I’ve been home sick all week with what I hope is not the coronavirus (fingers crossed!) so I was able to binge watch all of Netflix’s Next in Fashion.
The show is serviceable enough, a shameless rip off of Project Runway that improves on some elements of the hit Bravo show (namely, its diverse, international cast) and comes up short on others (teams? Really, people? Did we learn nothing from Drag Race’s All Stars 1?).
But there is one thing you can never take away from Season 1 of Next in Fashion: It has single the greatest winner in the history of Reality TV.
No, I’m serious. A fiction writer, conjuring a kind of Bridget-Jones-esque, “you go, girl” underdog could not have created a more lovable and compelling character than Minju Kim.
When we first meet Minju, who is South Korean, there is zero indication she’s going to take the crown. She’s partnered with her friend, the puckish Chinese designer Angel Chen. The two women are very close, but Minju seems like a sidekick, a big sister to Angel or maybe even (god forbid) an auntie figure. Where Angel is young, glamorous, and impossibly cool—in her oversized kelly green puffer coat and with her punky hair, she resembles no less than a young, Asian Bjork—Minju’s appearance can charitably be described as librarian chic. She wears artful cat-eyed glasses and apron-style frocks and shabby sneakers. It’s hard to figure out her age. Is she 30? 40? Her hair sometimes seems greasy.
She is established, right away, as the more technical of the two designers. The idea is that while Angel dreams big and bold, Minju has the sewing skills to carry the looks off. This seems like the kiss of death.
Also, Minju’s personality doesn’t exactly scream winner: She’s self-deprecating and shy and girlishly giggly. She expresses a lot of insecurity and doubt. She defers, almost always, to her partner. She talks a lot about her cats.
But then something unexpected happens: Angel and Minju make it to the final eight, at which point, the teams are separated.
Now Minju is on her own. It seems evident that Angel will make it to the finals and Minju, the technician who is not a visionary, will soon go home.
In fact, that’s not what happens. They both advance in the next round and Minju display stunning creativity on her own. And in the round after that, Angel is the one sent packing, as Minju advances against London designer Daniel Fletcher into the two-person finale.
I want to be clear about this part. If this were, in fact, a rom-com style work of fiction, Daniel Fletcher would be a lot less appealing than he is in real life. I mean, he has ALL the elements of a villain: handsome, privileged, preppie. But dude is just so darn nice. I mean, seriously, Daniel is just the sweetest sweetheart who ever sweethearted, always looking out for his fellow designers and generally acquitting himself with humility and grace. So yeah, the movie version of this season is going to have to take some creative license with his character—if not quite turning him into a full on villain, at least making him a bit more of a wag.
That being said, as a menswear designer with an established label, Daniel does have a built in advantage in the finals. A lot of his patterns have already been designed and it seems that while Minju is still conjuring concepts out of thin air for her 10 final dresses, Daniel has already rattled off four completed looks.
All reality shows do this kind of bait and switch, making you think that someone is hopelessly behind or otherwise screwed, until they miraculously pull it off for the finale, and Next in Fashion is no exception. Minju frets and sweats and panics until the actual runway, at which point, she sends out a remarkable collection. (Can’t really fault the show for that. It’s baked into the mix.)
But then they throw in another element to add to Minju’s underdog mystique. We meet her family, including her sister, who is her business partner on the label they run together. Turns out, Minju’s sister is, quite literally, the boss of her and constantly tells her kid sister to dial down her creativity to keep their clothing more wearable and saleable. There’s an astonishing moment when, as Minju’s Frida Kahlo inspired collection—all bold colors and artful patterns and fascinatingly inventive silhouettes—stomps down the runway, Minja’s sister bursts into tears. Not just because she’s proud of her sister (although she certainly is that) but because she realizes that she’s been HOLDING HER BACK. Basically, Minju is like this creative little caterpillar who has been constricted—by society, by self-doubt, by her own sister (and no doubt by gender expectations in Korean culture that I am unfamiliar with)—who finally gets to blossom into her fullest, most beautiful butterfly self.
When she wins—I mean, of course she wins!—there isn’t a dry eye in my (or anyone else’s) house. Brava, Minju! Best. Reality. Competition. Winner. Ever.