Israel's 'Project Runway' Focuses More on People, Less on Clothing

Israeli version focuses more on celebrities and the relationships between the contestants.

The American reality series "Project Runway" is first and foremost a program about fashion and design. After watching the first episode of the fifth season, which is now being aired on HOT, what stayed with me was a pretty sculpted dress made from disposable plastic cups. On the other hand, what you remember from the first episode of the Israeli version of "Project Runway," which airs tonight on Channel 2, is mainly the big mouth of one of the contestants.

In its cross-continental transition, "Project Runway" morphed from a pleasant fashion program into a celebrity-studded contest. In the American series, when the critics slam a contestant and she hides her face in her hands, the scene is quickly cut. In the first episode of the Israeli version, the 13 contestants tell their (more or less) sad life story; four burst into tears, one of them because she doesn't make sandwiches for her children in the morning.

The structure of the American series, a format that was sold to 13 countries, is fixed: 16 contestants come to New York where they carry out clothing design assignments for 13 episodes. The assignments are creative, and include things like making clothes from grocery store items, or using "green" fabrics for an evening gown. The designers all have some experience, and have deadlines for their projects. Fashion expert Tim Gunn, dressed in a suit and with his gray hair combed back, is the "mentor." He joins the designers as they work, and offers constructive criticism.

The models enter the picture at a later stage - dressed, made up and coiffed (an opportunity for quite a bit of camouflaged advertising) - and then they hit the runway. On one side are the designers; on the other, the judges: designer Michael Kors, Elle editor-at-large Nina Garcia, and supermodel Heidi Klum, who is the program's moderator.

The program is just like the fashion world, Klum says, "One day you're in and the next day you're out." That is the program's tagline (it will be translated into Hebrew as "In Israel one day you dictate fashion and the next you're a fashion victim").

The presentation of the clothing is accompanied by the contestants describing their feelings (they're always very satisfied with what they've done). At the end of every episode, one of them is sent home with two kisses on the cheek and an "auf wiedersehen" from Klum.

In the Israeli version, the contestants' first assignment is to dress Rita. The singer is one of the judges in the first episode, alongside actress Anat Waxman and the regular judges, stylist Gal Apel and designer Victor Bellaish. The good-bye and the kisses are by model Shiraz Tal.

In the United States, the series, which began in 2004, is broadcast on the Bravo cable channel, which specializes in lifestyle content, whereas in Israel it will be broadcast on the leading commercial channel, by the franchisee Reshet. There is a great deal of investment here - judging by the ads and the promos, it would seem that this is the only program of the franchisee. Even its logo includes the symbol of "Project Runway."

And during the present period of affection for reality shows, the program places a tremendous emphasis on the relationships between the participants. Two are siblings, another two are a married couple. One is angry that every fashion designer is expected to be gay, another seems totally at peace with this prejudice. Participants nearly come to blows by the first episode, when one designer says another designer, a woman named Meshi, that she looks like Sarah Angel (and there is in fact a certain resemblance), and her brother, who describes himself at the beginning of the show as an "ars" (greaser), bursts out: "Who said Shemaya Angel?" [an Israeli underworld figure].

At the press conference to launch the program, deputy Reshet CEO Ilan Tovyahu expressed the concern that a fashion program would not attract a male audience, and emphasized that it was not meant for women only.

Lisa Shiloach, the head producer of the Israeli "Project Runway," confirms that the Israeli version is not about fashion, but rather a reality show centered around a talent competition. "During the competition the viewers will be witness to creative processes and will learn fashion concepts, and will form their own opinions about the designs."

The fifth American season, which is now being aired on HOT-3, is more colorful than its predecessors. The contestants are more extreme: One, who calls himself Spade, refers to himself in third person; and another designs clothes for rockers that she says are suitable for prostitutes and pimps. The others, however, have worked with designer Marc Jacobs. Although film actress Natalie Portman is a guest judge, there are only a few celebrities.

The local version, on the other hand, is full of celebrities, including Bar Refaeli, Eli Ildis, Miri Nevo and Pnina Torna. There is a great deal of tension and Israeli chutzpah: When the Israeli mentor, Sasson Kedem, enters the designers' workroom and asks a contestant to show him a sketch of her design, she replies: "I don't feel like it."

"This format was not aimed at a general audience originally," explains Shiloach. "It was aired on a cable channel that caters to specific viewers. The moment we decided to adapt it to a commercial channel, it had to be made accessible to a general audience. We invested a great deal of thought in how to do that. In the end, instead of a program about fashion, it became a competition among talented people with a dream, and they're here to make it come true. That's why we strengthened the reality aspect, the competition; we expanded the assignments so they wouldn't be limited to the field of design. We don't care who makes a neater hem."

The Israeli team recruited Roi Oz, the chief editor of "Big Brother."

"We sat for months to construct Israeli assignments," says Shiloach. "We decided not to copy and paste from the bank of American assignments. For example, one of the assignments in the program's bible was to design an outfit for a model that would match her poodle's outfit. That's cute, and although dogs and children steal the show, we gave it a miss. We decided it isn't Israeli. We did a bathing suit assignment instead, because we have famous designers in the field, as well as the sea."

And models in bikinis are the trademark of any Israeli reality show. The first season of "Survivor" featured a scene where the female contestants showered in bathing suits and erotically washed their hair. Even on "Block," the Channel 10 reality show where contestants compete at designing an apartment, the women washed themselves at the building drinking fountain in revealing bathing suits. In the second episode of "Project Runway," the sex appeal is combined with a quasi-celebrity element: The assignment is to design underwear for Hadas Federman and Inbal Shalvi, better known as "the blondes" from the Israeli version of "Hamerotz Lamillion" (the Israeli version of "The Amazing Race"), Reshet's last major reality production.

"First of all, bringing beautiful models in bikinis doesn't hurt" in terms of attracting male viewers, says Shiloach. "Besides, a competition is a kind of sport and men love sports." Regarding the extensive use of celebrities, she says: "Including celebrities is part of the Channel 2 rules, that's what connects the audience to the program and it creates new interest in each episode. We've brought a variety of celebrities, but we've also included professionals in many episodes. The underwear assignment includes not only Inbal and Hadas but the chief designer at Delta, Ricki Gednes, who's in charge of the import of Hugo Boss and Victoria's Secret at the firm."

Another difference from the American program is the local "Project Runway" involves bikinis and an underwear assignment, but the designers don't choose the models while they are still standing in little black slips, as they do in the original show.

"We felt uncomfortable with this situation. We think it does not respect the models and is not essential to the show," says Shiloach.

Another unique Israeli innovation is that a contestant receives a prize by the first show - a flight to Paris to work with designer Jean Paul Gautier.

"We wanted to raise the ante at the start," explains the chief producer, "to have a bonus that would surprise the others and give them motivation. We believe it's a good surprise. Regardless of the format, we wanted a scent of overseas in the program, we wanted to bring in top designers at the start. When Gautier agreed, we decided that that would be the prize."

As far as the contestants are concerned, Meshi, her chutzpah, the fact that her clothing design did not meet the others' standards in the first episode yet she was not eliminated, makes the viewer suspect she was scripted into this reality show. Shiloach responds, "She is a character impossible to invent. She's wild Meshi (silk in Hebrew). When we started selecting the contestants, we didn't believe there are people who behave like that; she says whatever pops into her head, unfiltered. But she really interested the judges. She's a gift to reality shows."

The American "Project Runway" is a very enjoyable series; its competitive aspect is downplayed and the designs are impressive. Its Israeli adaptation, judging by the first episode, brings everything close to home - the language, the filming sites, the interaction and the clothing, too. Perhaps it is fitting that the program, which is designed for Israelis, quite a number of whom are fashion-challenged, focuses more on people and less on clothing.