Reality bites: GW alumna sews until she’s cut from Bravo’s latest hit

Television programs, especially the reality shows, are designed to fill a specific emotional niche in viewers’ lives. There are those that make us feel good about ourselves by showing the misfortunes of stars and civilians, such as “Celebrity Fit Club” or “Wife Swap.” There are those that spur our sense of adventure while simultaneously grossing us out – “Fear Factor” and “Survivor” come to mind. And finally, there are those that allow us regular Joes to worship the beautiful people, whether they are already household names or on their way there. “America’s Next Top Model,” “The Bachelor” and even “The Real World” fall into this category – and there’s a reason they named the show “American Idol.”

Bravo’s “Project Runway,” while seemingly a contestant for category No. 3 (after all, each episode has a fashion show with scantily clad models, including Heidi Klum), is deserving of a category of its own. Klum may be the show’s spokeswoman, but “Project Runway” models do not get famous, nor do they get much airtime. They’re little more than glorified mannequins – just a means for the true stars of the show, the aspiring fashion designers culled from auditions across the country, to display their work.

Bravo has brought the art of design and the process of fashion to the small screen, and a GW alumna, Marla Duran, was invited to take part in the process. Duran, who is from Allentown, Pa., designs women’s clothing for her own store in nearby Bethlehem, Pa., and was the oldest contestant on this season of the show.

Though she attended GW for less than a year, she remembers the school well.

“I lived in Thurston Hall,” said Duran, 51, who attended school in 1971 under her maiden name of Falk. “And I took classes in sculpture and flute . But at the time, I was distracted by a boyfriend I had – he was going to Yale and I was very impressed by him.”

Duran left GW over the course of the year, but stayed in the District.

“When I dropped out, my parents lost their money,” she said. “Tuition at the time was only $2,000. So my parents would always joke that they wanted my $2,000 sculpture.”

Still interested in art as a career, she enrolled in the Corcoran School of Art, and became an apprentice to a pottery studio on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown called Hinckley Pottery. She also spent some time at Georgetown studying French before traveling to Paris, where she became interested in fashion.

Duran moved to Los Angeles, where she married and began to sew clothes, at first just for her son, but then for boutiques around the city. Now, she has her own studio where she designs women’s clothing with a vintage flair.

“I work a lot in Rayon, vintage and Asian-inspired prints,” she said. “They’re very wearable clothes . women love them.”

Some of her creations are available for purchase in D.C boutiques, such as Art and Soul (225 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E.).

As for her stint on “Project Runway,” it came about thanks to a cousin who works in the industry.

“She thought my personality and ability would be right, so she got me the info to audition,” Duran said. “I had never watched the show before. A number of us (who made it on to the show) had never watched it before.”

Contestants were asked to exhibit pieces of their work to a panel of judges including Tim Gunn, one of the show’s personalities and the head of the Parson’s New School of Design, where the show takes place. Other judges included competitors from last year’s show, including winner Jay McCarroll, and fashion experts from Elle Magazine and Banana Republic, which have partnerships with the show.

“I went in with no expectations,” Duran said. “But, they told me that I had made the first cut right after my audition.”

A series of interviews and videos followed, and Duran was accepted to the show. The first designing challenge was to create a dress from materials that were sent to the contestants a week before they arrived in New York for the first taping.

“There wasn’t even time to be intimidated,” she said.

“Project Runway” features 16 designers, and all of them have to share New York apartments and their strong personalities. Duran shared a room (Thurston-style, once again) and clashed with contestant Zulema Griffin.

“Zulema had so many pairs of shoes and she was just spreading them out, and I told her she had to share and she just jumped on it,” said Duran of the first episode’s clash. “(Eventually) we all managed, but it was a fight for the bathroom every time – that was high anxiety.”

Duran also took a lot of flack from other contestants on the show, especially Santino Rice, who has proved to be “Project Runway’s” biggest ego so far. However, her biggest blow was from the judges, who on several occasions criticized her pattern-making abilities and her creativity, accusing her of copying a Chloe dress for a challenge in which she had to design a party dress for socialite Nicky Hilton.

“I took a beating,” Duran said. “That really felt crappy. it’s one thing to be critiqued, but another thing to be on national TV.

Last Wednesday, in a challenge where she teamed up with contestant Diana Eng to create an outfit to be sold in Banana Republic stores, Marla Duran heard Heidi Klum’s signature “you’re out” line – “Auf Wiedersehen” – for an outfit the judges deemed “too plain.”

“I had a feeling we were doomed,” Duran said. “I think that outfit was really Diana’s influence so I just went along with it at that point. I thought it was well-done, but a little conservative.”

Being booted from the show may have been the most interaction Duran had with the international supermodel throughout the show’s taping.

“It’s not like we hung out or anything,” Duran said about Klum. “She was basically emceeing the shows. She is flawlessly beautiful – not too skinny, but just perfect. One of the cameramen would say, ‘this is Heidi’s world; we’re just living in it. ‘”

For now, Duran is concentrating on her shop in Pennsylvania.

“I think I’d like to take the business up a couple notches, and reach more people,” she said. “I’d like to design some more fashion-forward pieces . Who knows? Maybe if I get successful, (GW) will give me my honorary degree.”

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