Three things happened in the last week:

Thing #1 – I saw a tweet this week that Project Runway is getting ready to audition designer hopefuls for their ninth season.

Thing #2 – Cathy Horyn recently wrote an incredibly depressing blog post about the next round, and next generation, of fashion-based reality television.  Of course, many of the shows will come from Bravo, but even NBC is getting in on the act and taking it to another level – selling the clothes that are spawned in their new competition series, “Fashion Star”.

Thing #3 – Today, I read an interview that summed up the myth and dilemma of the fashion reality star – in this case, a recent Fashion Show (the Isaac Mizrahi version of Project Runway that I hate) winner.  She seemed to be the most grounded of the candidates I’ve seen, and really understood what a fashion reality show can and cannot do.

There are some prior Project Runway winners, and even runner-ups, who still show at Fashion Week, but there is no evidence that their brands are growing.  Perhaps a sign of things to come, the very first winner of Project Runway, Jay McCarroll, essentially self-imploded after the show, and rejected the advice of Nina Garcia and his editorial spread opportunity.  The fashion world has not heard from him in a substantial way since then.  The winner of season three, Jeffrey Sebelia, did not destruct but seems to have stagnated in his career.  After the show, he returned to his line but had a hard time growing the business and managing the business debt.  In 2009, he shut down the original labels (Cosa Nostra and its spin-off, Good Vig) to launch the Jeffrey Sebelia collection.  Less than a year later, he accepted a job as head designer at Fluxus.  This suggests that none of the three labels – Cosa Nostra, Good Vig, and Jeffrey Sebelia – were successful.

Although one might argue that winning a contest is not a sustainable way to launch a career, I contend that the awards are what make or break their success.  Also launched in 2004, Vogue partnered with the Council for Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) to create the Fashion Fund – a contest to “support the next generation of American fashion designers”.  The first winners of the fund, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, have grown their business exponentially and receive very positive reviews for their collections.  In 2007, private equity group, Permira, saw enough potential in Proenza Schouler to invest (now owning about 45% of the firm) and recent rumors that Permira is looking to sell the line suggests that it is doing well and Permira is looking to cash in on their investment.  Other winners of the fund, such as Doo.Ri, Rodarte, and Alexander Wang have also done very well.

There are several key differences between these two contests that might explain the success of one set of winners and lackluster performance of the others.

Contestant Selection

Although many contestants on Project Runway are not formally trained designers, the difference between winners and losers is not really about skill level.  Project Runway is a television show and needs to pull in and keep an audience.  When screening contestants for the show, personality and “watchability” will be more important than pure design skill.  In contrast, contestants for the Fashion Fund are selected based on their potential for positively impacting the industry.

Prize Money

For the last nine years, the cash award on Project Runway has been $100,000.  In the world of entrepreneurial investing, this amount is barely enough to start a small-scale local business, much less launch a global fashion line.  In fact, since the prize amount has not been adjusted for inflation, the real dollar value of the award is around $85,000 today.  The Fashion Fund awarded three times that amount to the winner and, this year, increased the total award to $400,000.

Other Awards

For the first few years of Project Runway, the winner was offered a spread in Elle magazine, in addition to the cash and, by the second year in, a car. While these awards are certainly flashy, they do not help a new designer solve the biggest problems to a launching and sustaining a successful business – managing the finances and operations to profitability.  Originally, the show offered a mentorship and representation with an agency, but dropped that in 2007 for partnership opportunities.  This likely boosted revenues for the show as each partner was prominently featured, but doesn’t do much to support the winners.  The Fashion Fund ensures its winners are paired with successful executives in fashion who understand how to become profitable.  Proenza Schouler was paired with Angela Ahrendts from Burberry – the woman who turned the profitability of the company around and revived a failing business.  Her work at Burberry is lauded in the fashion world and she represents the ideal mentor for a startup design house.

Fashion Camps

It is hard to ignore the alliances of fashion journals with each endeavor.  Project Runway is affiliated with Nina Garcia, who started the show working at Elle and, later, moved to Marie Claire.  The Fashion Fund is managed by Vogue with active participation from Anna Wintour.  Does this say something about the power of each publication or editor?  Or does it say something about the credibility of Vogue over Elle or Marie Claire as a publication that recognizes “real” designers?  Even if it is a self-fulfilling prophecy – where the hand-picked winner becomes successful because Vogue ensures they receive positive press – the public is buying into it.

As I mentioned, Project Runway is now headed into its ninth season – another year of promising fame and fortune to another batch of aspiring designers.  For those willing to put themselves through the grueling process and, often, public humiliation, it seems there are better ways to utilize the show experience than to simply focus on “winning”.  For example, using the show as a multi-month job interview would be a great way to demonstrate their skills and work ethic and get their foot in the door with an established fashion house.  There, they could get the training and business management skills necessary to branch out on their own.  Or, if you are happy to keep your business small, Project Runway might provide enough brand power for you to make a living from your designs.  Better yet, apply for the Fashion Fund.