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Each year, millions of viewers tune in to TV’s Project Runway, where eager young fashion designers compete for the chance to design a collection for New York’s Fashion Week. But that’s reality TV—not reality. The reality is that new designers like Nary Manivong usually have to struggle to make it on their own, working odd jobs and crashing on a friend’s couch, saving every penny for that one debut collection that will make or break their career.

The documentary Dressed follows Manivong through the eight months leading up to his first Fashion Week. It shows much of the process---the sketching, the fittings, the model selections, and even the business aspects. And as the young designer struggles to meet his goals and pay the bills with the big week approaching, the suspense builds.

But Dressed is more than just a documentary about becoming a fashion designer. It’s also an emotional story about a young man overcoming some overwhelming obstacles to follow his dreams.

Of course, the film wouldn’t be quite as effective if Manivong weren’t such a likable subject. Unlike the diva designers of Project Runway, he’s quietly confident—not melodramatic or egotistical. He’s focused and determined, and it’s clear that he’s absolutely thrilled to be living his dream—even if he’s living it in his friend’s 320-square-foot apartment in Queens instead of a massive studio in Manhattan.

His story is an inspiring one, too—starting with his troubled childhood in Columbus, Ohio, and leading up to what could be his big break at Fashion Week. Unfortunately, the film suffers from weak and uneven storytelling, causing the pace to drag in the worst of places: the beginning. The film opens with too many faceless narrators talking about what a great guy Manivong is—instead of letting the audience get to know him for themselves. Meanwhile, Manivong himself remains mostly silent, shown through a series of melodramatic shots of the young designer walking through the streets of New York, looking thoughtfully out into the distance. And although his difficult childhood is hinted at (repeatedly), his story isn’t revealed until well into the film—and, even then, the storytelling only scratches the surface.

While the steps leading up to Manivong’s Fashion Week debut are fascinating—and often even gripping—that’s only a small part of his story. For this determined young fashion designer, the path to Fashion Week wasn’t just an eight-month journey; it was a 10-year journey of hardship, determination, and passion. And by compartmentalizing the story—and confining Manivong’s past to one small part of the film—first-time director David Swajeski missed a golden opportunity to give his film an even greater emotional impact.

Still, although it has a slow start, Dressed finishes strong, as the months (and years) of dreaming and preparation lead to that all-important Fashion Week presentation. It may not be the powerful documentary that it could have been, but it goes deeper than Project Runway to tell the captivating story of a young fashion designer’s struggle to make it in a cutthroat industry.

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