Balance, to be sold on Amazon.com, and gives them yards of boring gray knitwear fabric to work with.

Mondo groaned to the camera about making sportswear, then knuckled down and put together some reasonably attractive outfits. Andy South, who would end up in the final as well, made even better looking ones, and won the right to have his designs sold to people who shop online for TV-celebrity-branded loungewear. Fashion!

Through most of the season, Andy South seemed to be a not-quite-mature art-school type. Then the cameras went out to Hawaii, to see where he came from, and there was the rural shack he grew up in, rising early to feed the tubs of catfish, under the eye of his Laotian mother. Andy demonstrated the use of a machete to open coconuts, because he knows how to use a machete. Tim Gunn was flummoxed.

But Andy is still the Student, the one who keeps getting hit with criticisms like "overworked" and "flat." He keeps sending "warrior women" down the runway, and the judges are getting bored. More, he hasn't quite mastered the art of tailoring pants so that seam in the middle doesn't bite into the model's seat. He has won just by making it into the final.

Gretchen Jones, the third finalist, looked like a front-runner in the Understated mode the first weeks of the show, with an apparently endless ability to produce capable, Anthropologie-style outfits, outfits with boots and velvet and feathers to signify bohemianism—outfits meant to be hung on the rangy, well-structured frame of someone who was indistinguishable from Gretchen Jones. The Understated gals sometimes go all the way, making clothes for themselves. Gretchen, though, went flapping mothlike into the bright light of the Reality-Show Bitch archetype, till the work of coming up with undermining things to say about her competitors consumed the self-image that was her muse. It was almost possible to pity her, by the end.

THE ASPIRING DESIGNERS BEHIND THESE TV CHARACTERS have already learned their fate. Fashion Week is over; it takes time to produce the two-part finale before it airs, and there's a relatively high level of secrecy around the result. Part of why the secrecy holds is that the prize for winning—cash aside—is only a marginal improvement over the prize of showing at Fashion Week at all. While the winning contestant needs to persuade the judges, the other two only need to have persuaded some part of a tentful of fashion types. Winning Project Runway means that a designer has won Project Runway. The world beyond is no less constraining than the show, but really no more, either.