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!

What's Next

Words of advice to Leanne, Korto, and Kenley.

Leanne put together something that was interesting and sophisticated and it definitely had a point of view. In a weird way she managed to have a focused collection that still had variety. She took an idea and she stretched it. The clothes were young as well as sophisticated at the same time.

What's next for her? Well, everyone thinks that they have to put on this big runway show and that's not necessarily always the case. I think her clothes are very much about seeing the workmanship, the detailing and all that, so I definitely think she's got the goods to do her own thing. I don't think she should feel obliged to do a big show right away. I think there's something to be said about things growing slowly and organically and that might be better for her. Then people can really see the clothes up close, because when you put the kind of workmanship into something that's understated, things can get lost. She could do a fun presentation, maybe, or a still life on mannequins. I don't think she necessarily has to rush out and put on a whole show. I think her clothes will be appreciated in both Europe and Japan so she should probably think about bringing it over her line to Paris where you're going to find more of the European buyers as well as the Asian buyers. Once again, I think her clothes will do really well in Asia. I think they have an understanding of sophisticated workmanship. You're not going to see her clothes in the local mall. They're not for that. She's got to keep it high-end and sophisticated and keep her focus, which I think she will.As for Korto's collection. I remember the beads well. There was one asymmetrical dress where the beads were built in and I loved that. Everything she wanted her collection to be - ethnic without being costume-y, playful with color - she managed to hit that with certain parts of the collection. But I think the necklaces, when they were just necklaces on their own, looked added.

With Kenley the reality is you have to have a confidence in what you do and you have to believe that you're right. A designer needs a big ego because you really are going around and telling people "You're wrong and I'm right." But I think that there are ways to do it gracefully. It's the kind of industry where you're always going to have good feedback, bad feedback, or sometimes no reaction, whether it's the woman in a store, the buyer, or the press. It's always a public thing, not a private thing. The important thing to remember is as much as it might burn you when someone criticizes you, the real reality is you don't have to take it totally verbatim. I think she takes things totally verbatim. And one can listen and say, "I got what you're saying but I'm ultimately going to do what I want to do, thanks for the input" and maybe you will learn something. You should learn something. When you think you know it all at 25 then your career's going to be really short. The whole point of fashion is that you never know it all. She's gotta learn how to keep her point-of-view and her confidence, but learn how to be a little more of a lady. Granted, being tough never hurt anyone in fashion.She's obviously got a point-of-view. She's got a great hand. The painting on those clothes was just gorgeous. In general, the quality and the craftsmanship of everything she sent out was beautiful. But I think when people are dress designers, which is really what she is, it doesn't make for the most compelling fashion show. It might make a very nice line. I think that in history there have been a lot of designers who are "dress houses," so to speak. They don't do a whole collection and they can have very successful businesses. It's hard to tell a varied story when you are so specifically dress-oriented and especially when your look is so particular. So I think she could put a line together and do very well with it. There's always going to be someone who likes something feminine and flirty and she's another one where I don't necessarily think the runway is always going to be her best friend. I think the greatest thing that has happened from the show in the last five seasons is that it's certainly made people aware that their clothes don't just appear in their closet. It's kind of like knowing the farmer who grows the crop. Suddenly you have an appreciation for the food that's on your table. I think that Runway has really opened people's eyes to know that this is an incredibly difficult endeavor and it takes real tenacity and talent.

I think that's the greatest part of the show for me. I'm a real fashion person so when something turns the corner and I think it's really spectacular that's the greatest moment for me. When Christian's show started and I saw the chicness of this 3-Musketeers silhouettes I thought "Wow." Same thing with Leanne. I look at the whole thing lined up and I think this is what we're here for. I'm happy when it looks great. My other highlight is sometimes just losing it laughing. Whether it's the wrestling challenge or... just losing it laughing in general! As much as I love it all and we are excited about it and spend so much time doing it, at the end of they day, they are just clothes. And sometimes it's good to just laugh about it all.