Even gold-laced couture would seem cheap compared to the multi-faceted rewards that Parsons the New School for Design has received since the Bravo television network started taping episodes of its wildly popular reality show, "Project Runway," three seasons ago on the chic campus in New York City.
Not only has visibility increased -- with commercials for Parsons and the New School, the university that the former Parsons School of Design joined in 1970, interspersed throughout each program -- but so has the enrollment and quality of the fashion program overall, according to Tim Gunn, chair of the Department of Fashion Design at Parsons. He became an instant celebrity after producers with the show decided to cast him as a consultant to the aspiring contestants who battle each week with their intense sewing machine skills -- and intense personalities to match -- to become the latest fashion-forward new kid on the block.
“I’m incredibly proud to be part of it,” says Gunn, in his classic, deeply-intoned “make it work” voice. “I was a little dubious in the beginning -- I thought that our students might think it was fun, but I worried that a reality show could sell out our industry.” The next episode of the season airs tonight at 10 p.m. EDT.
The former dean of Parsons, Randy Swearer, who’s now a consultant on higher education issues, shared some of those initial trepidations. At one point, Swearer told Gunn that the fashion design department was “entirely too overexposed.” Gunn’s response: “This industry is entirely too overexposed.”
Still, the questions continued: “What do we want the image of our institution to be?” Swearer recalls asking Gunn. “Will the school’s image get distorted?”
Some professionals at competing institutions are still asking similar questions, while Gunn and crew laugh all the way to the bank -- of industrial sewing machines. Enrollment in the fashion department is expected to be 540 for this fall, an increase of nearly 100 percent over just a few short years ago. Officials with Parsons say that the resources are there to support the increased demand and that the fashion department is the most profitable division at The New School.
Gunn, who shares plenty of airtime with the show’s host, supermodel Heidi Klum, says that the president of one competing program has implied to industry colleagues that Parsons was second choice to that institution for hosting the show. "I knew full well" that wasn't the case, Gunn recalls with a hearty laugh. He also says that competing institutions have tried to go directly to Bravo to try to steal the program.
“There is always a kind of envy out there,” says Gunn of the institution’s competitors. “What is this industry, if not competitive?”
The buzz-loving Gunn also revels over the increased attention Parsons has received in both the world of higher education and in the fashion industry. “All you used to read about was Fashion Institute of Technology, Fashion Institute of Technology, Fashion Institute of Technology,” he says. “I was determined to leave them in our dust.”
Joanne Arbuckle, assistant chair of fashion design with the Fashion Institute of Technology, says that she’s seen "Project Runway" a few times, but doesn’t see it as anything more than entertainment. “When it boils down to it, it’s just a TV show,” she says, indicating that enrollment in her institution’s fashion programs had been increasing long before "Project Runway" ever hit the runway. About 250 enroll as freshman each year at the institution.
Arbuckle also says that the drama portrayed by dueling divas on the program neglects to highlight the “wonderful teamwork environment” of the higher education experience.
Figures gathered by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, an accrediting body for fashion departments and institutions, indicate that fashion enrollment is at an all-time high in the U.S., and increasing numbers of non-art focused institutions are beginning fashion and design programs.
Gunn admits that there is a wave of fashion popularity – a “fashion renaissance,” he calls it – but he says that people shouldn’t deemphasize the impact that "Project Runway" is having with today’s students.
Tim Marshall, the dean of Parsons, says it’s hard to pinpoint which came first -- "Project Runway" or increased fashion school interest from students. “Yes, we were already growing before the show,” he says. “But I think there’s been an interesting ripple effect.”
Even far removed from the competitive atmosphere of New York City, academics of fashion say that the program has had an influence on many students.
“The show has helped make fashion very, very popular,” says Donna Reamy, assistant chair of the fashion department at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I think there’s always been an interest in fashion from the aspect of glamour, but now students are really interested in constructing their own designs.”
Reamy believes the program is excellent at showing the process of creating clothes is not all that easy. “Students are seeing the nitty-gritty of our industry like they never could before,” she says.
Does she wish that Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn might one day take a trip out to Virginia for a future episode of "Project Runway"? “Sure,” she laughs. “They can ‘make it work’ here anytime.”