The World After Project Runway: Squirming Under the Gunn


Jonathan May

Lifetime’s Under the Gunn, starring Tim Gunn of Project Runway fame, is many things: the brainchild of Gunn and Heidi Klum, the logical highpoint of a career borne of the academy and blooming on national television, a show about design and fashion, set in LA. But God, is it confusing. What I loved about Project Runway was its reliability in terms of production; almost every week, someone was the winner, and one unlucky designer was auf-d by Heidi. Tim mentored, Heidi hosted, the designers designed,

God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world. But now we have Under the Gunn: a much anticipated sister show where, indeed, one designer is the winner and one designer (usually) is out. So why do I seem to like it so much less? It’s not so much that Heidi Klum is missing (although for me, she is dearly missed); it’s that an additional aspect has been added to the show: mentoring.

The thrust of Under the Gunn is not just that one fashion designer wins at the end, but that he or she wins through with his or her mentor. These mentors are Project Runway-alum: season two designer Nick Verreos, season eight contender and PR All-Stars winner Mondo Guerra, and season-nine winner Anya Ayoung-Chee. Each of these three starts the show by building groups of four designers to mentor. Tim Gunn, in turn, mentors each of the mentors. You start to see where my appreciation flags. What I loved about Project Runway was its pure American attitude: from nothing and by virtue of talent and hard work, one can rise above the competition and win a life-changing prize. That, unfortunately, seems to be filtered through this additional lens of mentoring. We spend half the episodes hearing the mentors talk about their process rather than seeing the designers (on whom the mentors’ ambitions succeed or fail as well) work on making beautiful clothing.

Avid Project Runway fans have complained for some time that the show’s focus has moved from the fashion produced per challenge to the inner dramatic structure of the 16 designers competing. While I appreciate a little drama as much as anyone, I felt betrayed that what was missing was an attenuation to fashion, its beauty, its transformative qualities. With this new show, Under the Gunn, we move further away, focusing our attention on these three mentors and how they successfully (or not) mentor the design process of others, often with that designer’s point of view falling casualty.

Everything is yet again filtered, and we move further away from fashion design toward a contemporary “cult of personality”-type show. This may be blasphemy, but as much as I enjoy a whole show about Tim Gunn, I miss Project Runway’s deep look into each designer as a hopeful competitor, straining against personal and creative forces to emerge as the victor, having sown solely a 10-12 look fashion collection.

With the addition of another winner (one designer and his or her mentor), we water down the stakes further. We reward, inherently, someone for coaching another person along, something that was Tim Gunn’s sole purpose in Project Runway. It just feels like another instance of piggy-backing, of creating and sustaining tangential importance, of lessening the creative accomplishment of one by acknowledging the “help” of another. The main problem I have with this is that the mentor’s role is one of background subservience, of leading by not leading, of questioning. When we vault this role into one worthy of prizes and fame, we lessen the value of the vatic in society.

Image source: Comedy Central

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