Episode 11: "Burden of Proof"
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.