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Compelling 'Seamless' shows an unglamorous side of fashion

In uncertain times, there's something slightly off-putting about a fashion magazine like Vogue; the clothes are gorgeous, yes, but so expensive, so inaccessible, that the whole enterprise can seem an ugly symbol of excess.

''Seamless," the fashion-industry documentary that premieres tonight on the Sundance Channel, offers a more sympathetic look at the world of couture -- informing us, for instance, that the people least able to afford the clothes in Vogue might be the designers themselves.

That disconnect -- a classic one, really, between artist and patron, art and business -- is outlined compellingly here by director Douglas Keeve, whose first film was the 1995 Isaac Mizrahi documentary ''Unzipped." This time, Keeve focuses on fledgling designers who hope to make it big, and the fashion industry's acknowledgment that it needs new names to replace an aging old guard. The framework is a first-ever contest from Vogue and the Council of Fashion Designers of America: It awards $200,000 and a mentorship to one young design team poised for greater success.

Keeve follows three of the 10 finalists from the 2004 competition, which runs contestants through a gantlet of studio visits, fashion shows, and presentations. We learn, through the process, that while these designers are surrounded by rich clients and glamorous deals -- one has a line picked up by Barneys, one gets an unconventional order from Sarah Jessica Parker -- none of them is actually turning a profit. Their struggles range from financial to personal.

Doo Ri Chung produces beautifully draped gowns, under the label Doo.Ri, in the basement of her parents' New Jersey dry cleaning shop, relying on her mother to sew zippers. Alexandre Plokhov lives a continent away from his wife to pursue the line of elegant men's suits he calls Cloak.

Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough, who call their label Proenza Schouler after their mothers' maiden names, are the youngest and most charmed of the lot; they have the giddy outlook of 20-somethings in New York. But the ambiguous nature of their partnership takes a toll. They live together, for a time, in the loft where they work, but the dynamic shifts uncomfortably when McCollough moves to his own apartment.

Keeve's 75-minute film can be as stylish as a runway show, with pulsing music and lovely images. But at its best, it's a human glimpse at these likable personalities, a welcome sight in a business with a haughty public face. The camera nicely captures the awkwardness that seems to grow between Hernandez and McCollough, even as their fortunes rise. It shows us the many levels on which Chung depends on her family. And it gives us an interesting look at the creative process: ''Last season," Plokhov says, ''I started out thinking about sort of American West and ended up with, like, parade uniforms."

Above all, ''Seamless" makes us pity the fact that these artists need their patrons to survive. Perhaps because Vogue's publisher produced the film, we see ample shots of American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, looking flawless and impossibly young at 55, making proclamations about the state of the industry. On some level, she's kind; on another, she's condescending. Anyone who can afford these clothes starts to look a little morally suspect.

And the selection process, in the end, is a wee bit suspect, too. Every finalist seems a true talent, so the decision comes down to more than just the clothes; as former Gucci chief Tom Ford points out, a designer's persona can be as important as his line. ''One thing that we really have to be sure here," one of the panelists says, ''is that we back a winner." There's agreement all around.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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