Nina Garcia Blog
Category: "team challenge"
Here we go, kids — Der Ultimaten Heidi Klumische challenge! ”Design something that a model would wear,” and they did it! Most of the designers “showed up to the party,” and thank goodness! I have to say, these folks presented this week some of the better dresses that I’ve seen on the show. Every design that was either safe, or in the top three, delivered the ultimate end that all great clothes promise: a brief encounter with something unattainable that people would love more than anything else to possess for themselves. In my opinion, this is what separates an ordinary garment from true fashion.
But how do you know if the garment has that “unattainable something”? Well, you ask the pantheon what they would wear, and that’s what we had in this week's challenge. Models are essentially ordinary human beings that we have lifted out of obscurity and placed on the acropolis with our culture gods, all because they look so divine. As much as I give her a hard time for always saying it, whether or not Heidi is willing to wear something, or better yet, buy something, does actually indicate how fashionable that design is. This is a woman whose image is broadcast around the world every time she dresses up like an angel. It’s very difficult to see her as anything other than a creature of the supernatural realm. And if you think I’m wrong, don’t take my word for it — ask your husband or boyfriend what he thinks.
When Heidi says “I would never wear that,” it is just as if Juno or Isis, or more aptly, Frigga has just hurled a bolt of lightning from the sky, reducing the dress in question to a pile of cinders. We see her each week as a culture goddess literally sitting in the high seat, deciding which clothes can accurately be deemed the raiments of the gods. That’s why, when Heidi comes down from her throne and reaches up to bestow not one, but two valedictory kisses on the eliminated, it is incredibly poignant. She simultaneously elevates and rejects that week’s designer in one symbolic gesture, all the while promising to “see them again.” Dude. She giveth, AND she taketh away. Kneel, mortals.
Before we get into the ins and outs of this week’s challenge, let’s take a moment to recognize the designers who didn’t even make it to the banks of the river Styx this week. At the top of my list is Ra’mon You-Were-Robbed Lawrence. This was truly a stunning dress, and one that I think would absolutely turn heads at any influential party in Los Angeles. (See design on left in photo.) It has an incredible color and an astonishing focal point that also wraps around the body. Not only does it have a well-defined focus, but this design acknowledges the fact that clothing is sculpture and must function in all three dimensions. Similarly, Shirin Askari’s design gives the viewer something to look at when the model arrives, as well as when she leaves. (See design on right in photo.) Last, but certainly not least, we must recognize Gordana Gehlhausen’s goddess minidress, which adeptly evoked the immortals with its golden hue and her woven suggestion of a breast plate. (See design in middle in photo.) Truly, it is a divine dress. But that is also why all of these designers didn’t find themselves on the pillory this week. They clearly have more to show us, and so the gods have extended their life spans.
In defense of the winner, I’m sure that a lot of you bemoaned Althea Harper's winning with her sportswear ensemble this week. The short answer is that this ensemble received the most “I would wear thats” from the pantheon. Remember, if you can get a majority of the gods to want to wear your clothes, then they qualify as fashion. More significantly, as we narrow down the playing field, we must remember that we are in search of a Great American Designer, and the greatest American designers have always been sportswear designers. Yes, there are famous American gown-makers, like James Galanos and certainly episode four guest judge Marc Bouwer. But they are outnumbered immeasurably by notable American sportswear designers like Calvin Klein, Halston, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan. And that doesn’t even take into account the American designers like Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs and Rick Owens, who are famous for their work in sportswear abroad.
Our ability as Americans to “make things work” comes from our dressing custom of “mixing and matching” and putting together outfits. It is a tradition that breathes life into any wardrobe, and one that ensures that stylists like Jen Rade will be gainfully employed throughout this Great Recession. This is why Althea won this week, and why the winner of the season will most likely be a gifted sportswear designer. Sportswear is what Americans do best, and nobody does it better.
Finally, farewell, dear, dear Qristyl Frazier. Boy, was that tough! When I heard guest judge Jen Rade’s biting retort that “thank god” Valerie “is not a designer,” I realized that I had falsely assumed that if the models were willing to wear it, then of course it must be a design worthy of the gods. What an extraordinary reversal it was when Rade’s remark bluntly informed us that the models on this show are “goddesses in training” and don’t yet deserve a place on the acropolis (at least not until they get that big photo spread in Marie Claire). More to the point, what a clear example this simple black dress is of the difference between true fashion and ordinary garments! Unlike the dress that Qristyl had begun in the workroom, this dress was a functional garment that without question made Valerie presentable, but alas, it still fell short in the surprise department. (See photo.)
If only it was able to evoke that effervescent plus-something that Qristyl herself possesses, and that makes her someone I so desperately want to succeed! But, as I have said before, Qristyl always seems to learn from her mistakes, and looking at her most recent collection, I think she’s made some smart advances. Furthermore, as with all veterans of this Wagnerian Cycle, remember that Qristyl is alive, well and plus-searchable on the Internet. Give her a click, and buy something. Show her that you believe that there’s room for plus-sexy in the pantheon.
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.
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.
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.