By and  on August 1, 2006

NEW YORK — "Project Runway" may be more entertainment than fashion reality, but the show's fan base has heightened awareness of the industry. This, in turn, has high school graduates looking at the business as a career more seriously than ever before.

The proof is in the numbers, as fashion school enrollment has climbed to a record high at several schools.

Parsons The New School of Design, for example, where the show is taped, has seen a 22 percent jump in applications for fall enrollment. And other schools, such as Fashion Institute of Technology, Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Otis College and Savannah College of Art and Design are feeling the positive impact of the program.

"Applications in general are up," said Susan Aronson, executive director of admissions at FIDM in Los Angeles. "I don't think that ‘Project Runway' is the only thing driving students to want to enter the industry, but I do know that we have many more students calling from states not normally interested in the school, like Alabama, for example."

According to the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, 443 degrees in fashion design were given to students in 2003. In 2006, that number jumped to 709.

"The timing is right for a show like ‘Project Runway' to hit," said Joanne Arbuckle, acting dean of the school of art and design at FIT. "Overall, this interest in fashion as a career is a movement caused by a variety of things, like the Internet, and students really researching colleges and the programs they offer. When you look at what's happening today, designers are more recognized than they were 30 years ago."

But those applying to fashion schools have to realize that "Project Runway" doesn't reflect the reality of fashion, designers and school officials said.

"I always wonder what they [the judges] would say if it was John Galliano or Vivienne Westwood up there," said Heatherette co-designer and "Project Runway" fanatic Richie Rich. "The judges sometimes give the idea that if one of the contestants creates something too ‘out there,' they will never make it to the fashion industry. It's so not true. Honey, we made it to Bryant Park and beyond by not following a single rule."Contestants are judged by Michael Kors and Elle's Nina Garcia; Vera Wang and Kate Spade have been guest judges.

Designer Nicole Miller said she watches the show, but she sees it as a form of entertainment, not as something to be taken seriously. "It's certainly not like a day in my life," she said.

Simon Doonan, creative director at Barneys New York, admits he is a fan of the show as well, but thinks viewers need to realize what is and is not real.

"It's a bit like ‘America's Next Top Model.' In a funny way, at the end of the process somebody emerges who you know is not going to be hired by Chanel or Marc Jacobs," he said. "They will still get a booking somewhere or another, but they're not going to be bumping Gisele Bündchen off her pedestal. It's the same with these designers. They will be able to eke out a living somehow, but they are not going to be giving Marc Jacobs a run for his money. But there's plenty of work in the business at all different levels; I just don't think they will come in at the top."

Educators say the stresses and tensions on the show are true to life when it comes to designing a collection, especially since the program is taped in 32 days, without a break. But what educators hope students realize is that the fashion business is so much more than what they see on TV.

"Some people make the assumption that the show is an accurate account of how you educate the designer," said Tim Gunn, "Project Runway's" task maker and chair of the fashion design department at Parsons. "These contestants are already designers, especially those on this season. We really push them to the limits of designing, and the pressures and stress levels they are experiencing are real, but this is not the education you get when you attend Parsons."

And that's not what happens at the Savannah College of Art and Design either. Anthony Miller, chairman of the SCAD fashion department, said the criticism given by the judges on the show is usually constructive, but the show is both good and bad for students."Students come in here and think that because of what they see on the show, it's going to be easy. The first thing I do is remind them that it is not easy," he said. "Also, some students believe that these attitudes that they see on the show are acceptable in the industry, and I see them beginning to portray this behavior. I try to give these students a mature point of view, and remind them that that is no way to act. I tell them that the show is heavily produced and edited to show the drama, and that is not real life."

Miller said that overall, he thinks the show has been good for the industry.

"We are getting the behind-the-scenes view on how the clothes are made," he said. "That is something we've never seen on television."

Rosemary Brantley, chair of the fashion design department at Otis College of Art and Design, agrees.

"I have somewhere around 20 nieces, and I've asked them what they think of the show," she said. "I don't want them to get the impression that this is what fashion design is like. They love the show, and after they watch it they will call me to ask things like, ‘what is draping?' I found it interesting that because of the show, they were asking about the process. There has never been anything about the behind-the-scenes process of design — that's what makes it so interesting."

"Project Runway" is the only TV show that attempts to make designers out of small-town hopefuls, which contributes to the show's appeal for its 2 million viewers each Wednesday night on the Bravo network. Its popularity was seen firsthand when a line of camera-toting Gen-Yers snaked along Washington Street last Thursday night around the time most 9-to-5ers were calling it quits. That kind of crowd would have been routine for the Meatpacking District had it been midnight. But it was still shy of 6 p.m., when these devoted fans were already queued up outside of the Girlshop store — notepad and pen in hand.

While some might think the crowd was there waiting to see a big star like Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears, they actually wanted to get a glimpse of (or maybe even an autograph from) Kara Janx.Janx was the fourth-to-last person kicked off the show last season. She was at Girlshop meeting with shoppers and introducing her new fall line, including some pieces made exclusively for the store.

Janx, a native of Johannesburg, tried out for the show when she was already in business. After receiving her degree in architecture, she started a clothing line and was selling it to a select number of specialty stores, including Girlshop. Janx said her business was "slow but good" before the show, but nothing could prepare her for what would happen after she was on it.

"My business has grown like crazy," she said, just before being interrupted by a pint-sized fan asking for an autograph. "Before the show, it was a small but steady business, but it's grown 200 percent in the past six months. I really have to work to keep up with it."

Then there is Jay McCarroll, the winner of the show's first season, who has been widely publicized as a real critic of "Project Runway," going so far as to not accept the Banana Republic mentorship he won in addition to the $100,000 he was given to help launch a business. McCarroll's antics led viewers to believe his experience on the show wasn't a good one. McCarroll, who is now preparing his first runway show in Bryant Park on Sept. 15, said he now has a different view.

"I didn't do the Banana Republic mentorship because I didn't know what I was going to do next and where I was going to live," McCarroll said. "It really wasn't such a huge deal, they [at Banana Republic] were really great, it just wasn't what I wanted to do at the time."

McCarroll said that now that he's had the chance to have a real business in the fashion industry, he has a newfound respect for the show, but he stresses it isn't 100 percent real.

"The show is 80 percent entertainment," he said. "What you need to survive as a designer is not seen on the show. It's a very loose overview of what being a fashion designer is about; there are so many more elements to it. A great challenge for the contestants would be to design something, send it to China and get it back in three weeks. Now, that's a real challenge I would like to see them handle."Janx agrees. "There are stores' needs, buyers, personalities in general," she said. "There's so much more to deal with than what you see on TV. I think the show has done some good for kids and their parents, in the sense that parents are starting to see fashion as a real career and a real valid business. They are allowing their children to go to fashion school and giving the OK to make it their careers."

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