Blogging The Season Three Auditions!

Horror stories from the road.

What a whirlwind tour we had! The second season just ended and we're already casting season three. Our four audition stops were in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and New York. The season three hopefuls lined up for hours and hours. Some had a good reason to be hopeful, while others... read on.

There were four judges for each site, but I was the only one among us who attended every audition.

Let me set this up structurally.

For our prospective designers, the audition process was well-defined, especially since gave them a prescription. The only element that was not prescribed was the wait - as I mentioned, it was hours and hours in most cases. I semi-forgave many of the lackluster presentations owing to those long waits, but generally speaking, I wanted to rally them with that salient line from Valley of the Dolls, "Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!!" In Los Angeles, Santino Rice joined Christina Nault of Seventh on Six (day one) and Jennifer Eagan of Gen Art (day 2), Karen Reinitz of Elle, and me for the auditions. Frankly, I was anticipating The Great Santino, full of boisterous bravura and sucking the air out of the room - and out of the candidates. Not true. Not even remotely true. He was uncharacteristically quiet on day one, but on day two he conducted himself with poise and professionalism. And he demonstrated that he can be a rapier-like critic, cutting through the fashion issues, not the candidates. At one point, Santino declared that he was depressed and angry that some of the candidates could believe that they had any chance in the universe of being selected. Sharing his feelings, I reminded him - and me - that we have no control over who decides to show up for the auditions: Follow-that-dream-wherever-that-dream-may-take-you, even if it's to the rejection list.

LA brought out everyone from the sublime to the ridiculous, plus a lot in between. We saw a number of exceptionally talented designers, most of whom were in their 30s, so they were seasoned professionals, too. And we saw the nutcase fringe, naturally, which is only worth this mere mention. There were tons and tons of students, most of whom will graduate this spring, and each of whom envisioned being the next Daniel V. or Diana Eng, who were fresh out of design school. When we first met Daniel and Diana, their qualities as designers - and individuals - were palpable from the onset. And why would juniors in design school think they have a shot at this?

In addition to talent, succeeding on Project Runway requires mental fortitude, tenacity and a clearly articulated design philosophy, three characteristics that often, but not always, come with maturity. And then there were the perfectly well-meaning and capable individuals whose work was not what we were looking for - costume or childrenswear, menswear, millinery, doll clothes, pet garments, and performance (as in drag) wear. Regrettably, we didn't have time to say anything other than, "This isn't what we're looking for. Thank you." Our in-and-out record was 17 seconds. It felt unkind, but necessary.And there were people who just couldn't accept our "this isn't what we're looking for" declaration. A sample transcript follows:
Our next candidate enters holding a top with a hoodie shaped like a dragon head, complete with scales; a feathered ball gown with a 20-foot train (really); and a corset made out of condoms.
Candidate: "Hello!"
Tim (after exchanging looks with the other judges): "Thank you for coming, but this isn't what we're looking for."
Candidate: "No, I AM what you're looking for."
Tim (to the other judges): "Do we see anything here that interests us?"
Other Judges: "No."
Candidate: "How can you say that? I have incredible talent and I have to be on the show!"
Tim: "I'm sorry, but we don't have time for a critique. We have to move on."
Candidate: "What? But I have to be on the show! I HAVE to be!!"
Tim: "Simply put, these aren't clothes (referring to her three garments), they're costumes. We're not looking for costumes."
Candidate: "They're not costumes! I wear them!"
Tim: "I'm sorry, but this meeting is over. Good day."
This is followed by the candidate's slow exit with a long and lingering over-the-shoulder stare.
The judges and I shudder. Executive producer Rich Bye states that we took entirely too long on this complete waste of time. Rich: "To invoke a Timism, 'We gotta go, go, go!'" We went!

For the sake of transparency, I want to assert that our producers, led by the incomparable Rich Bye (in all four cities), plus Bravo's divine Shari Levine in Los Angeles and, later, New York, were on the sidelines to weigh in on the "personality quotient" of the candidates. Speaking for our judges, we were grateful for their role, because we were so myopic about finding design talent that personalities could elude us. If we were on the fence about a candidate, a nod or a shake of the head from Rich was a lifesaver.On to Miami where the adorable Chloe Dao joined us, along with Tali Sedgwick from Gen Art and Joann Pailey from Elle. Bravo's debonair Andy Cohen was with us and rode metaphorical side-saddle with Rich Bye. Andy sees all and misses nothing, as demonstrated by his blog about our long day together. In fact, he reports the evolution of events more objectively than I ever could, so I defer to his take: Andys Blog

Chicago was our next stop. Nick Verreos joined us, along with Kelly O'Brien from Gen Art and Lilah Schechner from Elle. We were a great team, but in terms of wardrobe, I felt like such a fashion schlump next to Nick - staid and expected, maybe even, gasp, dowdy. I was playing Grandpa Munster to his Patrick Dempsey. So the day began with my fashion morale in the dustbin. The judges were fabulous, and Nick especially so. He commanded with dignity and a lightheartedness that was simultaneously truthful and kind. When he declared, "This isn't what we're looking for," the candidate would smile and thank him. I'd get the scowls and pouts and he'd get the smiles! Frankly, Chicago was a disappointment compared to LA and Miami. We saw a few excellent people, so it was worth being there, but we saw far too many inappropriate ones. We're looking for the next great American fashion designer, not America's next great home sewer! There was nary a point of view or design philosophy (may I be so grand?) in evidence. We're not interested in seeing clothes that we can buy at the Gap, nor are we interested in a float in a parade. Candidates, there's a lot in between!

At the end of the day, just as we were feeling incapable of stifling our primordial screams, two martinis arrived, one for Nick and the other for me. They had been sent to us by a group of aficionados who were in Chicago for a conference and learned that we were all in the same hotel. Before taking a single sip, we sought out the group in the lobby and thanked them for reading our minds - about needing a drink, that is. What a lovely way to end a draining day.New York was our final stop. Three jam-packed days of auditions! Daniel Vosovic and I were joined by Mary Gehlhar of Gen Art (Tali Sedgwick returned to stand in for Mary on the third day) and audition veteran Joann Pailey. The best thing about being back in New York was sleeping in my own apartment. It's not that I dislike hotels, but it's always difficult for me to adjust to a new bed, decode indecipherable TV remotes, and try to fathom faucets that turn in counter-intuitive ways. I was worried about Daniel V.'s relative inexperience with the audition process, but he was great - confident, thoughtful, supportive and concise. And his hair wasn't bad either. The hilarious Andy Cohen who joined us, again, even wrote a blog about it: Andys Blog

By day two in New York, word on the street was: "Tim Gunn is mean and horrible." I had been blunt and procedurally stealth-like, but mean and horrible? No, at least not in my humble opinion. I was surprised until I learned the origin of the story. It turns out that a young man I had ordered from the audition room the day before happened to work at a boutique in the Meatpacking District. Said boutique, which I shall not name, happened to be the location of a big fashion party later that evening. This young man took the opportunity to let everybody at the party know how mean and ... well, you know. So what happened?

He was one of our last auditions of a very long day. And although he had been waiting for hours, when he entered the room his designs were still in garment bags, he didn't know where his portfolio was and thought that he had left it outside, and he postured as though his audition could run for 30 minutes or more. Wrong. We judges were instantly impatient with him. The only good thing was that he had brought a model, and she was wearing one of his looks. He stated that he had arrived without a model and became panicky when he saw how many candidates had models with them. So he recruited this tall, slender, and stunning young woman from the make-up counter on the main floor of Macy's flagship. Instantly, we all warmed to him and his resourcefulness. Then, and I get angry all over again as I write this, he proceeded to undress this kind volunteer in front of us and the camera crew, and undress her right down to a thong!
"What are you doing? Stop!" I declared.
He responded that he was going to put the model into another look.
"No. You're going to put THAT look back on her and STOP!"
He ignored me. The hapless girl was close to tears with embarrassment and was recoiling from the cameras.
"I didn't expect this," she murmured.
"No, indeed you wouldn't," I responded.
When the young man continued to fuss with a large crinoline hat that, owing to the fact he was a full foot shorter than the model, he was never going to be able to get over her head, I lost control and started shouting.
"Stop! You're being disrespectful of your model and all of us in this room. Just GET OUT! NOW!"
The rest is a blur to me. I guess I was mean and horrible! Never mind.

Be assured that we saw a lot of extremely talented designers and we moved them forward to the next stage, an autobiographical video. I lost count, but I think we moved more than 100 people forward. The videos will be studied by the producers and Bravo executives and will be culled to about 30 semifinalists. Those 30 will undergo background checks and psychological exams.

Eventually, we'll have our finalist designers for season three. I'm confident that we're going to have on helluva season! Watch what happens!

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Finale, Part 2

Impressive work by all but alas only one designer can win.

Well, for me, this episode was the Project Runway first among Project Runway firsts! Why? Because I served as a judge for the first time (and, hopefully, the last time) ever. Here's the back story: Bravo and the executive producers approached me before our Bryant Park show to say that there may be a problem with our guest judge and, consequently, how would I feel about filling in. At first, my response was a roll-up-your-sleeves and "make it work!" form of positive thinking, but as I contemplated the reality of it, I pushed back and refused. Consider the following: I still had another visit to the designers that night and there would be a considerable amount of time needed to support them in the morning before the show. How could I be both a mentor and a judge and service their needs appropriately and responsibly? I believed that I couldn't. So, to make a very long story a wee bit shorter, we ended Thursday night's bevy of phone calls in the following way: Bravo and the producers would ardently search for a replacement judge and I would return to my work with the designers assuming that I would not be a judge If I were to be needed in that role, then I wouldn't be informed of that need mere moments before the show. Otherwise, I could be perceived by the designers (and anyone else mind you) as being duplicitous and insincere. That would never do. Furthermore, Kenley and I were engaged in an semi-incendiary relationship, and the worst thing that could happen would be for her to lose and have me perceived as being the reason why. Oy! So, we know what happened: Our guest judge backed out at the last minute, a celebrity replacement couldn't be found on such short notice, and I filled in. With 10 minutes and counting until our show, Heidi came to me and asked, "So, you're ready to do this, no?" I replied, "To be honest, I don't know. I have an altogether different relationship with the designers than you and Nina and Michael have. I don't know." Heidi reared back and asked, "Tim Gunn, are you telling me that with all of your years of teaching you can't put your relationships aside and look at their work impartially? I thought about her wise words and responded, "Of course I can! Let's go!" We hugged and kissed and off we went.

Don't ever wish to be a guest judge on the show! To be blunt, I don't know how the judges do what they do and as well as they do: The collections pass by quickly, you have to wrap your brain around each piece of each collection immediately, and you have to come to terms with some comparative assessment right away. AND, I had the distinct advantage of intimately knowing the designers' work, yet is was still daunting. In any case, it really was very, very difficult. And there was one very important dimension to this process: seeing the clothes walk. Generally speaking, I don't see them walk. Rather, I see everything static on dress forms. Walking is an altogether different experience and it brings everything to life. So, in that sense, my experience with each designer's collection couldn't have been fresher and newer.

Here are my thoughts about the three collections: Leanne WINS, and what a win it was! We saw all of the conceptual content that really is at the core of Leanne's point of view, and we saw it tempered and orchestrated with precision. As I said to her during the home visit: "I always trust that you will present masterful technique, but can you give your work feeling, emotion?" This was her personal challenge. And she did it All of the strong architectural elements that are Leanne were clearly present, but her looks possessed a buoyancy and an ease, an effortlessness that belied each items structure. Furthermore, her collection was the result of superb editing; had she not brought her critical eye and judgment to each looks and its relationship to every other look, then there may have been a different outcome. Kenley presented a strong point of view and excellent execution, neither of which were surprises, and both of which were appropriately lauded.

I loved Kenley's textile choices and her hand-painting, which was a risky endeavor, and the silhouettes couldn't have been more her. But when the looks walked, they possessed a stiffness that I wasn't prepared to experience. Static on a dress forms, her looks beautifully captured the essence of her inspiration: "painting the roses red" from Alice in Wonderland. (When I made my home visit to her, Kenley resisted revealing her inspiration, which confounded me. When she finally relented, she gave me an epiphany. "Now I get it!" I declared.) But when the clothes walked on the runway, they retained much of their static appearance; that is, most of the looks moved like stiff pasteboard. I could see Kenley's collection emanating a major "wow!" factor in an editorial spread in Elle, but I had a hard time imagining how they would or could navigate and function in the real world. Still, I loved the fantasy aspect of the collection and its other-worldliness. Korto fully embraced her African heritage and her Americanism. Furthermore, she was successful embracing that goal, which is no small task, especially since the entire collection could have been a costume festival. Her silhouettes, alone, told her story, and when you add the colors, textures, and jewelry, her entire collection was uplifted. Color is nothing if not subjective, and I applaud her decision to step away from the expected and mix up her largely taupe palette with vibrant greens and blues. And the jewelry? Well, from my perspective it was all inextricable from the larger aspect of her point of view and, more particularly, to the individual looks themselves. I loved it. Is her collection for everyone or anyone? Of course not, but whose is?

Congratulations to all!

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