Focusing on fashion's core, Project Runway boosts the industry's profile, aided by tailor-made partnerships
When Desiree Gruber, head of Full Picture PR and model Heidi Klum's publicist, created Project Runway, she intended it to be a promotion vehicle.
But rather than make the Bravo series - which has become a popular water cooler hit - a vanity project for Klum, Gruber focused on what she felt was a true star without its authentic television spotlight: fashion.
"We felt fashion hadn't really been done well. We know the excitement of a fashion show, with the last-minute changes and frenzy - if something doesn't fit at the last minute, you have to change it," Gruber says. The third season's finale is schedule to air on Wednesday.
Focusing on the fashion designers, rather than the models who usually garner the spotlight, Gruber helped elevate the profile of the contestants, judges, and ancillary partners. By allying the brand with partners that make sense, she created a show that entertained while staying true to fashion's roots.
"Elle was our first true partner with Nina [Garcia, who heads the magazine's fashion department] as a judge," Gruber says.
"Elle feels very positive about the experience. It has put out a Project Runway-branded magazine."
Parsons The New School for Design, another key partner, has gained phenomenal exposure through its partnership with the show. All design work is done in actual Parsons studios, and Tim Gunn, chair of the department of fashion design at Parsons, is an important personality on the show.
Nancy Donner, The New School's VP for communications and external affairs, says, via e-mail, that while Parsons has always had a high profile in the community, "Project Runway has been a terrific boon to the school in terms of building name recognition among a wider cross-section of the general public, including prospective students and the media."
Donner says since the start of Project Runway, the number of annual inquiries to apply to the school has grown by 20,000, and undergraduate fashion majors have grown from 380 in 2003 to 503 in 2006. She adds that press inquires for the school and Gunn have also increased significantly.
Rival school Fashion Institute of Technology, while not feature on the show, has likewise seen a bump in applications since the show debuted in 2004, according to an August 2006 USA Today article.
Other partners include Macy's, which sponsors an accessory wall; Saturn, which will provide a car to the winner; and TRESemme and L'OrŽal.
Fashion experts told PRWeek they agreed with Gruber - Project Runway's appeal has been that it has tapped into the public's desire to know more about fashion.
"The explosive growth and popularity of fashion in today's youth and pop culture has fed the success of Project Runway, while Project has fed into this phenomenon, creating a boomerang effect," Donner says.
"Any show with high popularity is going to have that effect," says Edy Eliza, EVP of Pierce Mattie LA. "I've been involved in the fashion industry for 10 years, and I know there's always been a huge interest."
Eliza presumes that Project Runway will have the same effect on young people getting into fashion as Sex and the City had encouraging young woman to become publicists.
Pierce Mattie has even been contacted by a designer who didn't even make the show, but is featured on a link from the Project Runway site on BravoTV.com, which shows videos of the designers who didn't make it.
Eliza and Donner say that fashion's shining moment has helped the industry get exposure in less traditional publications.
"The number of requests for interviews and appearances has increased exponentially, and come from a wider array of media. It's no longer just fashion press," Donner says. "It's The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly. It's Tim on the red carpet at the Oscars and on ESPN for GameDay."
Go to prweek.com to read an extended Q&A with Nancy Donner.