Saturday, January 14, 2017

Ten Things I Have Learned From Project Runway

I've been watching Project Runway for years. You know it, most likely. A group of clothing designers gather in New York and produce pieces for the runway each week based on a theme (a makeover for an awkward friend, make a dress out of hardware store supplies, make a red carpet look, design a new look for a drag queen--these are all actual challenges).

Each week one designer wins, and gains some benefit (immunity for the next week, a photo spread in a magazine, an ad in Times Square), and one designer goes home. There's nothing more fun than listening to Michael Kors tear something apart ("she's like a mother of the bride who's a belly dancer"). I love rooting for designers and watching what they create.

I know enough about clothing construction, fabric, and sewing to follow the details and be amazed. And as I've been watching, I've learned some things. Here are a few of those things.

1. Representation is important. The models on Project Runway are all skinny little things, yes, but they from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. More important than that, though, are that the designers are not all gay white men. They aren't. I swear. And as the seasons progress, the standard designer becomes less and less apparent. There are plus-size girls with low self esteem. There are weird Japanese guys with afros. Southern black gay men. Hippies and freaks. A deaf guy. Yes, there are a lot of gay white men. And a lot of tattoos and a lot of severe white women. But there are a lot of others.

What I found most interesting is when the “Tim Gunn Save” was introduced a couple of seasons ago, when Tim Gunn (the world's best human) could decide to save a designer who had been eliminated, once a season, the first three years he had the choice he saved the deaf guy, the black girl from Detroit who was self taught, and the black man with amazing work who made one slip up. Wouldn't life be better if we had a Tim Gunn Save? And we could use it when equity would be best served?

2. Be vulnerable. But don't walk through life unarmed. Take risks and do amazing things but be strategic. Know when it's ok to risk everything and when you should maybe hold back. Learn who to trust and remember that if it's a zero sum game, nobody is on your side but you. But still take the risks you think are best because fear never conquered anything.

3. If you can edit something out and it doesn't make what you are doing less, then you'd better edit it out. Trim down that writing. Make the proposal shorter and sweeter. Make your resume packed with only the essentials. Also your suitcase for a two week trip. This summer I went through my guest room and cut out 15 bags of trash. I filled a dumpster from the attic over Christmas break. Clutter isn't just in my house, though. Clutter in my heart. What can I edit out without losing my essential self?

4. If you can find a mentor who knows you and wants you to succeed, never ever let him go and always listen to him. Tim Gunn has to be the best human. I love him. I love watching him on this show and whenever he shows up on a radio program or internet meme or video. On Project Runway, he walks into the workroom and goes to each designer and has them explain their work. He asks questions. He stands there with his hand to his chin, worried. He is usually guarded in his advice, but sometimes he is blunt. And the smart designers listen very very carefully.

5. Tears do not necessarily sway people, but they also do not necessarily make people think less of you. Crying on the runway doesn't change what the judges think. In either direction. They don't like excuses, they don't like spin. But just because you have a hard time controlling the tears, it doesn't eliminate you. They judge you based on your work.

6. People can smell self-doubt like sharks smell blood in the water. You have to be convinced of your own expertise. If you are good at what you do, but you frame it like it's not good, people will feel it. And it will likely confuse them because if the work is good, you should be proud.

7. You will be thrown under many buses. Work on a team and watch yourself become the scapegoat when things go poorly (or watch yourself as you gang up together against another team member). Watch as coworkers bond together based on meaningless divisions like what hallway they work on or whose cubicles are next to each other or what subject they teach. Know that if you risk and stick your neck out, you are an easy target.

And especially if you're a black girl from Detroit or a fat girl with bad makeup. Mean girls—mean people—will throw you under the bus. They will do what they need to get by. They will not give you a hand up.

8. If you blow it big, it doesn't matter what successes you've had in the past. So much of our lives are based on the latest thing we've done. If we are currently good at what we're doing, people love us. If we screw up, that is often all people will notice. You can be great friends for a dozen years and then make one huge mistake and it's over. You can do excellent work and then your personal life starts to drown you and it makes things suffer at work and it doesn't matter. Often folks will give you a little leeway but screw up big? And that's it. Doesn't matter how pretty your last three dresses were. That romper is gross and you're out.

9. You have no idea what's coming next and it will take everything you have and it still might not be enough. Each week is a new challenge on Project Runway. Each day brings new challenges in our lives. And sometimes when we encounter the new challenge, it looks impossible and we know there's no way we can succeed. And we put our whole selves into the challenge, to make it work, and we run around and exhaust ourselves trying and then when we offer up what we have—our outfit design, our lesson plan, our job application, our hearts—sometimes it is simply not enough.

And when that happens, it's heartbreaking.

10. Lastly, this is an important lesson I've learned from Project Runway. Every season must include a designer who looks like my sister Bevin. Seriously. I don't know why that is. There is always someone with striking features, jet black hair, pale skin, and large eyes. It's some kind of contractual thing I'm sure.


  1. There's some really good advice here....

  2. Now I wish I watched Project Runway (although I've enjoyed interviews with Tim Gunn!). Great post, B.

  3. I read this when you read it, and I loved it so much I wanted to take the time to write a decent comment. And so you've heard only crickets ...

    Wouldn't life be better if we all had a Tim Gunn save? Oh yes.

    I wish I had a mentor like him too. Or any mentor, really. I've been a mentor. I just don't really have one now.

    #6 and #7. Yes. Oh, I hate watching the team challenges.

    I'm currently watching a Project Runway Allstars series - it may be months/years old, but I don't know because I'm steadfastly staying away from the internet in case it is, as I don't want to see who wins yet!