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Episode 14: The Final

Posted By CaitlinBergmann 4:14am GMT

The judges on the finale of season six of project runway

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.”

Irina Shabayeva and Tim Gunn on the finale of season six of project runway

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.

Irina Shabayeva's design on the finale of season six of project runway

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!


Episode 13: The Oracle

Posted By CaitlinBergmann 5:45am GMT

The final three: Althea, Carol Hannah and IrinaI 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.

Tim Gunn cooks up a Southern meal with Carol HannahFirst 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.

Irina fits her garment onto her model Kalyn HemphillIt 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.

A sketch from Althea Harper's Fashion Week final collectionTo 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!”


Episode 11: "Burden of Proof"

Posted By CaitlinBergmann 4:11am GMT

Presentation of the episode 11 challenge in project runway season six

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.

Althea and Irina in challenge 7 in project runway season six

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.

Logan Nietzel's design in episode 11 challenge in project runway season six

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.