Imagine an episode of Project Runway without the manufactured drama, the shameless product placements, and Heidi Klum's blind stab at acting. It is possible, dear reader! Eleven Minutes, Michael Selditch and Robert Tate's documentary, follows Jay McCarroll, the show's first winner, during the months leading up to his debut fashion show. What results is a raw and entertaining look at the underbelly of the fashion industry and what it truly takes to be a successful designer.
Winning a reality competition like Project Runway is great. You get a car, some cash, and the title of "next great American designer" mandated by the Bravo channel. Young teenage girls, not to mention gaggles of gays, idolize you. And your likeness is immortalized in continuous marathons that will run until the end of time. What could be better? Well, judging from Eleven Minutes, a whole lot.
For starters, despite beating out thousands of applicants to take the title of a wildly popular show, McCarroll is at best a meager D-list somebody. When discussing the possible celebrities that might attend his show, one of his publicists name-drops Lindsay Lohan as if she were the Dalai Lama. Of course, Lindsay doesn't make it, too busy crashing cars and blogging about her why-the-hell-not lesbianism. But, wait, the publicist says, JC Chasez is coming! You know, the guy who stood somewhere behind Justin Timberlake in the '90s. No, not the gay one. Oh, forget it. But he's coming! Oh, wait, nevermind, he backed out. That burns.
On top of being dissed by former boy band members, McCarroll struggles against his shelf life, which gets shorter as Project Runway produces season after season featuring even more audacious characters. There's also the issue of overcoming the stigma of being just an over-the-top reality show personality and earning respect as a legitimate designer.
Shows like Project Runway lead viewers to believe that all there is to becoming the next big thing in fashion is a knack for design and sewing. This documentary does away with that polished concept of designers and captures the less glamorous business end of the industry. Who will finance the line, manufacture, distribute, merchandise, and advertise it? The filmmakers follow McCarroll as he tries to sort out the above while coordinating the myriad behind-the-scenes elements behind the eleven minutes of his fashion show: factories in New York and China, jewelry, wig, and shoe makers, and, worst of all, dreadful publicists.
The latter is where all the ills of the fashion world congeal in the form of the documentary's villain. Kelly Cutrone, who is best known for making blonde girls cry on The Hills, hams it up for yet another camera crew, torturing subordinates and making life for Jay harder than it has to be. "I don't like those atoms surrounding the hot-air balloon," she complains about a flyer, "what about stars?" Jay appears disgusted at the suggestion, as if saying, "And this woman is supposed to know about taste?" He later rants that she initially brushed him off until she witnessed the amount of photo-lenses flashing in his direction, and promptly changed her tune. When juxtaposed with characters like Cutrone, it seems as though Jay would be better off without the fashion industry, which seems to inflate egos and give birth to lurching sartorial critics that feast on the blood of baby lambs and virgins.
After the Fashion Week tents have been dismantled and Bryant Park has been restored to its former green patch status, Jay doesn't have much to show for all his toil. Sales reps from Urban Outfitters visit his studio and pretend to like a few pieces, but end up canceling the order. No other retail outlets are interested. He is so lacking in funds that he is having trouble reimbursing his friends who worked for months without pay. He must get a job designing someone else's vision to make ends meets. Just another casualty of the cutthroat business so many desperately wish to be a part of.
McCarroll ends the documentary declaring that he might just scrap it all, move to Maine, work at an ice cream parlor and make quilts. Which leads to the question: is fame worth all of the overblown egos, all the critics, all the back-stabbing trouble? The answer depends on which part of you answers, the rational mind would confess that there are bigger things in life than being respected by bitchy fashionistas, but then that troublesome ambition crops up and professes that yes, it is worth the long hours, the anxiety and tears that come with realizing a dream. Only time will tell which half of Jay McCarroll is loudest, but, despite the obvious allure of quilt making, I have a feeling that we haven't heard the last of him.
Eleven Minutes opens on February 20, 2009 at the Landmark Opera Plaza. For tickets and information, visit landmarktheaters.com.