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Episode Three: There’s an ‘I’ in “Design Team”

By CaitlinBergmann Thu., Sep. 3, 2009 ,11:20 pm EDT

Group shot on the beach of episode three of Project Runway

Ah, the “team challenge.” It is certainly the most mesmerizing of all the competition formulas on reality television. This is where “Project Runway” always gets completely “Wild Kingdom” and you see Darwinian evolution in action right before your very eyes. On this show, the team challenge has been refined to an efficient plot and character exposition device that allows the viewers to really see what makes these designers tick. For most of the teams, it’s a chance to share the workload and to get to know better the people that they’ve already grown to appreciate. However, for the teams that have members who can’t leave their egos outside the workroom, it makes for loads of the necessary drama that guarantees shows like “PR” have irreparably replaced show like “The Waltons” on TV for a very long time.

Having been in two of these team challenges myself, I’ve noticed how individual egos create an environment that dangerously multiplies the reasons for elimination, given the mutable criteria of the judges. Because it is a team challenge, it is impossible to know whether the judges will eliminate a team leader for a bad design, or whether a particular team member will be eliminated for poorly executing that design. Similarly, the team leader could be eliminated for “bad leadership skills” or the team member for “not following directions.” Then there is also the issue of sharing the workload. Any member of the team can be eliminated for “not working hard enough.” And you should never forget the damning distinction of having created something that “Heidi would never wear.”

Since the team challenge multiplies these elimination criteria, negotiating a path to success then becomes next to impossible. Certainly the best plan of attack is to work together to come up with a creative solution to the design problem, and to allow the “team leader” to have the final say in any dispute. We see this happen in varying degrees with all the teams, except for Mitchell’s team and Qristyl’s.

Nicolas Putvinski's design on episode three of Project Runway

Gordana dutifully forges ahead, helping to execute both of Nicolas’ crotch-centric designs without opposition. (See photo.) She’s “in for a penny, in for a pound,” to the point of complimenting his freehand pleating technique for silk organza while they are on the chopping block. Logan and Christopher are even able to come up with outfits that blend their individual aesthetics together. The girls who can sew already get along.

So what goes wrong with the others? Basically, you have two situations where people have decided to put the “I” from “design” into “team.” At first glance, I thought we had the same situation between Mitchell and Ra’mon as we have between Qristyl and Epperson: essentially, a leader with weaker sewing skills being usurped by a stronger sewer, afraid for his reputation.

But there is a fundamental difference between the two teams. Poor Mitchell was treading water in the deep end of the swimming pool from the beginning of the competition. We learn that as team leader, his strategy from the get-go is to find a sewing star to hitch his wagon to, hence his choice of Ra’mon. Since he has cast Ra’mon as “savior” of the team from the start, the hierarchy is understood from the beginning, and they should have been successful. But then they added that other avant-garde look to the challenge, and all hell broke loose. If Mitchell had the sewing skills to be able to sew without Ra’mon in the room, he might have lasted another episode, but this was not the case. Ra’mon picks up the gauntlet, saves the day and gets rewarded for doing so. Ironically, I think that if Mitchell was a trifle more clever, he would have chosen Epperson, and not only survived the challenge but learned a few things about construction, considering the “teacher and student” dynamic that Epperson seems to fall into naturally.

Qristyl, on the other hand, is not looking for a “savior,” and she “ain’t no damn student,” either. She demands to be treated like an equal, and rightly so. Soon we start to see that she has plus-limits, and I’m not talking about her plus-sewing skills, but rather, her plus-patience. She has chosen Epperson out of her respect for his sewing virtuosity, expecting to glean the benefit of a more technically savvy partner to help her execute her vision. Sadly, it seems like she never gets to articulate this vision, and Epperson’s ego hijacks the creative process of the team, beginning with his control of the research conversation with the surfer girl. Their relationship devolves as he vetoes her fabric choices at Mood and treats her with general condescension for most of the rest of the episode.

Now, I myself have to admit that my own taste doesn’t agree with most of Qristyl’s choices in fabric and color. She does seem prone to emphatic fashion statements when it comes to prints and color, and if she has an Achilles’ heel, it would be that her work lacks subtlety. However, with such a pleasant nature, she seems reasonable, and I think that dissent, when expressed respectfully, is taken into plus-serious consideration. You can see this in her casting video, where she thoughtfully accepts critiques from Tim and the audition panel with grace and deference.

Epperson, on the other hand, appears very outwardly motivated in this episode. It almost seems like he believes that if he follows Qristyl’s lead or surrenders to her taste, he’ll come under fire. Perhaps he never saw the episode of Season 2 where they send Daniel Franco home for his faulty vision, and allow his team members to stay for their hard work. I was also reminded of something else from Epperson’s pre-“Runway” Closet Tour. Both he and Qristyl were the only designers who referenced the labels of the clothes and shoes in their closets.

Qristyl's Frazier's design on episode three of Project Runway

With Qristyl, it seems like the brand names help her to distinguish the garments of quality from the others. Conversely, Epperson appears to rattle off the names on the labels as a big old endorsement of his own taste. (BTW, for the record, it’s pronounced “CHEH-zah-ray-pah-CHIO-ty.”) By the end of the episode three, we see this team’s entire relationship unravel into total anarchy, and it appears as though they “divorce” creatively.

Epperson reworks the surf look, while poor Qristyl quickly fashions an avant-garde overdress to layer over the bodysuit that we see Epperson sketching earlier in the show. (See photo.) Nina says, it was “a recipe for disaster,” and thank goodness neither of them is punished for their faulty judgment. I do hope, though, that these two designers find a way to apologize and patch things up during the season, because this is certainly not the only team challenge we are going to see.