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At the moment of this posting I, like the rest of you, do not know who this year’s winner of “Project Runway” Season 6 finale is. In order to preserve the identity of this season’s winner, we bloggers are capturing our impressions, having seen all three collections, but without having seen Heidi make her final pronouncement. However, I must say, no matter what the judges decide, I certainly have a favorite!
. . . And that would have to be Dame Suzy Menkes! What an incredible coup for “Project Runway” to have the head reporter and fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune judging the final episode of the show! Her participation is not only a first, but a significant indication of the influence that “Project Runway” has had on the fashion world. Although we’ve yet to see any “Project Runway” alumnus or alumna covered by style.com or Vogue magazine, if the preeminent voice of fashion journalism shows up to judge this little TV show, it suggests that the work being done here has truly begun to achieve some important recognition.
Given this circumstance, Michael Kors, Nina Garcia and Heidi Klum, in my opinion, would have to be out of their minds if they didn’t award the prize money, fashion spread and Parisian vacation to Irina Shabayeva! This show began as a forum through which we might attempt to identify the next great voices in American fashion design. With this intention in mind, it is hard to believe that anyone in the finale this season even comes close to Irina’s qualifications for this distinction. To begin with, she has a uniquely American story. As an immigrant, she is a living example of what we used to believe was possible in America through focused determination and hard work. These days, even though it seems that “hard work” still requires the added push of national television exposure, Irina stands out as someone who has learned that she must make her own fortune in “the land of opportunity.”
That being said, this is exactly what she delivers to Bryant Park. Unlike the other two designers, Irina explains her point of view at the beginning of her collection. It’s a small distinction that frequently goes unnoticed on “Project Runway.” So often in the finale episodes, the designers come out on the runway, thank their families, talk about the hard work that went into the collection, and then express their hopes that the audience and the judges will like it. Irina, conversely, talks about her point of view. To help us out, she allows the viewers to accompany her in her particular fashion journey, by explaining what she was thinking about and how she imagines the clothes functioning in our lives.
And the best part of it all is that it works. Unlike the other collections, Irina is able to identify one particular central theme, and then present several consecutive manifestations of that theme in evolving variation. We saw her particular brand of “urban protection” played out in numerous ways. There were subtle “Roman legionnaire” references suggested by the felt cloches on the models. There were enormous blanket sweaters designed to luxuriously enfold the wearer and keep any New Yorker warm in the most chilling wind. Yet these sweaters, and all of her outerwear, are simple enough to be the only garments one must discard upon entering a climate-controlled environment. There were enormous bags with chunky metal chains (see photo below) suitable to hold everything a woman might need, in order to be gone from home all day without having the luxury of leaving things in the trunk of a car. And finally, her treatment of the fabrics in her collection evoked the shiny, geometric exoskeletons of insects, but also the shapes of medieval armor. All of these were different approaches to the idea of “protection,” but they were strongly linked through the interlocking use of material, color and construction details.
Finally, Irina deserves to win because her work is current. If you recall, our finalist designers were designing and constructing these clothes in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. Anticipating that these were clothes that would have ideally hit stores right now, in the fall of 2009, Irina somehow managed to capture the severity and gravity of these present times without plunging into a maudlin, Gothic caricature of doom. Through design, she was able to postulate what people might want to buy, right now, given our insatiable thirst for luxury, and the hard financial times that make exhibiting it very unpopular. This, in my opinion, is perhaps the best answer to Nina’s critique of her decision to use an all-black color scheme. A monochromatic color story deflects attention and has got to be the most emphatic endorsement of the idea that “bling is dead.”
So congratulations, Irina! You have done fine work, regardless of whether or not you win the prize. [Editor’s note: Good call, Andrae … Irina won!] There is great satisfaction in knowing that you have set an aesthetic goal for yourself and reached it, and you certainly have. Indeed, if you don’t win (and I think you do), remember that awards are frequently an indication of the fact that you’ve been doing the right thing for a very long time. Keep up the good work!
I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve watched an entire season of “Project Runway,” because I forgot that we don’t go directly to Fashion Week after the last challenge. First, we visit all of the designers at home, with Tim Gunn, and we get a peek at what they’re planning to show during Fashion Week. It’s a crucial point in the design process, because these designers have no outside feedback from anyone else. In my opinion, it still looks like Irina is going to win this one, unless something goes terribly wrong. So far, she’s the only one with a strong, cohesive theme that runs throughout her collection, complete with recurring shapes and design motifs that flesh out her ideas. Oh, and as if that weren’t enough, she always has perfect hair and makeup. (Irina is invincible.) Since we have no runway show in this episode, let’s focus in on what Tim’s critique of these collections says about the dangers that each designer might encounter on the runway. Like the Oracle of Delphi, his feedback is often cryptic, so I will try to demystify some of the things he says.
First up, Tim visits Carol Hannah in a suburb of New York. My favorite moment of this segment was when Tim, with "jazz hands," says “I love a kitchen!” It sounds like “I love to cook,” but I think it’s probably something more akin to “I love picking out a stylish countertop polymer!” Similarly, when he speaks of the clothes, we should be aware of what additional message lies just below the surface. About the collection, Tim says, “You’ve done a lot of pushing. You’ve done a lot of risk-taking.” While there is a positive ring to this comment, there is also a subtle note of caution. I think Tim is responding to the broad number of Carol Hannah’s design motifs here. She’s introduced many different types of appliqués and individual embellishments into the collection, but she has neglected to dig in and develop one or two of them into a statement that unifies the clothes as a group. So when Tim says “a lot of pushing,” he probably wants her to stop trying to wow us with another sewing trick, and to focus those techniques into a statement about her personal view of Fall 2009.
It would be really nice if Irina won, because I don’t remember anyone on “Project Runway” saying that they had a parent in their family that was unsupportive. Irina actually remarks that it would be nice to earn her father’s approval by winning the competition. How many of us have the courage to admit this? For once, we see the reality of what most American parents believe about their children pursuing creative occupations. And this is a girl who made it to Bryant Park! I wonder if the drive to earn this approval is what has made Irina so prolific. In her collection, she has incredible hand-knits, intricate fur construction and even silkscreened textiles, all inspired by the grim specter of the dilapidated roller coasters at Coney Island. It seems that this drive and relentless work ethic is also where Tim’s comment for Irina is aimed. He says that her collection should “not look ‘forced,’ that it should just look as though it’s an easy, natural flow.” This is basically a caution against over-designing. In fact, the only thing I can foresee getting in Irina’s way is if the statement of her collection is too ham-fisted. As the only designer with a cohesive statement, she should be fine, as long as she doesn’t beat the judges over the head with so many design elements that they get exhausted from looking.
To Althea, Tim says “Seeing what you do with knits, it makes me want to see more.” No other comment could be more detrimental to Althea at this moment, because Althea doesn’t know about the incredible knits that Irina has been working on. This advice, if heeded incorrectly, has the potential to produce more of the sweater that Althea was accused of copying from Irina during the show. Irina’s reaction upon seeing Althea’s collection seems to suggest that this is exactly what has happened. What Tim meant, in my opinion, is “I’d like to see more of what you can do with knits, as Althea, and not as Irina.” Indeed, his parting comment to Althea is “Just don’t lose sight of who you are, and edit, edit, edit!” It’s a subtle admonishment for Althea to find the focus for her collection from inside of herself, as opposed to the work of the other contestants or the costume designers of science-fiction films. And that’s it.
Tune in next week when the Oracle says, “THIS IS CRAZY!” Indeed, we get to finally see how it all pans out, and I think we’re in for a doozy. Apparently, it looks like all hell breaks loose, complete with more sobbing and vomiting, the ubiquitous 13th looks, a bit of makeup plagiarism and some very frightened interns from Parsons. But of course, that isn’t what’s intriguing me. Personally, I’m tuning in just trying to figure out what Tim really means when he says, “I am about to lose it!”
We've finally reached the end of the road. This season's final challenge began with a beautiful trip to the Getty Center in Malibu. Truly one of the great architectural treasures of Los Angeles County, it is a befitting location for the last challenge. Within the context of fashion design, the Getty Center is a perfect metaphor, being at once a sparkling triumph of contemporary architecture as well as a temple that houses masterpieces of towering significance in art history. Here, our remaining designers are challenged to do work inspired by this setting, and it reminds us of the delicate balance that great fashion design must maintain between references to the past and explorations of what the future might be.
Scouring the grounds of the Getty to find inspiration for their final presentation, many of the designers chose things from the past. Carol Hannah alighted upon an 18th-century bed. Irina chose a 19th-century painting depicting a fictional scene from classical antiquity. And Gordana decided upon an edition of one of Claude Monet's early Impressionist canvases. Carol Hannah’s bed seemed a logical source of inspiration for a designer who has distinguished herself with her dress designs throughout the competition. Considering the ample fabric draping on this bed, it ensured that there would be little lost in translation when it became a garment. Or so one would think. Her final dress was cast from a pale gold silk satin, which was unexpected, given the overwhelming preponderance of blue in her inspiration source. And although the judges this week praised the construction of this dress, I would go farther than Nina, arguing that this dress had some unsettling proportions. I always believe that the success of these fishtail/mermaid-ish silhouettes pivots upon the way they reference the human body. Here, the band that joins the skirt to the upper half of the dress crosses the body with a rather shallow incline that exaggerates the size of the model’s hips. I’m convinced that if it began at, or slightly above, the high hip and descended at a sharper angle, ending below the knee, it wouldn’t seem so much that the dress was abruptly chopping the model’s body in half. Also, the place where the ropey straps connect to the dress itself seems very abrupt, almost reminiscent of a rowboat tethered to the post of a lake dock.
Gordana chose one of Monet’s images of Rouen Cathedral for her inspiration. True to form, she captured the milky coloration of the original painting, and manipulated long panels of silk organza to mimic Monet’s blurry brushstrokes. Impressionism is a dangerous inspiration choice for a designer, considering the populist appeal of this school of painting. It runs the risk of seeming “uninspired,” since we have become so familiar with Impressionist works, having seen them reproduced on everything from calendars to coffee mugs. Nevertheless, Gordana creates an elegant gown, despite the fact that it still seems a very meek choice for a “finale dress.” This meekness can probably be attributed to the spare, horizontal neckline, and the plain, un-embellished back of the dress.
Irina, on the other hand, takes more of an easy way out, by choosing to create a dress inspired by a painting depicting two women who are also wearing dresses. This outfit has lost some of its brilliance for me since I first viewed this episode, because it recently hit me that all she really had to do was “update” the look that was already in the painting. Even though I think Irina’s version of a Greek stola was inspired, I do wish that she had chosen some inspiration that would have offered a more dramatic translation into fashion. Ever the economist, Irina is an excellent time manager, if she is anything, so she very efficiently executed her “update,” wisely opting out of incorporating what must have been a buckskin pelt.
Finally, we get to Althea and Christopher. Both of these designers found inspiration in the architecture of the Getty Center. Althea chose the bold lines and shapes created by the building, and, like Carol Hannah, chose a golden beige fabric to execute her ensemble. Here, poor Althea flew too close to the sun and, unlike Irina, clearly ran out of time. However, the factor of time will not be an issue when it comes to Bryant Park, so I’m glad that she will have the opportunity to wow us there. Her construction truly suggested a fresh perspective on the idea of tailoring, and she left us wanting to see what more she is capable of.
Christopher Straub — he of the "false confidence," as Irina put it — doesn’t make it to Bryant Park, for the same basic reasons that his work has been in the "bottom three" for the last FIVE challenges. Christopher is a designer who could seriously stand some further fashion education. He is articulate and clearly chooses excellent inspiration. (It’s not everyone who finds beauty in a puddle of water.) However, he spent most of his time this season talking about how much he loved his work, instead of incorporating the criticism he received into the next challenge. And yet this may have been too much to ask of him. He doesn’t seem to have much training in tailoring. It is unfortunate that he has continued to simply gather his necklines over and over again into either jabots or halter tops. It makes me wonder if he knows how to make a facing, and don’t let me get started on the conspicuous absence of set-in sleeves in his work, all season long. Christopher is a rousing endorsement for a good design education if ever there was one, and hopefully a benchmark for the people who cast “Project Runway.” It is certainly possible to learn to sew without being formally trained; however, disasters of “proportion” are only avoided if one has been subjected to the critical rigors that art school entails. Christopher’s tears on the runway are the virgin tears of someone who has never had his work seriously critiqued in terms of design. I think we all learned this season that people with low levels of experience not only do poorly on the show, but they also fail to intrigue us with their work. The moment the work becomes redundant or cliche, the show becomes boring.
So, it’s the “Charlie’s Angels” of fashion next week. [Editor's Note: Funny that both Nick Verreos and Andrae called the final three "Charlie's Angels" in their blogs!] The girls have vanquished everyone else, and next week we’ll get to see what they are able to produce with the luxury of more time. Indeed, may the best woman win!
This week on episode eleven of "Project Runway," each of the six remaining designers was assigned one of their own previously successful garments as inspiration, and challenged to create a new companion ensemble that somehow referenced the first design. This is an excellent challenge, because it has its roots in something that happens in the fashion business all the time. Fashion is essentially “a conversation” between the past and the present, all in the name of discerning what the future might be. This challenge, then, has the potential to be a miniaturized version of what every great successful designer eventually gets to do, which is to revisit, and reinvent, his or her past glories. Because this challenge essentially required the designers to be brilliant a second time, but in a different way, it really illuminated the contestants who have the legitimate “chops” not only to stay in the game, but to sustain creative energy for the length of a career. Even so, it appears that at this point we have three races at play here, and folks, it’s not looking good for the gentlemen.
The biggest question this week wasn’t, but should have been, “DOES ALTHEA COPY?” In the episode where, indeed, you were supposed to be inspired by your own work, why would you want to create a look so close to something that someone else had done the week before? Now, fashion designers are trained to absorb. It is a custom that is literally taught in fashion schools around the country. When I was in school, my department chair repeatedly opined that we could “not design in a vacuum.” The prevailing argument says that since the human body has remained essentially the same for thousands of years, there are a finite number of ideas available to clothe it, so repetition is bound to happen.
However, it is the combination and augmentation of these repetitions that truly separate great designers from the hacks. At the bare minimum, a designer can re-fabricate a design that is already popular in the market. This alone might be enough to make it new. Imagine if Althea had taken this same idea that appears to have been gleaned from Irina, but constructed it out of heavy black satin. She could have still created the shape depicted in her sketch, but it would not have been such a dead ringer for Irina’s sweater. Even so, since we have no footage of Irina’s sketch for this challenge, it is hard to know for sure who copied whom.
To shed some light on this subject, I suggest we look at what the two designers are wearing themselves on runway day, in the Macy’s Challenge. (See photo of them behind stage for reference.) Here, both Althea and Irina chose to wear a thick scarf over a bare-shouldered top, and each finished the look off with leggings. Alone, this isn’t enough evidence for a case of design piracy, but if you take a look at what Althea and Carol Hannah are wearing at the beginning of this week’s episode, a pattern seems to form. When Heidi meets the designers on the runway with their previous looks, Althea is wearing gray jeans, a silver obi-ish belt and a black T-shirt. Carol Hannah is wearing blue jeans, a red obi-ish belt and a black T-shirt. The women almost look like twins from behind. Considering the fact that Althea is the only constant in each of these three scenarios, the circumstances certainly suggest that she “absorbs” ideas, perhaps unintentionally. As a designer, there isn’t really anything wrong with that. In college, I used to return to my table at the dining hall to discover that I’d frequently chosen only foods that matched the outfit I was wearing. So the absorption can happen by accident. However, it is what one does with these impulses that really distinguishes the fashion leaders from the fashion pack. Clearly, Irina is leading, and Althea is a follower, albeit a talented one. (Although I’m not buying this jacket/sweater-over-a-tank-top motif anymore.)
In the battle for the middle, we have Carol Hannah and Gordana. It is rare to hear Tim Gunn not tell someone to push their own limits, but this week it actually happens with Carol Hannah. I think this was a mistake, because Carol Hannah might have had the option of upsetting the apple cart if she had made an evening sportswear ensemble that utilized the same coq feathers that she so elegantly added to her Bob Mackie gown. In the end, I’m assuming that the judges didn’t award her a win for this dress because it was so painfully safe, or at least it looked so on television. It was basically a black dress with, wait for it … POCKETS!!!! Indeed, pockets are important. Women don’t get enough of them, and these days, even at the most elegant affair a woman will leave her lipstick home before she leaves her cell phone. So, yes, designers of the future, conceal pockets in evening gowns. They make women look like they are relaxed and they are absolutely necessary in a text-message world. But this is not news, and I don’t think it’s enough to herald great design. Beyond its color, there isn’t much that actually ties this cocktail dress to the original gown from the previous challenge. It is strange that none of the judges mentioned this. Perhaps they were all so mesmerized by the thought of wearing this dress that they forgot to ask. I’m with Zoe Glassner on this one: “(shrug) It’s wearable.”
Regarding Gordana: I’ve rooted for this lady all the way through the competition because she just seems to be a real straight shooter. That, and I also love her accent. I’d love for her to make it to Bryant Park, because she seems to have a marvelous experimental streak in her sewing and she seems to find smart ways of employing it. But I’m beginning to think that she won’t fare well in the end. Nonetheless, I’m glad that she didn’t go home this week for this ensemble. Remembering that Gordana’s first dress won the “divorcee” challenge, her trouble this week could have been simply “lost in translation.” If the first piece was initially designed for an older customer, it follows that the second look would be for that same customer, so Heidi’s ageist critique is not only unfair, but antithetical to the challenge. I think Gordana’s biggest mistake with this outfit was going with the longer jacket. There is indeed something dated about a long jacket at this point in time. It recalls the late ’90s and all those suits with short skirts that Calista Flockhart used to wear on “Ally McBeal.” Ironically, there seems to be something much more current about a shorter jacket with a peplum, which is, ironically, a silhouette that was popular in the ’40s. Fashion can be capricious at times.
Finally, since the maternity challenge, I’ve suspected that we’d have a situation where the males lose out this season. It just seemed, even back then, with perhaps the exception of Epperson, that none of them had the flexibility to survive the challenges of this competition all the way to the end. On “Project Runway,” it’s not good enough to know how to sew well. You need to know how to sew wisely, and use that skill toward its most economical end. So at this point, both Logan and Christopher are in a competition against each other in trying not to be eliminated. Both of these men have ideas that are, at their best, unremarkable, and their sewing skills unfortunately don’t seem to meet the small demands of their concepts. I’m as shocked as everyone else is that Logan Neitzel got sent home this week, however. Although his dress was poorly constructed (see photo), at least it seems that he attempted a design that fit within the realm of his abilities, notwithstanding the impossibly foolish idea of constructing any design with a series of sequential parallel zipper teeth. Why any designer in his right mind would choose to construct a design that is actually engineered to break sewing needles is beyond me. Oh, maybe because he saw someone else do it, on another challenge (another idea absorber).
Christopher, on the other hand, has repeatedly created these heavy-skirted gowns that seem to collapse under their own weight. Anyone who has lived long enough to have seen “Gone With the Wind” or any other film that takes place during the Civil War knows that there are important undergarments that help designers achieve voluminous proportions. Yet, throughout this competition, Christopher has eschewed the sensible logic of constructing a crinoline, despite his relish for “volume.” His skirts utilize this odd “flounces on the fold” technique relying on ruffles made by doubling up and gathering long strips of fabric. Not only does this cause the fabric to fall in unflattering, crumpled masses, but the double layers of additional material add a literal and visual weight that must make the act of wearing the dress arduous, at the bare minimum. It also has the unfortunate effect of making the dress look like it is sopping wet. This dress is so heavy that it’s no surprise to see Christopher’s model, Katie, literally marching down the runway with a militant stride, both hands on her hips, kicking the dress out of her way. And then, if the heavy skirt wasn’t enough, there is Christopher’s decision to cover the middle third of the dress in metallic-fabric hydrangea petals! This choice has the unenviable effect of making it look as if the dress has encrustations of barnacles or mussels along the hem. However, Christopher still has one thing going for him: These are all his OWN ideas.
This week, Michael Kors met our remaining seven designers down at his West Coast flagship boutique and gave them a window into his design process. As anyone who is aware of his brand will tell you, Michael Kors evokes the luxurious age of the international jet-setter, so it’s no surprise that he chose seven of his favorite destinations as inspiration for our remaining designers. The challenge for episode ten, for them, is to take these locales and do their own interpretation of these places, “whether real or imaginary,” but to also remember to “have fun.” Among their choices are Aspen, St. Tropez, the Greek islands, Manhattan, Palm Beach, Santa Fe and Hollywood.
Now, understanding that this is a challenge coming from Kors, a proven purveyor of classic American sportswear, there is an unwritten mandate that each designer address this idea in some way, or at least not show up with a red-carpet gown. Given the iconic nature of all these places, it should have been simple for each designer to arrive at something that not only resonates with their own design aesthetic, but that also evokes the local color of these regions. However, I have to agree with Irina when she says that the level of creativity in the room seems to have plateaued. Indeed, what happened to everybody this week? Perhaps they are just exhausted, because everything that came down the runway was pretty lackluster.
When Michael Kors gave us a similar challenge in Season 2 of “Project Runway,” I remember people digging deep to try to find unusual sources of inspiration, as well as inventive sewing techniques, to communicate their ideas. One doesn’t have to be Tim Gunn to know that a great designer should be able to find a way to “make it work.” Wowing the judges should still be possible even if, like Logan, you have the misfortune of having to design yet another “Hollywood-inspired” ensemble. There should still be several design stones that have been left unturned, and one would think this would be a chance for the designers to pull out all the stops.
And yet Irina Shabayeva, who is clearly the front-runner in the competition now, does this by going beige. BEIGE. OK, beige with fur, but it’s still beige! (See photo.) It’s clear now that the grand prize is basically hers to lose. Her ensemble for Aspen wins because it is a complete design statement that’s competently executed, even though it’s not much of a surprise. Michael Kors accurately laments that her ensemble is a little too “on the nose” in its homage to 1980s “jet-set style.” Even with the deep cutout in the back, it seems terribly familiar, and could actually be something from a past Michael Kors collection. And yet I think that’s just how far ahead of the pack Irina is. She can waltz in, give us the Aspen look as seen on “Falcon Crest” during the 1985 fall sweeps and still be better off than everyone else. As she says, after three wins, her only competition is herself.
As far as the rest of them go … I wish them well, with the following reservations:
Congratulations: You wisely also did three pieces of sportswear in the Michael Kors Challenge. Clearly you have the skills that we expect from a new voice in American fashion.
Beware: We’ve seen a lot of jackets with tanks. Hopefully this is just a time-crunch thing, and not a pillar of your aesthetic.
Congratulations: You created a classic dress with a slightly unconventional detail. It’s something familiar, with a twist in the bodice (literally).
Beware: We’ve seen a lot of dresses from you. Make sure you do some separates. Fashion empires rise and fall based on the cut of their jackets and pants.
Congratulations: We love you, and we all cheer you on as you find the confidence of your own voice. You continue to infuse your designs with innovative construction.
Beware: I think you barely saved your neck by making sure that incredible crystal necklace could be treated like sportswear and worn with other clothes. The secret to winning this competition is to create sportswear separates. Make sure you address this later.
Congratulations: You made a really nice pair of jeans. This is not an easy thing to do on this show, particularly since there are no laundering facilities.
Beware: Dude. Sleeves? You will most likely need them in the next challenge. You will definitely need them in Bryant Park.
Congratulations: You survived this one, even though you didn’t go Koo-Koo for Kokopelli enough.
Beware: They are all asking, “Why is he still here?” You will need to wow us with the answer. It’s time to shock us, Shakopee!
Congratulations: You showed us you can certainly create sportswear, and you stuck to your aesthetic guns. (See photo.) We’ll still miss you Nicolas Putvinski!
Beware: White is not always right.
And that should do it.May the best woman win!
So we’re deep into the competition with episode 9, and as sometimes happens to “gypsies, tramps, and thieves,” now is the time when our designers lose their way. It’s also exactly when we’d expect to see Bob Mackie. It is the quintessential “Project Runway” paradox. The budget for the challenge goes up to $300, the prestige of the visiting dignitaries becomes greater, and we start to see some projects where the designers really are given the arena to wow us. There is, however, one tiny little problem: At this point, they’re all just too sleepy. It’s a difficult conundrum, because even though there are design opportunities galore in this episode, the fact that every designer is so tired lowers their potential output. In the end, we get a slew of dresses that Nina Garcia has “seen before,” and very little of the wow that we’d expect to associate with the “Sultan of Sequins.”
This week, I sympathized a lot with everyone struggling to hold it together. I remember having big dark circles under my eyes, like Gordana. It wasn’t so long ago that I was getting a little bit slap-happy, wearing silly clothes and getting goofy at an ice-skating rink. So it’s understandable that no one is operating at full capacity. Poor Gordana had some terrible trouble with a beaded fabric that unraveled when it was cut. Her final dress would have been headed for the “Auf Wieder-zone,” if it hadn’t been for her immunity status. Particularly puzzling was her decision to put what looked like binder clips on the nipples of her dress. See the photo; it's hard to miss what I'm talking about here.) Either she was severely tired, or maybe she was hoping to appeal to whatever impulse inspired Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” period. I must say, however, the smartest thing I’ve ever seen on this show was when Gordana used her immunity to take a nap!
Speaking of ice skating, both Nicolas and Irina had “Bob Mackie on Ice” moments this week. Irina’s dress was, as always, very well-constructed, but the beading and the length anchored it firmly in that Ice Capades tradition. It was a real double axel. Other than some harsh criticism of the other designers, Irina herself was conspicuously absent this week when it was time for critique. We saw no footage of her conversations with Tim, and she was immediately dispatched to the back room after the runway show, apparently being automatically “qualified to move on to the next round.” Nicolas, on the other hand, created yet another white dress, and true to Tim Gunn’s fears, it does seem that his aesthetic is permanently frozen on the “Ice Queen” setting. This man is absolutely headed for the chopping block if he doesn’t whip out some sportswear by the time Michael Kors comes back.
Althea presented a textbook Bob Mackie dress, covered in sequins, with a long train. She also decided to include a curious bolero made of what seemed to be black Muppet pelts. Apparently, this is what happens when one has the misfortune of missing the “rainbow connection. (See photo.) ” Carol Hannah Whitfield wins this one, and appropriately so, because she provides a significant variety of visual textures for the eye, even though Nina is right again: We’ve also seen this Bob Mackie design before, on “The Carol Burnett Show.” Logan has learned that he does best when he channels his “animal magnetism,” and survives. Although underwhelming on the Bob Mackie Glamour Scale, his dress at least exhibits a new side of his design aesthetic and is, thankfully, not another pair of ambitious pants. Christopher, on the other hand, decides to “go sexy” after speaking with Tim Gunn, and ends up shooting himself in the foot, employing some unfortunate, oversized buttons, and doubling up on an outfit that Christina Aguilera has already worn.
Finally, it’s Shirin who gets voted off, and this dress is a severe disappointment. Tim accurately describes it as “student work,” but unfortunately, he doesn’t explain exactly what that means. One of the biggest student designer transgressions is over-designing. Typically, students are so excited to finally be creating the gowns of their dreams that they tend to put everything, including the kitchen sink, into their dresses. This frequently results in gowns with at least two, if not more, focal points. And that’s what happens to Shirin. In this design, we see the neckline of the dress fighting with the skirt of the dress for our attention. The skirt wins out, but it’s a hollow victory. By the time it captures our eyes, they are drawn to the flounces with frayed edges that immediately transport us back to the realm of the amateur. I lament that Shirin Askari has to leave us for this, because even though Irina hates her guts, I think she is a talented little designer. And furthermore, every great designer should be allowed a mistake or two, because if they are great, they probably have better ideas waiting in the wings. Even a legend like Bob Mackie has a misfire every now and then.
This week, we got an example of why "Project Runway" is such amazing television when it succeeds. When this happens, we are reminded of the incredible value of creativity in our society, and also the fact that fashion is not just a commercial and aesthetic construct of class division, but rather a transformative practical art. And why am I so agog this week? Because Gordana Gehlhausen’s talent (see Gordana's design in Rate the Runway) has finally been recognized and rewarded for excellence. But more on that later. This week we had a truly inventive challenge:
"Take the wedding dresses of these women who have recently been divorced, and transform them into something that celebrates the next season of their lives."
As challenges go, I have to say that this was one that I applaud overwhelmingly. I am always just a little dismayed whenever young women say to me, "Oh I loved your work on 'Project Runway,' and when I get married, you are totally designing my dress!" I’m always flattered. Indeed, I know that what they are trying to say is that they want me to design the most important dress of their lives, but I always tell them that they don’t have to wait until they are engaged to have clothes custom-designed for them. Fashion can enhance every significant life event. I always say, "Call me for graduation day, or the day you win an election, or how about in a time when you really just need to feel special again?" When you think of it, isn’t the day you stop being married a more appropriate time for fashion than the day you begin?
So, yes, it was a great challenge, and we witnessed some truly incredible creative problem-solving on the part of the designers. Shirin had an insurmountable task on many levels. Her divorcee requested something reminiscent of Cher's "Half-Breed" dress, complete with peacock feathers, and the wedding dress that came with her not only had very little yardage, but was constructed out of an un-dyeable polyester. Ever a clever thinker, Shirin realized that she could create surface details and change the appearance of the old dress, by sewing geometric patterns of contrasting thread along the front. "The dream team" suffered this week, with Christopher getting bruised for creating a dress that suggested a roll of bubble wrap, and Epperson going home for creating a "Heidi’s Homeland" dirndl. Note to future designers: She left Germany to come live in America. "Tyrolean chic" never flies on this show.
But Gordana! What an amazing job she did this week! Her client was thrilled with the final product, and she won for the first time in this whole competition. I've been very impressed with her this whole season, because she has very strong construction techniques and she seems to apply them in inventive ways. Also, her ideas seem to get incorporated a lot by of the other designers. It was very impressive in the newspaper episode that she succeeded in creating a dress that didn't use a muslin under-structure. After Tim's adulation during his visit, it was clear that her technique of repetitive folding was showing up in many of the other dresses. It’s hard to tell who started the macrame trend in the room, but Gordana certainly is the only designer who might have been around when the technique was popular the first time, in the Seventies. The dress that she created this week is not only well-constructed and tailored to the body of her client, but her choice to sew together frayed strips of acetate reworks a construction trend from the 18th century in a new way, for today.Again you can see that it’s a compelling idea, because Logan adopted it for the ruffles on the vest of his ensemble this week.
Most importantly, Gordana is a really generous person, and winning this challenge couldn't have been more appropriate. Like these other women, yes, she had been married before, but more significantly, like them, she has come to "Project Runway" to launch a new season of her life. Clearly someone familiar with using her skills toward other people's ends, it is exciting to see her get the opportunity to make clothes that come from her own singular vision. As so many women do, Gordana has had to sacrifice her own dreams for the sake of her family, and it's heartbreaking to see her cry this week when she can't get through to her children on the telephone. However, when she wins the challenge, and remarks that at last people see that she is a designer, and not just a dressmaker, it’s very moving. We not only get the chance to see her transform someone else's life through fashion, but we also get to see fashion transform her. It is all work well done, and I think that she’s a serious contender for the final three. So congratulations, Gordana! Enjoy the last of the immunity, and maybe we'll "see you in Bryant Park."
This week, we got one of the better kinds of Project Runway challenges, because it allows for us all to see how a big part of a designer's job is balancing the desires of real customers and the constraints of global manufacturing, while still executing their vision. And, it's 180 degrees from the fantasy of last week's costume challenge:
"Create a pair of blue outfits that not only coordinate with each other, but also evoke the spirit of the Macy's International Concepts brand."
Now, this season, they've improved over past seasons of "Project Runway" involving actual retailers, because the prize for the challenge was a design commission for a holiday dress to be sold in the INC department, as opposed to the mass production of the actual garments shown on the runway. It still allows for the contestants to wow the judges, but the winner also gets the experience of creating something that can be mass-produced, with wide distribution. Past seasons have never allowed the designers enough time to digest the many complicated details that go into producing garments for a large market, let alone overseas, and awarding a commission ensures that the winning designer will not just get their clothes distributed nationally, but also gain valuable industry experience regarding all the hurdles of mass production.
People are fond of saying that what is shown on the runway is rarely what ends up in the store, and on "Project Runway," this is often also the case. In the "PR" workroom, the resources to "baby-hem" chiffon, fold and attach bias binding, or even to create buttonholes, aren't available. Few design rooms in the industry, or fashion schools, like Parsons or FIDM, have buttonholing machines, due to their exorbitant cost. So when students or sample-makers require buttonholes, the garments are frequently sent out to firms that charge a small fee for this service. Because of this, the designers' feats presented on the runway are all the more impressive. For instance, it takes a very keen eye to discern that despite these obstacles, Epperson figured out a way to make it appear that his shirtdress had "working buttonholes."
So with that in mind, let's go ahead and "talk about the ones that we didn't like." Oh, our poor birdie Louise ... she got "plucked" this week, just when she was trying to "sing out." This, I think, was an easy "auf" for the judges, considering that both dresses had details that evoked unsettling metaphors, in fashion terms. The dress that Nicolas constructed suggested simultaneously the ruffled collars that we associate with both circus clowns and circus elephants, neither of which we would expect to see comfortably roaming the aisles of Macy's. The second dress was even more disappointing, evoking bridesmaids and shower loofahs, as Michael Kors dared to say. Tragically, the placement of those woolly "loofahs" also suggested pubic hair in its natural state. So no surprise why these designs were not considered Macy's INC material.
The "Snoozefest" award (I told you it was the catchphrase du jour) goes to the teams of Carol Hannah, Christopher and Althea this week. Most of their designs this week were things that we would likely expect to see at Macy's; however, for something to find its way to the INC department, it usually needs to have some extra spark of newness. This department sells classic sportswear, yes, but often there is some twist to push those classics "out of the box." Most of these designs seemed terribly familiar, with the exception of Christopher's jabot-halter bubble tunic with leggings. This was a look that conjured one of my darkest fears as a designer. Every now and then, I come up with something that I've never seen before, and I wonder "Is this truly new, or has every other designer throughout fashion history had the good sense to edit this one out of their collections?" As Tim Gunn said, this design had the potential for "serious reinvention," but I think he meant that the "re" portion of that distinction had yet to occur.
Finally, we come to our Soviet Ladies. Despite their difficulties in communication this week, Irina and Gordana were able to create some genuinely lovely pieces that most women would find to be assets in their wardrobes. They looked beautiful on the runway, and also had an air of sophistication that many of the other clothes from the other designers lacked. However, this is where Macy's showed great forethought in awarding a "commission" to the winning designer. Irina's dress, though beautiful on the runway, would have been prohibitively expensive to reproduce in high volume. Irina herself complained of the long time that was required to "French seam" the stripes in the skirt of her dress. (This construction technique requires every seam of the skirt to be sewn once, trimmed and sewn again.) Even if manufactured overseas, it is unlikely that a dress with French-seamed stripes could be created without the labor costs increasing the retail price to a point where only Heidi Klum could afford it. Isn't it lucky that she said this was one she would wear?
In the end, this was a pretty straightforward episode: Pretty dress wins, unattractive one goes home and a man cries on the runway. I must say that I'll miss Louise, too. It's like we were just getting to know her. How sad it is to learn that she makes all those adorable bird calls on the very episode that they sent her home!
We’re winding down now, folks. Tonight’s episode marks number six for the “Project Runway” season, and it reduces the cast to the top 10. With it looking like we’re about to lose two heads next week, get ready for things to get interesting. But wait … that’s next week. This week, the breakout star of “Project Runway” was Zoe Glassner, editor from Marie Claire, for reworking the term “snorefest” so that I imagine it has the potential to be this season’s adoptable catchphrase du jour. Remember how WAY too many of you minced around after Season 4, labeling various fashion indignities “hot tranny messes”? Well, “snoozefest” could be the new “hot tranny mess.” So, avanti!
Oh lemmings, the herd has left for the coast. But seriously, I think this episode was the equivalent of that moment in a horror film where someone starts a conversation about which color to paint the den, right before the walls are splattered with the blood of a severed jugular. But there’s no gore this week — in fact, Horror, as a movie genre, was conspicuously absent, even though the designers got face time with Collier Strong, and a trip to the outside of a soundstage. Curious.
Strangely devoid of that signature “Project Runway” twist, this was a pretty straightforward challenge: Go make a movie costume for an invented female character, from one of the movie genres that we’ve identified on these cards. In the end, the designer who creates the outfit that looks the most hastily constructed goes home.
I really wanted the other shoe to drop on this challenge. I kept waiting for Faye Dunaway to come into the workroom brandishing a wire hanger, or for Meryl Streep to stop by and school them on the origins of “Cerulean Blue.” But there was no other shoe. In fact, there were many things that just didn’t quite add up on this episode. How did Althea escape the chopping block this week? Her Film Noir sportswear ensemble with the bell sleeves had hardly any Lauren Bacall, 1946, and way too much Bebe, Fall ’97. Irina, how do you hear “Film Noir” and think “poly-organza hooded cape!”? And then there’s sweet Christopher Straub, miraculously scoring again, maintaining the longest streak of sleeveless garments in “Project Runway” history. (See designs from episode three and six for evidence.) And this for a Victorian ensemble??!!!
By the way, for the record, I’d like to go down as the first to identify this David’s Bridal “static electricity” tucking technique as fashion’s H1N1 virus for this time period. I swear, in 10 years, we will look back at those wedding pictures and think Why did we ever think that was attractive?. But I digress. If we focus on all of these red herrings, we’re bound to miss the true culprit lurking in the shadows. Wait. I know — let’s split up and look for the killer!
If I pull back and look at the bigger picture, there is a subtle pattern forming that is quite telling when it comes to this episode, and it has to do with sportswear. Yes, classic American sportswear is again the “Keyser Söze” of “Project Runway.” I’ve said it before: What makes American fashion great is our approach to sportswear. There is nothing that we can do about dress design — the French have been doing it for hundreds of years longer than we have — but Americans invented sportswear. We still have the best knack for staying comfortable but looking pulled together, and full of complex, sophisticated textures. None of that is possible in a single garment. It has to be done with layers. It is this simple truth that stands as evidence of our influence upon global fashion, and it’s also what will most likely determine the winner of “Project Runway.”
Knowing this, it all starts to come into focus, doesn’t it? Hmmm. Althea: Underwhelming costume, but she created an outfit with three layered sportswear pieces. Epperson: In the top two, and maybe “robbed,” because his layered, tough-town, homestead woman truly evoked the Western era and told a story. But look closely — it was all done with layers. Even Chris Straub, I suspect, escaped the guillotine this week because he presented a layered ensemble. All the Action-Adventure outfits? Sportswear. Most chilling this week, in terms of sportswear, are the bottom three. C’est dommage, ça, because Louise, Ra’mon and particularly Gordana presented some rather impressive dressmaking skills this week. If you look back on Ra’mon’s offerings in the competition, you’ll see that when in distress, he makes a dress. And I believe this is the real reason that he went home.
Essentially, the judges have seen what he has to say as a designer, and it’s not sportswear. As we get closer to Bryant Park, and closer to nominating a new voice in American design, don’t be surprised if it’s a sportswear designer. To experience any sort of success, the winner of “Project Runway” needs to start a line that isn’t solely aimed at the three confirmed events that American women require gowns for (Prom, Wedding and Coffin). Every successful American designer has found a way to get women to buy their clothes for something other than these three occasions.
That being said, look out, Nicolas Putvinski! It’s clear that you have been given immunity this week so that you can sit back and rattle off bitchilicious sound bites for those confessionals. Right now, sir, you’re walking down a dark hallway, and if you don’t turn around quick and make a jacket or some layered ensemble, you are going to come face to face with a guy holding a chainsaw and wearing a hockey mask. Wake up! Soylent Green is American sportswear! And, in this game, if you “snoozefest,” you lose fast.
I have been amused by the flurry of news stories surrounding Joe Wilson's outburst in Congress in the past week, and I was reminded of them when I saw this week's episode of "Project Runway." Contrary to popular belief, the hardest part of participating on a reality television show is not the loss of privacy, but rather the adherence to the truth that is demanded of you when all of your behavior is documented on video. It's Truth 2.0, essentially.
This week on episode five of "Project Runway," we saw poor Johnny Sakalis go down, and although his design skills paved the way for his descent (watch the "Project Runway" video extras — he has a crippling faith in the power of trims), it was his practice of manipulating reality that is no match for the challenges of the show.
When I was on Season 2 of "Project Runway," I quickly learned that "keeping something between you, me and the fencepost" doesn't actually work if there is a camera mounted on the fencepost at all times. So if you have something you want to say behind someone's back, you should just say it to their face, because they will find out about it eventually, since the whole thing is being filmed. It also means that if you've got something to say, it better be consistent or you'll get caught.
Evidently this is something that Johnny has learned, because he stays emphatically "on message" this week, trotting out his steam-iron stump speech and honing it until he gives the best version of it for the judges on the runway. And yet, even if his story is an honest representation of something that might have occurred in the workroom, it isn't exactly true.
Under the policies of Truth 2.0, honesty is no longer the best policy. You must also tell the truth. Using steam to shape a dress made out of paper is not a crazy idea; paper is a cellulosic fiber, so it should be respond to steaming, but also be vulnerable to it. However, regardless of the level of honesty Johnny's steaming story possesses, it is not the truth about why he discarded his first dress and rushed to design another in the last minute instead. (See photo.)
"Honestly," even if he suffered some horrible mishap in the workroom, the "Truth" is that Johnny's convictions for his designs crumble under the pressure of critique, and his subsequent design statements serve to accommodate what his sewing lacks in virtuosity. (Again, check out the "Project Runway" videos of his workroom conversations with Tim Gunn) With all of Johnny's outfits, except the one that he does with Irina, if you compare what he initially shows Tim with what he eventually sends down the runway, there is generally a stark difference between "before" and "after."
Instead of exploring how his initial design conviction might be augmented to address a question that Tim raises, Johnny always opts to abandon that element entirely. In the pregnancy challenge (episode two), his dress has a small bolero (see image below) that he promptly discards after speaking with Tim. In the model challenge, he is excited about a trim that he also ends up abandoning when it fails to elicit affirmation from Tim. Finally, after Tim is underwhelmed with his newspaper dress, Johnny crumples up the whole thing and throws it in the trash.
And yet none of this is that terrible. People have doubts. They try one thing, and have to switch horses in midstream to avoid catastrophe. What is fascinating about "Project Runway" — and by extension, the digital age itself — is that duplicity is completely untolerated, and with cameras everywhere, and so many ways to check in, chat and update your status, it's now easier to spot the truth counterfeiters than it has ever been. When Tim comes backstage to send Johnny back to the workroom, there are no "goodbye hugs." There is no "we'll miss you"; it is stern negation and expulsion. As soon as Johnny leaves the room, Tim assures the group that, indeed, they were on to him all along, and that such falsehoods are "ridiculous."