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Episode 14: The Final

By CaitlinBergmann Fri., Nov. 20, 2009 ,4:14 am EST

The judges on the finale of season six of project runway

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.”

Irina Shabayeva and Tim Gunn on the finale of season six of project runway

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.

Irina Shabayeva's design on the finale of season six of project runway

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!