Nina Garcia Blog
Category: "Irina Shabayeva"
At the moment of this posting I, like the rest of you, do not know who this year’s winner of “Project Runway” Season 6 finale is. In order to preserve the identity of this season’s winner, we bloggers are capturing our impressions, having seen all three collections, but without having seen Heidi make her final pronouncement. However, I must say, no matter what the judges decide, I certainly have a favorite!
. . . And that would have to be Dame Suzy Menkes! What an incredible coup for “Project Runway” to have the head reporter and fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune judging the final episode of the show! Her participation is not only a first, but a significant indication of the influence that “Project Runway” has had on the fashion world. Although we’ve yet to see any “Project Runway” alumnus or alumna covered by style.com or Vogue magazine, if the preeminent voice of fashion journalism shows up to judge this little TV show, it suggests that the work being done here has truly begun to achieve some important recognition.
Given this circumstance, Michael Kors, Nina Garcia and Heidi Klum, in my opinion, would have to be out of their minds if they didn’t award the prize money, fashion spread and Parisian vacation to Irina Shabayeva! This show began as a forum through which we might attempt to identify the next great voices in American fashion design. With this intention in mind, it is hard to believe that anyone in the finale this season even comes close to Irina’s qualifications for this distinction. To begin with, she has a uniquely American story. As an immigrant, she is a living example of what we used to believe was possible in America through focused determination and hard work. These days, even though it seems that “hard work” still requires the added push of national television exposure, Irina stands out as someone who has learned that she must make her own fortune in “the land of opportunity.”
That being said, this is exactly what she delivers to Bryant Park. Unlike the other two designers, Irina explains her point of view at the beginning of her collection. It’s a small distinction that frequently goes unnoticed on “Project Runway.” So often in the finale episodes, the designers come out on the runway, thank their families, talk about the hard work that went into the collection, and then express their hopes that the audience and the judges will like it. Irina, conversely, talks about her point of view. To help us out, she allows the viewers to accompany her in her particular fashion journey, by explaining what she was thinking about and how she imagines the clothes functioning in our lives.
And the best part of it all is that it works. Unlike the other collections, Irina is able to identify one particular central theme, and then present several consecutive manifestations of that theme in evolving variation. We saw her particular brand of “urban protection” played out in numerous ways. There were subtle “Roman legionnaire” references suggested by the felt cloches on the models. There were enormous blanket sweaters designed to luxuriously enfold the wearer and keep any New Yorker warm in the most chilling wind. Yet these sweaters, and all of her outerwear, are simple enough to be the only garments one must discard upon entering a climate-controlled environment. There were enormous bags with chunky metal chains (see photo below) suitable to hold everything a woman might need, in order to be gone from home all day without having the luxury of leaving things in the trunk of a car. And finally, her treatment of the fabrics in her collection evoked the shiny, geometric exoskeletons of insects, but also the shapes of medieval armor. All of these were different approaches to the idea of “protection,” but they were strongly linked through the interlocking use of material, color and construction details.
Finally, Irina deserves to win because her work is current. If you recall, our finalist designers were designing and constructing these clothes in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. Anticipating that these were clothes that would have ideally hit stores right now, in the fall of 2009, Irina somehow managed to capture the severity and gravity of these present times without plunging into a maudlin, Gothic caricature of doom. Through design, she was able to postulate what people might want to buy, right now, given our insatiable thirst for luxury, and the hard financial times that make exhibiting it very unpopular. This, in my opinion, is perhaps the best answer to Nina’s critique of her decision to use an all-black color scheme. A monochromatic color story deflects attention and has got to be the most emphatic endorsement of the idea that “bling is dead.”
So congratulations, Irina! You have done fine work, regardless of whether or not you win the prize. [Editor’s note: Good call, Andrae … Irina won!] There is great satisfaction in knowing that you have set an aesthetic goal for yourself and reached it, and you certainly have. Indeed, if you don’t win (and I think you do), remember that awards are frequently an indication of the fact that you’ve been doing the right thing for a very long time. Keep up the good work!
I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve watched an entire season of “Project Runway,” because I forgot that we don’t go directly to Fashion Week after the last challenge. First, we visit all of the designers at home, with Tim Gunn, and we get a peek at what they’re planning to show during Fashion Week. It’s a crucial point in the design process, because these designers have no outside feedback from anyone else. In my opinion, it still looks like Irina is going to win this one, unless something goes terribly wrong. So far, she’s the only one with a strong, cohesive theme that runs throughout her collection, complete with recurring shapes and design motifs that flesh out her ideas. Oh, and as if that weren’t enough, she always has perfect hair and makeup. (Irina is invincible.) Since we have no runway show in this episode, let’s focus in on what Tim’s critique of these collections says about the dangers that each designer might encounter on the runway. Like the Oracle of Delphi, his feedback is often cryptic, so I will try to demystify some of the things he says.
First up, Tim visits Carol Hannah in a suburb of New York. My favorite moment of this segment was when Tim, with "jazz hands," says “I love a kitchen!” It sounds like “I love to cook,” but I think it’s probably something more akin to “I love picking out a stylish countertop polymer!” Similarly, when he speaks of the clothes, we should be aware of what additional message lies just below the surface. About the collection, Tim says, “You’ve done a lot of pushing. You’ve done a lot of risk-taking.” While there is a positive ring to this comment, there is also a subtle note of caution. I think Tim is responding to the broad number of Carol Hannah’s design motifs here. She’s introduced many different types of appliqués and individual embellishments into the collection, but she has neglected to dig in and develop one or two of them into a statement that unifies the clothes as a group. So when Tim says “a lot of pushing,” he probably wants her to stop trying to wow us with another sewing trick, and to focus those techniques into a statement about her personal view of Fall 2009.
It would be really nice if Irina won, because I don’t remember anyone on “Project Runway” saying that they had a parent in their family that was unsupportive. Irina actually remarks that it would be nice to earn her father’s approval by winning the competition. How many of us have the courage to admit this? For once, we see the reality of what most American parents believe about their children pursuing creative occupations. And this is a girl who made it to Bryant Park! I wonder if the drive to earn this approval is what has made Irina so prolific. In her collection, she has incredible hand-knits, intricate fur construction and even silkscreened textiles, all inspired by the grim specter of the dilapidated roller coasters at Coney Island. It seems that this drive and relentless work ethic is also where Tim’s comment for Irina is aimed. He says that her collection should “not look ‘forced,’ that it should just look as though it’s an easy, natural flow.” This is basically a caution against over-designing. In fact, the only thing I can foresee getting in Irina’s way is if the statement of her collection is too ham-fisted. As the only designer with a cohesive statement, she should be fine, as long as she doesn’t beat the judges over the head with so many design elements that they get exhausted from looking.
To Althea, Tim says “Seeing what you do with knits, it makes me want to see more.” No other comment could be more detrimental to Althea at this moment, because Althea doesn’t know about the incredible knits that Irina has been working on. This advice, if heeded incorrectly, has the potential to produce more of the sweater that Althea was accused of copying from Irina during the show. Irina’s reaction upon seeing Althea’s collection seems to suggest that this is exactly what has happened. What Tim meant, in my opinion, is “I’d like to see more of what you can do with knits, as Althea, and not as Irina.” Indeed, his parting comment to Althea is “Just don’t lose sight of who you are, and edit, edit, edit!” It’s a subtle admonishment for Althea to find the focus for her collection from inside of herself, as opposed to the work of the other contestants or the costume designers of science-fiction films. And that’s it.
Tune in next week when the Oracle says, “THIS IS CRAZY!” Indeed, we get to finally see how it all pans out, and I think we’re in for a doozy. Apparently, it looks like all hell breaks loose, complete with more sobbing and vomiting, the ubiquitous 13th looks, a bit of makeup plagiarism and some very frightened interns from Parsons. But of course, that isn’t what’s intriguing me. Personally, I’m tuning in just trying to figure out what Tim really means when he says, “I am about to lose it!”
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.
This week, Michael Kors met our remaining seven designers down at his West Coast flagship boutique and gave them a window into his design process. As anyone who is aware of his brand will tell you, Michael Kors evokes the luxurious age of the international jet-setter, so it’s no surprise that he chose seven of his favorite destinations as inspiration for our remaining designers. The challenge for episode ten, for them, is to take these locales and do their own interpretation of these places, “whether real or imaginary,” but to also remember to “have fun.” Among their choices are Aspen, St. Tropez, the Greek islands, Manhattan, Palm Beach, Santa Fe and Hollywood.
Now, understanding that this is a challenge coming from Kors, a proven purveyor of classic American sportswear, there is an unwritten mandate that each designer address this idea in some way, or at least not show up with a red-carpet gown. Given the iconic nature of all these places, it should have been simple for each designer to arrive at something that not only resonates with their own design aesthetic, but that also evokes the local color of these regions. However, I have to agree with Irina when she says that the level of creativity in the room seems to have plateaued. Indeed, what happened to everybody this week? Perhaps they are just exhausted, because everything that came down the runway was pretty lackluster.
When Michael Kors gave us a similar challenge in Season 2 of “Project Runway,” I remember people digging deep to try to find unusual sources of inspiration, as well as inventive sewing techniques, to communicate their ideas. One doesn’t have to be Tim Gunn to know that a great designer should be able to find a way to “make it work.” Wowing the judges should still be possible even if, like Logan, you have the misfortune of having to design yet another “Hollywood-inspired” ensemble. There should still be several design stones that have been left unturned, and one would think this would be a chance for the designers to pull out all the stops.
And yet Irina Shabayeva, who is clearly the front-runner in the competition now, does this by going beige. BEIGE. OK, beige with fur, but it’s still beige! (See photo.) It’s clear now that the grand prize is basically hers to lose. Her ensemble for Aspen wins because it is a complete design statement that’s competently executed, even though it’s not much of a surprise. Michael Kors accurately laments that her ensemble is a little too “on the nose” in its homage to 1980s “jet-set style.” Even with the deep cutout in the back, it seems terribly familiar, and could actually be something from a past Michael Kors collection. And yet I think that’s just how far ahead of the pack Irina is. She can waltz in, give us the Aspen look as seen on “Falcon Crest” during the 1985 fall sweeps and still be better off than everyone else. As she says, after three wins, her only competition is herself.
As far as the rest of them go … I wish them well, with the following reservations:
Congratulations: You wisely also did three pieces of sportswear in the Michael Kors Challenge. Clearly you have the skills that we expect from a new voice in American fashion.
Beware: We’ve seen a lot of jackets with tanks. Hopefully this is just a time-crunch thing, and not a pillar of your aesthetic.
Congratulations: You created a classic dress with a slightly unconventional detail. It’s something familiar, with a twist in the bodice (literally).
Beware: We’ve seen a lot of dresses from you. Make sure you do some separates. Fashion empires rise and fall based on the cut of their jackets and pants.
Congratulations: We love you, and we all cheer you on as you find the confidence of your own voice. You continue to infuse your designs with innovative construction.
Beware: I think you barely saved your neck by making sure that incredible crystal necklace could be treated like sportswear and worn with other clothes. The secret to winning this competition is to create sportswear separates. Make sure you address this later.
Congratulations: You made a really nice pair of jeans. This is not an easy thing to do on this show, particularly since there are no laundering facilities.
Beware: Dude. Sleeves? You will most likely need them in the next challenge. You will definitely need them in Bryant Park.
Congratulations: You survived this one, even though you didn’t go Koo-Koo for Kokopelli enough.
Beware: They are all asking, “Why is he still here?” You will need to wow us with the answer. It’s time to shock us, Shakopee!
Congratulations: You showed us you can certainly create sportswear, and you stuck to your aesthetic guns. (See photo.) We’ll still miss you Nicolas Putvinski!
Beware: White is not always right.
And that should do it.May the best woman win!
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!