Has anyone else noticed that Project Runway tends to be the acceptable exception for reality show snobs who usually sniff at such things? An it’s-O.K.-to-watch-this-it’s-about-talent-not-drama rationale has made the (former) Bravo show increasingly popular since it first aired in 2004. Jay McCarroll, the winner of that debut season, set a high bar when it came to contestant personality; he was a sharp-tongued and innovative designer who made cool-looking clothes while also being hilarious and fun to watch. All that made Mr. McCarroll great TV, but those qualities are also what ultimately led to the strange conundrum he faced while mounting his first independent fashion show in 2006. As he says in the new documentary Eleven Minutes, which chronicles the trials and tribulations of the designer as he prepared for Fashion Week, “I have name recognition, but can my work stand up to it? It’s very important for me to make that leap from reality TV designer to real-life designer.”
Ah, yes, real life. If Project Runway leads one to believe that talented artists can pull together a gown fit for the red carpet, stitched together from toilet paper and heads of lettuce, and ready in under 24 hours, Eleven Minutes shows just how much of an uphill battle the fashion industry can be. There are wig makers and wacky shoe designers and exhausted assistants working for free, and decisions to make on lighting and gift bags and invitations and Chinese factories. And hey, look! There’s Kelly Cutrone and Carson Kressley! Mr. McCarroll is as likable here as he was on the television show—he’s a mercurial and witty man who manages to appear both unselfconscious and completely self-aware at the same time. He makes it clear that any help from Project Runway ended the moment after the finale (though the fact that he walked away from the $100,000 prize and mentorship, which would have had the show own 10 percent of his future earnings, is never discussed). And while he realizes he wouldn’t be getting any of the attention and buzz for his line without the notoriety that comes with TV exposure, it is clearly as much a hindrance as it is a help.
The title of this documentary refers not—as one might be forgiven in assuming—to the famous Andy Warholism of the shelf life of fame, but rather to the average time a runway show takes place. The amount of work that goes into making those 11 minutes run smoothly is truly mind-boggling. Directors Michael Selditch and Rob Tate (who met Mr. McCarroll when they made the Bravo special Project Jay) do a good job of hanging back and letting the inherent drama of the loony-toon world of fashion unfold. It’s not always pretty, and more often than not it’s completely unglamorous. But compelling it is, even when it is downright depressing (watching a sales meeting with reps from Urban Outfitters should be enough to dissuade plenty of wannabe designers). Of course, even after peeking behind the curtain and seeing all the pulleys and levers, there still is something exciting and magical about those 11 minutes, when the lights go down in the big tent and the thumping music starts to play. It’s fashion, after all.
Eleven Minutes opens Friday at Quad Cinema.