Unexpected Passion: Project Runway

Sam Pang’s Unexpected Passions events series is proving hugely fun so far. Last month, Kate Langbroek shared her passion for op-shops while Adam Zwar talked cats. This Friday, we’ll hear from Noni Hazlehurst and Melbourne muso David Bridie.

To get you in the mood, the Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case shares an unexpected passion of her own … *

Growing up, my mother’s favourite saying was, ‘life is not a fashion parade’. This gem was usually delivered while refusing to buy me must-have items like marble-washed ribbed skinny jeans at the local Westfield. I realised just how wrong she was during an actual fashion parade, in Year Seven, during a themed disco. As I watched most of the girls strut the perimeter of the school hall in triple-tiered ra-ra skirts and matching ruffled tops, teetering in stilettos belonging to their mothers or older sisters, I shuffled behind them in white leather shoes and lacy white socks, wearing a cherry-printed dress with puffed sleeves and a pig-tailed wig made out of wool. The others were dressed as Barbie; I was a Cabbage Patch Kid.

Perhaps it’s the lingering humiliation from those days that perversely draws me to Project Runway, watching from the safety of my couch as ice blonde fashionista Heidi Klum (the show’s creator, executive producer and host) delivers her cool girl edicts in that clipped master-race accent. ‘In fashion, one day you’re in – the next, you’re out.’

As far as reality TV goes, Project Runway is one of the genre’s better incarnations – and one of the few you can admit to liking in civilised circles. (After all, it’s creative.) One nice thing about Runway is that the contestants seem to genuinely bond more than usual for these shows. After all, they have an actual profession, skills and interests in common, rather than being united by the mere fact of looking good in a swimsuit (the Next Top Model franchise) or aiming to look good in a swimsuit again (The Biggest Loser).

Of course, it’s still fun to watch the contestants engage in communal eye-rolling over the contestant who spontaneously lied during judging about accidentally destroying a dress with an iron, when everyone saw him bin it in a tantrum. Or watch the contestants quietly, confidently tell the camera mid-challenge that a fellow contestant’s outfit looks like a mess, or a bin-liner, or a disaster, only to watch their faces fall when that contestant makes the top three. Not to mention Heidi’s withering put-downs: ‘She looks like she’s going to Oktoberfest’; ‘It’s a bad prom dress’; ‘I don’t know what’s worse, the disco pumpkin or the shower curtain’.

We all wear clothes, every day. But giving them serious attention seems frivolous, even silly. Watching Carrie Bradshaw figure out her shoe collection equates to a deposit on a New York apartment; watching Anne Hathaway’s character ignore her sexy boyfriend and proper journalist ambitions to fetch Meryl Streep’s coffee in The Devil Wears Prada, only confirms these feelings. But Project Runway focuses on fashion not as ridiculous status symbol or powerful industry, but as a creative enterprise.

Watching all the hard work, clever thinking and craftsmanship that goes into creating the outfits – sometimes from seemingly impossible materials, like vegetables, or newspaper, or the furnishings of a restaurant – is not just fascinating, but a reminder that thinking seriously about clothes doesn’t have to equate to a frivolous waste of time. Done right, it can even be art.

*This is an especially unexpected passion for Jo, because while she no longer takes her fashion cues from a Cabbage Patch Kid, she is more often to be found in jeans and a t-shirt than anything Heidi Klum (or indeed anyone) would call ‘fashion forward’.

Hear Noni Hazlehurst and David Bridie confess their Unexpected Passions to Sam Pang at the Wheeler Centre this Friday 30 March at 7pm. The event is free, but bookings are recommended.