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Episode 7: Fashion Within Reach

By CaitlinBergmann Fri., Oct. 2, 2009 ,7:44 am EDT

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."

Epperson creates a shirtdress on Project Runway Season 6, Episode 7

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."

Louise Black applies the finishing touches to her design in Project Runway, Season 6, Episode 7

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.

Designer Irina Shabayeva completes a french-seamed design on a garment

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!