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writing in polka dots and plaid
taking inspiration from project runway
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

NOTE: If you have not watched any of "Project Runway" Season 8, know this column contains spoilers. Come back and read it after you've watched the finale!

I totally suck at sewing.

Oh sure, I can reattach a button and quick stitch a small tear. But that is, quite simply, the range of my needle and thread abilities. I don't know how to work a sewing machine. I don't crochet. I don't knit. It's embarrassing to admit how many pieces of clothing I've given to my mother-in-law for repair. My sister-in-law makes gowns for dancing events and enters separates into competitions. A dear friend knits sweaters with designs so complex, it's hard to believe a machine didn't create them. But even being in proximity of these people with talent doesn't help me. I'm hopeless.

Which is why I'm totally fascinated by "Project Runway".

I wasn't at first. I dismissed it as reality show pulp. But a lot of friends were raving, and so I tuned in midway through Season 3. I hated the edited-for-TV drama, tantrums, and snipes. I often didn't understand the technical terms, or the color and pattern choices, or why I would see something come down the runway and think, "Wow. That's cool. I'd wear that" only to have the judges rip it apart seam by seam. Apparently, I can't sew and I don't have any fashion sense. Terrific.

But as I watched each episode, the more I realized there's a lot to idolize about fashion design. It's not just about creativity: a designer has to have a technical aptitude, an attractive visual aesthetic, and almost a scientific understanding of how fabrics move and form.

The challenge of forcing designers to produce results in two days, from conception to finished product, is so outlandish, it's actually effective. The show's illustrious mentor, Tim Gunn, mentions in his latest book, Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work, that when the producers asked him what he thought of this two-day concept, he said, "Well, the designers will just have to make it work in that amount of time, won't they?" He was the first expert the producers consulted about the show who believed a challenge like this could be met.

The "Project Runway" Season 8 finale features three designers: Gretchen Jones, Mondo Gerra, and Andy South. Each one of them toils incredibly hard to stay focused on their dreams. Each also has a personal cross to bear that is shouldered more easily by their creative expression. Famously, Mondo in particular worked through his shame of hiding his HIV-positive status and revealed it in a winning design.

While all three designers offer perspectives worth a second look, I think Mondo will take the prize. His vision is one of true joy; and it's easy to have a visceral reaction to his clothing. I can't imagine wearing some of his pieces with the confidence they require, but I relate to his courageous risk-taking and admire how his work reflects his spirit.

Watching "Project Runway" has certainly taught me more about fashion and personal style. It's also encouraged me as a writer. Designers speak of telling a story with clothes, and they also talk about not being afraid to edit to make the look better. It's one thing to stare at a blank sheet of paper and add life to it. If you don't like what you've written, you simply delete it and start over.

(Writers, you know I’m not saying this nonchalantly--we bleed when this happens. But I'm trying to make a point.)

However, once you've cut pieces of cashmere from limited yards of fabric, you will indeed have to "make it work". This commitment to your vision is a greater leap of faith.

So while I can't sew, maybe I should approach writing with the same planning and deliberate execution as designers do. The drafts are patterns in muslin, so that I can determine the form and function before I start to lay out the true fabric of the story. Before I cut scenes from the bolt, I need to first have the proper frame on which to hang them so I can step back and make sure they communicate my intent in the best possible way. Embellishments and styling need to be finalized with a critical editing eye. I can't be so in love with my concept that I don't understand when enough is enough.

More importantly, I need to challenge myself by taking bold risks. Acclaimed designer and "Project Runway" judge Michael Kors says that's what fashion is all about. But I think all creative projects are a special blend of hard work and risks that lead to surprising discoveries.
Now, how do I get over the fear of mixing phrases of polka dots and plaid?


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

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russ carr
10.27.10 @ 9:33a

"The challenge of forcing designers to produce results in two days, from conception to finished product, is so outlandish, it's actually effective." Change two DAYS to two HOURS and I totally agree.

tracey kelley
10.27.10 @ 11:44a

Heh. I glean that you also don't know how to sew. :D

russ carr
10.27.10 @ 12:44p

Buttons, yes. Patches, yes. Frocks, no.

But graphic design, writing (word design!) and clothing design all have the same elements at heart: the seed of an idea, the vision of the designer, and the intended goal of the piece - to be seen, read or worn. The media and the technical means may differ, but they're still remarkably similar; the lessons of Project Runway could be applied to practically any creative endeavor.

tracey kelley
10.28.10 @ 11:04p

Well, the winner is not exactly who I predicted here, (especially after Nina compared him to Seth Aaron from last season, which was the death nell then) but the winning collection was interesting.

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