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By kim_messina Fri., Sep. 13, 2013 ,4:49 am EDT

We all saw it coming: the BELK challenge. It did, however, take me by surprise just as much as it did the designers when they were brought to a lovely southern style brunch at Juliette restaurant. They all knew too well that when Heidi announced they had "the morning off," it meant something was up. There is no such thing as "time off" in ProjectRunwayLand! As they brunched away, the designers were wondering the entire time what their fate would be (not exactly relaxing, but hey, they probably had some yummy food for a change). When Tim emerges, they knew their down time had come to an end.

I must admit I bristled a bit when I heard the details of the challenge: to design a look for the Belk customer, a "modern, Southern woman," "vibrant and expressive," "put together, with feminine details." While I think Tim very well described a southern woman, this is not my target customer, so I could relate to the designers who struggled with wrapping their heads around this, like Helen and Alexandria. I personally hated it when "Project Runway" challenges were so specific, because it would prevent the designer from being whom he/she is completely and therefore doing his/her best work while in the competition. I donʼt necessarily think that the talent and success of a designer is measured by how well she/he adapts to such challenges or "designs for a client" if what the client wants is completely opposite from the designerʼs style. In reality, a client is likely going to hire a designer whose signature style she relates to.

Nevertheless, Belk is a sponsor and this season seems to be all about sponsors! John Thomas, a judge on this weekʼs panel and bigwig at Belk (and doppelganger in pink for Jeremy!), tells the designers that the winning look will be manufactured and sold at Belk (and again, not a penny of profits shall be given to the designer). Does this mean the winner of "Project Runway" Season 12 will be someone who can design for Belk, a.k.a. the modern, Southern woman?

KEN's deep purple gown was too plain, too safe, and lacked any sort of point of view; weʼve all seen it before. Last week his design was equally boring, so I was sure he would be eliminated this challenge, especially after his montage of "finest moments" and Skype to Mom. He was safe, but at least the judges are starting to catch on to his attitude problem. His cockiness was on fire again in this challenge, and I couldnʼt help but get a little enjoyment out of seeing him fail after being so certain he was nailing it (and so certain others were making bad choices), being from the South and all.

HELEN knew this challenge was not in her wheelhouse, so she made something which no one would ever guess came from her (an example of what I mentioned earlier, and a waste of a design for her...but at least she made it through safely). The yellow and white daisy gown was not very modern, but I could see a southern belle appreciating it. How annoying was it that she was pissed off she wasnʼt in the top, though? Honey, just be appreciative. Someone is greedy after her last win!

Thank goodness JUSTIN took Timʼs advice and abstained from using black with coral. Indeed, it would have been too "Halloween." His little dress was fine, but nothing groundbreaking and a tad sloppy considering it was so simple. I could definitely see a southern woman buying it, though, so Justin survives another challenge, post-Tim Gunn Save.

ALEXANDER is one of three designers who used plaid, even though Ken thinks the southern woman would never wear it. His dress was well-fit as usual, and that particular plaid was lively and happy which is perfect for the southern market. I am not a fan of the layered pointy kerchief hems though.

ALEXANDRIA was understandably completely thrown by the parameters of the challenge, but she kept her game face for her competitors. I can relate the most to her style, so I know what she was going through. I do think she could have selected a more vibrant textile. The dress wasnʼt bad at all, but it could have been much better suited for the challenge had it perhaps been a vibrant red or ultramarine blue, or more of a statement print. Iʼm sure she was extremely relieved to be safe.

BRADON wins the challenge by using plaid as well, which Ken is clearly livid about. I was not a fan of his very "Brooks Brothers" Madras fabric choice, but he utilized it in an interesting way, with all the panels, seaming, and shirt-style bodice. The mullet hem is a bit tired, but was dramatic for the runway; it will be interesting to see how the design team at Belk modify it.

JEREMY's try as he may, still cannot design anything modern or youthful. This is very problematic for what the judges are looking for (design that is forward, or even somewhat current), and even more problematic that he doesnʼt see this (he has made it very clear every time that he doesnʼt agree with the judges). Everything about the outfit was mature and lacking any distinct point of view, from the print selection to the bland jacket to the cut of the dress.

KATE selected a very vibrant print. I thought she might win just based on that when I saw it in Mood; she was a runner up. While it might not be my idea of a fabulous print, I think many women in this target market would love it. The dress in the end was cute. I really like the way she utilized the solid raspberry to break it up a bit. However, the waist was not sitting in the right place on the model, so it made her look big.

DOM's teal green and periwinkle gown was forgettable, again; it lands her in the bottom 3. Nothing about it was modern or fashionable, and the colors donʼt work well together. The flutter cap sleeve looks dated.

But WAIT! For some reason, this week, the judges feel compassionate. They cannot decide who should be eliminated and feel that none of the bottom three designers "really understood the challenge." They are all given one more hour, access to any fabrics laying around in the workroom, AND a teammate of their choosing, to rework their disasters. On the contrary, I think all three of them VERY MUCH understood the challenge, and all were quite confident in their designs! Ken and Dom, in particular, seemed to think they knew what southern women like to wear much more than their competitors. Iʼm still trying to figure out why the producers wanted this twist to happen.

The results were infinitely better. Ken chooses Kate to assist him, and clearly doesnʼt agree with the judgesʼ comments at all, so he is reluctant to change the dress much or make a new one. He whacks off too much of the length and slaps a sleeve onto one side, giving it more of a clubbing vibe than a southern day dress. Jeremy asks Alexander to help him make something more youthful; they scratch his entire first look and make a sundress from one of Alexandriaʼs discarded fabrics. It is certainly a 180 from his original, but isnʼt enough of a distinct or interesting design to keep him in the competition. He is chosen over Ken for elimination, unfortunately, because while both of them need to be gone, we have to endure Kenʼs personality for another episode! Dom, with the help of Helen, makes a fantastic asymmetric sundress out of the wonderful black and white printed silk she had originally chosen in Mood; I was disappointed that she did not use it the first time. The dress looks great from all angles, and though some of the draping looks rushed (because they had ONE HOUR), the overall effect is so strong that she ends up being Winner #2! Shocker!

What do you think? Is it unfair for the three bottom designers to get second chances and for one of them to then win because of it?