Nina Garcia Blog
This week, we got an example of why "Project Runway" is such amazing television when it succeeds. When this happens, we are reminded of the incredible value of creativity in our society, and also the fact that fashion is not just a commercial and aesthetic construct of class division, but rather a transformative practical art. And why am I so agog this week? Because Gordana Gehlhausen’s talent (see Gordana's design in Rate the Runway) has finally been recognized and rewarded for excellence. But more on that later. This week we had a truly inventive challenge:
"Take the wedding dresses of these women who have recently been divorced, and transform them into something that celebrates the next season of their lives."
As challenges go, I have to say that this was one that I applaud overwhelmingly. I am always just a little dismayed whenever young women say to me, "Oh I loved your work on 'Project Runway,' and when I get married, you are totally designing my dress!" I’m always flattered. Indeed, I know that what they are trying to say is that they want me to design the most important dress of their lives, but I always tell them that they don’t have to wait until they are engaged to have clothes custom-designed for them. Fashion can enhance every significant life event. I always say, "Call me for graduation day, or the day you win an election, or how about in a time when you really just need to feel special again?" When you think of it, isn’t the day you stop being married a more appropriate time for fashion than the day you begin?
So, yes, it was a great challenge, and we witnessed some truly incredible creative problem-solving on the part of the designers. Shirin had an insurmountable task on many levels. Her divorcee requested something reminiscent of Cher's "Half-Breed" dress, complete with peacock feathers, and the wedding dress that came with her not only had very little yardage, but was constructed out of an un-dyeable polyester. Ever a clever thinker, Shirin realized that she could create surface details and change the appearance of the old dress, by sewing geometric patterns of contrasting thread along the front. "The dream team" suffered this week, with Christopher getting bruised for creating a dress that suggested a roll of bubble wrap, and Epperson going home for creating a "Heidi’s Homeland" dirndl. Note to future designers: She left Germany to come live in America. "Tyrolean chic" never flies on this show.
But Gordana! What an amazing job she did this week! Her client was thrilled with the final product, and she won for the first time in this whole competition. I've been very impressed with her this whole season, because she has very strong construction techniques and she seems to apply them in inventive ways. Also, her ideas seem to get incorporated a lot by of the other designers. It was very impressive in the newspaper episode that she succeeded in creating a dress that didn't use a muslin under-structure. After Tim's adulation during his visit, it was clear that her technique of repetitive folding was showing up in many of the other dresses. It’s hard to tell who started the macrame trend in the room, but Gordana certainly is the only designer who might have been around when the technique was popular the first time, in the Seventies. The dress that she created this week is not only well-constructed and tailored to the body of her client, but her choice to sew together frayed strips of acetate reworks a construction trend from the 18th century in a new way, for today.Again you can see that it’s a compelling idea, because Logan adopted it for the ruffles on the vest of his ensemble this week.
Most importantly, Gordana is a really generous person, and winning this challenge couldn't have been more appropriate. Like these other women, yes, she had been married before, but more significantly, like them, she has come to "Project Runway" to launch a new season of her life. Clearly someone familiar with using her skills toward other people's ends, it is exciting to see her get the opportunity to make clothes that come from her own singular vision. As so many women do, Gordana has had to sacrifice her own dreams for the sake of her family, and it's heartbreaking to see her cry this week when she can't get through to her children on the telephone. However, when she wins the challenge, and remarks that at last people see that she is a designer, and not just a dressmaker, it’s very moving. We not only get the chance to see her transform someone else's life through fashion, but we also get to see fashion transform her. It is all work well done, and I think that she’s a serious contender for the final three. So congratulations, Gordana! Enjoy the last of the immunity, and maybe we'll "see you in Bryant Park."
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."
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."
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.
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!