Prejudice is always “In” on Project Runway

The finale of Project Runway season 13 airs on Thursday. However, for a show that manages to be so racially diverse each season, the latest episodes of Project Runway expose some ugly prejudices. This is particularly shown in the racism around how Indian designer Sandhya Garg was treated by fellow contestants, and the classist language used to describe self-taught designers like Charketa Glover, an African American designer from Detroit.

On the air since 2004, Runway is one of the best competition reality shows on television. It gives an immensely talented group of people timed challenges to show off the extent of their craftsmanship and creativity. But while the show often has had people of color make it to the finals, only one African American has won the competition.

Runway is also a show that doesn’t leave its contestants much time to get under each others’ skin outside the workroom. It operates on a tight timeline with no breathing room between challenges to devolve into Real World or Top Model-esque house drama. Instead the producers throw in as many team challenges as possible, to create and milk turmoil.

Sandhya vs. (Almost) Everybody

Sandhya Garg, 28, is an Indian immigrant who intrigued the judges with subversive, modern twists on traditional Indian looks and designs that were subtle political statements about the treatment of women in India. She is also the first person of Indian descent to compete on Project Runway.

People aren’t used to seeing brown faces in fashion. There are many immensely talented Indian fashion designers, just not in the US. Fashion is Ralph Lauren, Alexander McQueen, Diane von Furstenberg–not Payal Singhal or Manish Malhotra.

When Nina Davuluri became Miss America last year, the Twitter sphere called her a terrorist, saying that “this is America…not India.” Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani models are also speaking out about their lack of representation on the runway–even in their home countries. South Asians in the fashion industry continue to be told they do not represent Western ideas of beauty.

On Runway, Sandhya made an early impression, winning both the first and third challenges for looks that the judges loved but other contestants thought were “weird” and pegged to send her home.

“Sandhya’s look looks like a stained curtain,” said designer Korina about Sandhya’s first winning look, adding, “It’s not high fashion. . . I’m just really lost.” The judges felt differently.

Sandhya's winning looks episode 1 (left; credit Lifetime) and episode 3 (right; credit AL.com)

Sandhya’s winning looks: episode 1 (left; credit Lifetime) and episode 3 (right; credit AL.com)

HEIDI: I haven’t seen anything like this before. You surprised me.

ZAC: It feels personal, all those little details, and that makes clothing special.

NINA: I think with you, you took something and made it into a fantasy. . . I have full confidence you have the creativity to make it in this show.

HEIDI: I love it when someone surprises us and shows us something different, and I feel like Sandhya did that today.

It was a little sad to see her go back to the other designers after just having won, only to be greeted with confusion and an incredulous, “You didn’t win, did you?” (Plus she is SO SWEET. She considers her time management skills her biggest competition.)

Things got real dramatic in episode two when designers were put in teams and asked to create looks out of materials you’d find in a movie theater. Sandhya, who had won the previous challenge, had immunity and could not be eliminated.

Episode 3 losing looks. (c) Lifetime

Episode 3 losing looks. (c) Lifetime

During judging, she was told that her look was the worst, and if she didn’t have immunity, she would be going home. Her teammates, Carrie Sleutskaya and Hernan Lander, did not impress the judges either and unfortunately, it was Carrie’s time to go.

Carrie, however, did not think so.

CARRIE: [after being eliminated, in designers lounge] This is fucked up. I’m sorry, but it’s fucked up. It’s straight up how I feel. I’m supposed to be going to Fashion Week. And no offense but we know who would have been going home and that’s what I think is unfair.

[In confessional] Because one person wasn’t allowed to be eliminated, I didn’t get to show myself at all. And that’s just what I can’t get over. I can’t help but cry, so whatever, shoot me.

TIM GUNN: [enters] Well this is a quiet room. Any words?

HERNAN: She didn’t deserve that.

CARRIE: [In exit interview] Had Sandhya not gotten lucky and gotten immunity, she would have been going home. Just like, hands down.

In a competitive reality show, there’s always talk about who deserves to win and lose. But on Runway, eliminations have rarely become this confrontational.

My critique is how Sandhya was treated up to this point and in subsequent episodes. The designers, who have known each other for about 72 hours, were bullying her, which led her to privately ask Tim if she won the first challenge fairly. Other designers chimed in on the lack of team dynamics:

SAM: [in confessional] Sandhya stepped out and Carrie and Hernan are like, “We don’t like what she’s making!” They’re right behind us so we’re hearing all the “No! No this!”

HERNAN: [in workroom. to SANDHYA, while taking apart her dress] I told you so many times it didn’t work. I told you like four times. You are safe.

SANDHYA: [in confessional] I had no say in what happened.

In the next episode, many contestants act suspicious of her and accuse her of sabotaging them on purpose when she has to pair designers with questionable vintage materials for the challenge. They feared, I imagine, that she would use her power to take revenge on them for making fun of her.

However, of what is seen on-camera in and out of confessional, Sandhya, like every other designer on the show, is confident in her design aesthetic, but she also appears to be one of the most professional, courteous, and willing to compromise. Given what we know about the lack of representation of Indian designers in the fashion industry, Sandhya’s point of view chafed with traditional beliefs in the design community.

After her second win, a web exclusive titled “The Winning Look Everyone Hated” showed the contestants’ catty sides. “Everyone was shocked Sandhya won again,” said designer Mitchell. “Everyone hated it. I didn’t get it.”

But designer Sean pointed out, “We forgot that the judges have seen so much and to see something fresh and different, they reacted positively.” Another designer, Amanda, added, “I would rather be in a competition where really out-there stuff is winning, rather than little black dresses.”

The judges’ ability to see that Sandhya had a unique point of view as a designer is encouraging for Indian Americans in fashion design–but it’s time for the other designers and audiences at home to realize the same thing. As Sean concluded, “In this competition you can get really mixed up between liking people as a person and liking people as a designer.”

Char vs. Korina

Each season, there are a few self-taught designers among the fashion school graduates, and more than once, someone will say “He/she is nice, but he/she can’t sew.” So when they win the whole competition, there’s some poetic justice.

Korina Emmerich, 28, graduated with a BA in Apparel Design from the Art Institute of Portland. Like Sandhya, she incorporates her ethnic background into her work. Korina is part-American Indian and adores bold, Southwestern patterns and motorcycle jackets. Also like Sandhya, she won two challenges and was on the bottom twice before being eliminated.

Charketa Glover, 37, is a self-taught designer from Detroit, Michigan. Eliminated in episode six, she received the Tim Gunn Save, a one-time opportunity for Tim Gunn to bring back a designer he believes was eliminated too early. To date, Char has been in the top twice and bottom three times, but has not won a challenge.

Prejudice against self-taught designers often comes out in team challenges, when the self-taught combine their unorthodox processes with a teammate who is classically taught, to mixed results. On Runway, contestants are often quick to point out when they think fellow (often self-taught) designers can’t sew. Even Sean, Char’s assigned partner in episode 11, says, “I love Char’s design ideas. . .The only problem is, she can’t sew as well as the rest of us.”

It appears to be easier to dismiss someone by saying they can’t sew rather than confront the fact that they got to the same point you did without professional training. Often when contestants accuse their partners of being unable to sew, they’re accusing them of not understanding fashion school terminology.

In episode 11, when Korina and Char were both on the bottom, Char admitted she didn’t do her best work, but Korina vehemently disagreed with the judges.

Char (left, center), Korina (right) episode 11 losing looks.

Char (left, center), Korina (right) episode 11 losing looks. (credit: TomandLorenzo.com, democracydiva.wordpress.com)

The judges gave Korina and Char a rare tiebreaker: one hour to make an entirely new dress. Char won, receiving praise for creating something chic and simple in the time limit. Korina’s dress, in her own words, was “awful.”

Korina's (left) and Char's (right) one-hour tiebreaker looks. (credit: TomandLorenzo.com)

Korina’s (left) and Char’s (right) one-hour tiebreaker looks. (credit: TomandLorenzo.com)

“I have to make a dress against somebody I don’t have the utmost respect for, as a designer, and then lose against them. It’s kind of an awful feeling,” Korina said in confessional, missing the fact that sometimes in a reality competition show, you need to compete against people you dislike.

She also accused Char of not making her own clothes. It’s easy to “stretch knit fabric over a dressform…and have someone else do it, I guess,” she said, referencing the fact that they each got to work with their teammate from their previous challenge. Meanwhile, the judges complimented Char’s “smart choices” in choosing an easy fabric to work with.

KORINA: Who called that one? Anybody? Anybody? Who thought that I was going home today? You were out, you were eliminated.

CHAR: And Tim brought me back. . . Here we are five challenges later and I’m still here. Don’t point fingers at me, I have never pointed a finger at you.

KORINA: Char, this is not about you.

CHAR: [in confessional] I was a designer before this competition and I will be one after. Regardless of whether she believes she’s a better designer, I’m still here.

When the Tim Gunn Save was introduced in season 12, it was granted to Justin, the show’s first-ever deaf contestant. Like Char, Justin had never won a challenge all season, although he did go to design school, and went on to show at Fashion Week with the final four. On Thursday, Char will be doing the same.

Comparing Justin's (top) and Char's (bottom) track records throughout their respective seasons. (credit: Wikipedia)

Comparing Justin’s and Char’s track records throughout their respective seasons. (credit: Wikipedia)

We know Char works as a cosmetologist. We don’t know her whole life story, finances, if and where she went to college, or what for. We do know she lives in Detroit, where the average salary is just over $25,000 a year. Parsons The New School for Design, which has hosted Runway for most of its seasons, is the eighth most expensive school in the US–annual tuition approaches $60,000. When every other column about art school says the debt is not worth it, it’s conceivable that someone living in one of the harshest economies in the country could not justify that burden for a low-income career that might not even pan out. As Sean said in episode 11, Char is not like “the rest of us.”

Char is also one of only two self-taught designers this season. The fact that she was selected for the show, won Tim Gunn’s confidence, and has made it this far only to be told by other designers that she doesn’t belong and isn’t respected, is unfair. It implies that because she couldn’t afford fashion school, she is less talented than those who could, when in fact her fresh designs are the result of her real-world experiences.

Let’s not forget how in season 8, self-taught finalist Michael Costello endured episode after episode of vitriol from other contestants because they not only alleged that he “couldn’t sew” but also that he was stealing their ideas. Now his portfolio includes Beyoncé.

Beyonce wears Michael Costello to 2014 Grammys. (Credit: necolebitchie.com)

Beyonce wears Michael Costello to 2014 Grammys. (Credit: necolebitchie.com)

Similar accusations were levied against season 7 winner Anya Ayoung Chee, who said she learned to sew about four months before appearing on Runway.

The common thread in both Char’s and Sandhya’s stories is they were both told they did not deserve to be in the competition, and they were held to double standards for reasons that ultimately stemmed from their race or class.

In a reality show, it is impossible to know exactly what happens behind the scenes. The judging is anonymous, but to what extent? The show’s producers edit the footage for the most compelling, dramatic story, and ask myriad questions in confessional only to use the most inflammatory soundbyte. They use these techniques to create heroes and villains, making us cheer when their chosen villain, Korina, is sent home.

They do not, however, manufacture prejudices.