Season 15, Episode 11 Recap: Bold Innovation

It’s December. We just flew right through November like a wild turkey and now with the new month comes the final leg of the “Runway” sprint and the long awaited avant-garde challenge. I live for the weird, over-the-top, beautifully grotesque, absurd nature of a 2-day avant-garde challenge and I could just kiss Tim when he announces that the designers will also be using unconventional materials. Bring on the strange!

On the runway Heidi explains that there are only two challenges left before the finale, which shocks the designers. Mah-Jing goes “A Beautiful Mind” trying to figure out the math but can’t seem to solve for “x.” How many people will show at NYFW? Will there be a second, shocking double elimination? Regardless, this is clearly the time to really push it and try to make it over those last couple of (admittedly rather large) speed bumps before the finale.

Heidi sends the designers to an unknown location saying, “Buckle up, because it’s going to be a thrill of a ride.” Rik muses about where they may be traveling, thinking Rome and hoping for Paris. Instead the designers arrive at a dirty, old warehouse. Remember in Season 11 when the final designers got to travel to Berlin, Barcelona, London and Paris for inspiration? Well, they endured a season of working entirely in teams, so they earned those amazing trips! That’s not to say that this season’s cast hasn’t worked hard…they just haven’t worked free-trip-to-Paris-level hard.

Tim meets them in the warehouse with the General Manager of Product and Consumer Marketing from Lexus USA, Brian Bolain. Behind them lie ominous piles of unconventional materials. Together, Tim and Brian introduce this week’s challenge.

The Challenge:
In two days and using pieces of metal and machines gathered in a mere five minutes, create an avant-garde look. The designers are also given a $150 Mood allowance for supplementary materials.

The designers descend upon the materials like metal-eating monsters and throw scrap upon scrap into their designated trash heaps. If I were given this challenge I think I might just say, “Welp, thanks y’all, it’s been a good run. I’m gonna go, here’s your mic pack and I’ll just call the cab company and let them know I’m at the fiery warehouse in the middle of nowhere.” But I’m proud of these designers as they all dive in head first (ouch), even Cornelius who admits he is, “Not an industrial guy.” Shocking. Laurence, who is totally into metal, casually walks around the site strategizing and carefully planning. Was there ever a time where Laurence looked around and she wasn’t the coolest person in the room? If so, who was in the room with her? The Dalai Lama?

At Mood, Swatch is uncharacteristically bringing some major drama. After run-ins with Cornelius and Rik, Swatch is finally hunted down by Tim who asks him politely what he wants. Turns out, he just wanted Tim to get down on his level. Elsewhere in Mood, Erin makes a super smart choice to grab yellow leather and a billowy yellow fabric that will play on the hard and soft. Like Erin, Mah-Jing sticks to his signature look and goes for denim and Laurence picks up some leather.

Back in the workroom, Cornelius is developing a butterfly-inspired look with some tubing that will expose the ugly side of the beautiful insect. Mah-Jing work with some copper and explains his hopes for the look to Laurence and Erin as follows, “I want it to be like a fairy, a galaxy queen, mermaid-ish.” To which Laurence says, “You’re just making a dress, man.” Meanwhile, she is creating her signature shoulder. Rik doesn’t have a plan and he’s worried he didn’t grab enough materials, while Roberi is molding sheet metal to his will. Erin makes some small flower appliques with leather and chain that will later embellish her “paper doll dress” concept.

Mah-Jing advises Erin on the glue she is using to keep her appliques together, saying that it will take longer to dry than she expects and once it does, it will “foam up.” Erin ignores his warnings and the next morning her day of work is pretty much wasted as her flowers have all bubbled up. An annoyed Mah-Jing basically says, “I told you so,” but Erin keeps calm and carries on, recovering nicely.

When Tim arrives for critiques most of the designers seem to have made pretty good use of their first day on the challenge. Rik applied tiles and curtain rod holders to a dress, creating a polished punk rock look. Tim points out a section of the dress that Rik has adorned with safety pins and tells him to lose it, calling it “cheap.” His recommendation is to take the tiles to the limit and go for avant-garde.

Roberi twisted some silver and copper metal sheets to created “aerodynamic shapes,” in an attempt to “disrupt the body.” On the dress form the look is kind of serving up some Rosie the Robot realness and I’m not hating it. Tim calls it edgy but is worried when Roberi suggests some sort of removable mask that will cover the model’s face.

Mah-Jing is working with copper wire and mesh, drawing inspiration from majestic coral reefs, aiming to create a wearable sculpture. Underneath, the model will wear a denim dress. When Tim holds a bit of the formed sculpture piece he expresses a deep concern that the piece is too heavy. This worries Mah-Jing that the strapless dress might be too difficult for the model to wear, but not enough to adjust the design.

Erin is using a large mesh-like grate to create the illusion of a tabbed fold over paper doll top. Tim warns about being too ambitious and also indicates that she should take her model’s comfort into consideration when finishing her look. Erin sticks to her guns because as she rightfully notes, “playing it safe with avant-garde is, like, the worst place to go.”

Laurence is creating a “stairway” dress. Tim notes that this looks like a Laurence original, but is concerned that she’s not pushing herself. He then, without a shred of irony, tells Laurence to “ramp it all up.” Stairway dress. Ramp it up. Do you get it? Laurence takes his notes into consideration but this cool cat is gonna do what she’s gonna do. And if you don’t know that by now then I just have one question for you: what show have you been watching?!

Finally, Cornelius’ ugly, scary butterfly-inspired dress reminds Tim of a pregnant woman. He is concerned with the direction this look will go if he keeps this vibe and Cornelius realizes he has to pivot if he’s going to last through another episode. After some careful consideration, Cornelius ditches the butterfly and chooses a much more disgusting concept: a host being consumed by a parasite. Avant-garde looks should make you think and discuss and potentially even emotionally disturb you, like great art. If this is what Cornelius has in mind, he’s on the right track. To use Mah-Jing’s words, “It’s kinda messing with me mentally.”

In my favorite moment of the season the model Tirzah reveals that she speaks Spanish. In disbelief, Roberi exclaims, “You speak Spanish? This whole time?” It seems that in his trouble to translate over the weeks, she could easily have understood what he said if he had just used his native tongue. What an adorable misunderstanding!

Heidi introduces our friends Zac and Nina, along with the actress, director and star of Lifetime’s “UnREAL,” Shiri Appleby.

Roberi: Methinks Roberi was a bit inspired by his ride in the Lexus to Mood as he created an aerodynamic, mid-thigh length, sleeveless metal dress. The metal was placed upon a thick, dark brown fabric in shiny, sleek, rounded, silver and copper shapes. The model also wears a black mask, which Roberi hoped would “obliterate the human face.” Heidi loves the seamless use of the unconventional materials and the sexy, sculptural shape that the garment gives the model. Heidi also appreciates the mask. Zac draws comparisons to the cubist artist Georges Braque and sees the automotive inspiration. Shiri likes it, but was expecting a form more surprising given the challenge parameters. Nina considers some of the pieces more beautifully integrated than others, calling the top of the look “Robocop,” and proving the line between avant-garde and costume is very fine and rather subjective.

Mah-Jing, the loser: In an effort to capture the dynamic nature of a coral reef, Mah-Jing created a strapless denim dress with a copper sculpture made of mesh and piping sewn on top. From afar, it looks kind of like a pretty, transformed 1980s prom dress. Up close, the way Mah-Jing has carefully manipulated the metal is actually quite striking, but the model’s constant pulling up of the heavy dress is rather distracting. Shiri likes the copper concept but wishes there was more of it, which prompts Mah-Jing to explain just how heavy the sculpture became once he added the piping. Zac agrees that copper is weighty, but mostly has a problem with the way the two elements relate to one another. Heidi recognizes the work that went into the actual sculpting but agrees with Zac that the sculpture looks “stuck on.” Nina calls the unconventional materials “beautiful decoration.” The judges all agree that the construction isn’t as on point as the others’ on the runway.

Rik: Looking to play with texture, Rik used the mosaic glass tiling, spiked army dog tags, cut up curtain rollers, metallic tweed and leather neoprene in a sleeveless, mid-thigh length dress. It’s a glamorous but dark rocker chick look. Zac loves the play with texture and compliments his use of the tiles. Shiri is a little disappointed that it doesn’t go full throttle into the realm of avant-garde, but likes the incorporation of unconventional materials. Nina likes the styling Rik chose and calls the look “polished,” while Heidi appreciates how wearable it is while still being extremely interesting.

Cornelius: Using his parasite consuming a host concept, Cornelius created a knee length, long sleeved black dress with yellow, blue and pink neon detailing on the bottom half of the dress and sleeves. Large black air ventilation tubes are placed on the front and back of the dress to give the illusion of flowing in and out, through the model. Nina feels like the idea of tubes feels expected, but also calls the idea “disturbing.” When Cornelius confirms that scaring the viewer was the goal, Nina laughs and says he made his point. Zac points out that the base of the dress, particularly the cowl neck, we’ve seen from Cornelius before. He also makes a terrifying alien-like suctioning sound effect that’s so much more descriptive of the garment than anything I could possibly hope to write. Shiri comments on the shoulder tube in particular, saying that the strong shoulder section works best. Up close the judges appreciate the execution and the texture contrasts of the look.

Laurence: It is a short black dress with Laurence’s signature squared off shoulder. The back is exquisite and to me has an effect that is reminiscent of a traditional Chinese look. The bottom half of the dress looks to be made of woven leather and looks like tiers of a cake. Heidi points out that the shoulder is something they’ve seen before, but she loves it regardless. Heidi does wish that she could see a different color, however. Shiri compares the use of black to when she was scared to take fashion risks and Zac loves the chic look, but says he also wishes Laurence had experimented with color. Nina encourages Laurence to step out of her “safe zone.” In a telling moment, Laurence explains that as a young designer she took more risks but as she grew she became a more specific kind of designer.

Erin, the winner: Drawing inspiration from a literal paper doll, Erin created a hard, structured silver metal grate and yellow leather wearable sculpture, with flower appliques applied in a shape that mimics a top. On the bottom, Erin put her model in flow-y, oversized yellow pants. You sort of have to see it to understand fully how brilliantly the whole concept came together. Shiri loved that it was so different than the rest of the looks from concept to execution. Heidi calls it “super sexy” and “bold.” Zac likes that it’s both futuristic and old Hollywood at the same time, noting that the inspiration makes a lot of sense for Erin. Nina, forever the editorial thinker, says the look would photograph “incredibly well.” The only true criticism Erin receives is that the backside of the “paper doll” top didn’t get the same kind of care that the front did. But isn’t that true with real paper dolls?

So it seems that Erin has finally got her groove back! I’m sick of yellow but I’m glad this girl brought it because when she’s on, she’s really on.

Meanwhile, I actually had a really hard time writing “Mah-Jing, the loser,” up there because although he did leave the competition in this episode, he is NOT a loser. The judges all agreed that Mah-Jing was an absolute pleasure to have on the show, he achieved so much more than he expected to and he leaves “Project Runway” a stronger, better designer. I will cherish every gif, screen shot and audio bite of this delightful man until I breathe my last breath, you better believe that. Until next week live by the words of the strong and mighty Mah-Jing, “Push yourself as hard as you can push yourself and you will never feel weak or intimidated by those who are around you.”

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