Let us now praise Project Runway, the reality show that survives. The “all-teams” season last year seemed to be a death knell for the series. But so did the move to Lifetime from Bravo, the change of production companies, the Los Angeles season, the second-rate All Stars spinoff, Michael Kors’ departure, and countless other transgressions against the Project Runway legacy. Yet here’s Heidi Klum, a more poised and charming host than ever, presiding over a show that likewise feels comfortable in its own skin. Project Runway season 13 is not hampered (so far) by cringeworthy stunts or jarring reinventions of the format; it’s a tastefully modernized version of the original that may no longer possess its youthful spark but also has come through countless mid-life crises with its soul intact.
That’s a remarkable feat. After all, Project Runway’s own motto—“one day you’re in; the next day, you’re out”—speaks to the fickleness of the public. And the producers at Bunim/Murray may have bought into that philosophy with too much vigor, continually revamping the program in a vain effort to stay one step ahead of their viewers’ tastes. Ten years removed from its premiere, though, Project Runway seems to have taken a lesson from the career of erstwhile judge Michael Kors: You can be successful even if your work is a bit predictable. And so we have a show that is content to be what it always has been, a mostly farcical, partly earnest slurry of drama, competition, and design. It may be a faded version of its former self, but so is everyone, with time. If only we could all age this gracefully.
I don’t mean to say that today’s Project Runway is free of innovation. I love the addition, for instance, of blue words that attack the designers in their apartments, this show’s equivalent of the Press Your Luck “Whammy.” As the designers helpfully set up this episode’s storylines—Sean and Alexander were in the bottom three last time and are looking to make a comeback—they are besieged by words. Poor “AMANDA” takes one right on the chin, and the vicious letters appear to have done a number on her jeans, as well. Gotta watch out for all those pointy “A”s.
The designers are trucked down to a local Red Robin restaurant, home of America’s unhealthiest meal, where they’re greeted by Tim Gunn and the somewhat less vertical Jason Rusk. Rusk is Red Robin’s “vice president of brand transformation”; even his title has a Napoleon complex. Standing near a parking sign that says “violators will be dipped in ranch dressing”—Red Robin, you are the living end!—Rusk explains to a group of fashion designers that his restaurant has over 24 burgers to choose from. Tim starts to say “Wow!” but Rusk keeps his patter steamrolling along, as he has a brand to transform. “We’re always looking to put a twist on things,” he continues. “You want a burger topped with a slice of grilled pineapple or a fried egg on top? Not a problem.” (This is an exhaustive list of the things that are not a problem for Red Robin.) The designers struggle to contain their awe, but they manage:
After Rusk unleashes his last Red Robin stunner—“We even have a burger for people who don’t eat meat!”—it is time to ignore him and get on with a challenge that, in a strange but commendable turn, has nothing to do with the sponsor. A murderer’s row of terrible vintage suits appears before the designers. Their challenge is to craft a high-fashion look from one of these thrift-store monsters.
Sandhya, having won last week’s challenge with a dress that envisioned the future as a series of tubes, gets to pick not only her own suit but also the suits for her competitors. She sweetly endeavors to choose outfits that match each designer’s style, with mixed success. Amanda mutters, “Stop, stop” as Sandhya drifts down the line, and then “I knew it, I knew it” when Sandhya makes her choice, a pink tux with a floral pattern. Amanda wears a mask of resignation at this development, clearly annoyed that cretinous Sandhya does not understand Amanda’s refined sensibility. She complains in a testimonial, “If you said, ‘Amanda, what is the last pattern on the face of the planet that you would like to work with?’ I’d say, ‘Probably, like, pink and floral.’” Interesting. I’d go with swastikas, but sure, pink flowers are pretty bad, too. I guess Amanda just loves swastikas.
Then Sandhya pins a couple thousand more nametags on suits. Project Runway often kicks off a season, as it did this year, by having Heidi dismiss a few designers right off the bat before they even get a chance to compete. It’s like how train conductors used to let passengers shoot bison out the window. The producers have Heidi pick off a few easy marks to quell her ravenous bloodlust after the long hunger of the inter-season hiatus. This settles her down and allows her to concentrate on the production. Anyway, I bring this up only to suggest that they let Heidi vanquish a couple more season-premiere bison next time. Because holy crap did it take a long while to hand out those nametags.
The final nametag to be pinned is Hernan’s, and he’s assigned a beige suit with brown trim. “I’m very want to kill her,” he observes in a testimonial, but to Sandhya’s face, he merely says, “I know where you live.” Sandhya is quick with a reply: “You don’t want to go there.” Sandhya is like season eight’s Michael C. but with a backbone in place of endless sobbing. Many of her fellow designers want to beat up on her, but she doesn’t take it. She’s a quiet badass, and I’m rooting for her to stick around for a while, even if her design sense is a bit crafty.
After a sketching session in the inspirational environs of Red Robin, it’s off to Mood. “Ohhhhhhhgohbwottamigonnadooooooo?” inquires Amanda in the van, but once she’s at Mood, she has a eureka moment: “My idea just changed in my head. Ooh, I love when that happens!” she says. Nobody is around, so this narration of her fascinating mental process—you mean ideas can change?—is solely for the benefit of the camera. A retread from season 11, Amanda was very ready to be back on reality TV.
Back in the workroom, Mitchell whines about his impossible plight, casting blame on Sandhya just as the producers had hoped. “Allegedly, she gave us our looks because she feels like they actually look like us,” he says, “and if that’s the case, then I look like a hobo in a cheap suit.” He is aware that all of the suits were cheap, right? That’s not entirely a rhetorical question.
Korina discovers that Kristine, like her, is making a motorcycle jacket, which is apparently their term for a boring jacket that employs zippers in lieu of ideas. And indeed, they are both making “motorcycle jackets.” Korina is pissed—first the slightly unorthodox “K” in her name, and now this? Kristine is really cramping her style. “What’s your collar?” Kristine asks. Korina: “I don’t know. I haven’t done it yet. So not yours, that’s what it will be.” According to the editors, Kristine reacts by locking eyes with Amanda and sharing an unspoken “What’s the deal with HER desire for originality?”
In the sewing room, the tension between Sandhya and Hernan reaches a boiling point. “You’re not nice,” she says.
Tim visits, and on his way into the workroom, the blue words sneak in for another attack. BEGONE, INFERNAL NOUNS! HAVE YOU NOT CAUSED ENOUGH SORROW FOR ONE EPISODE? Still, the designers bravely soldier on. In his visit with Alexander, Tim worries that the young Chicago designer is trying too hard. Alexander is still wounded from the harsh judgments of the previous episode—the “make something for the future” challenge—when the judges rained verbal blows upon his earthy brown dress. While it wasn’t a stunner, that look didn’t deserve all the harsh criticism: Alexander was the only one who imagined a post-apocalyptic future, and the rough ecological aesthetic he chose was a decent elaboration of that concept. What he didn’t realize was that the judges were unwilling to accept any vision of the future other than the “Everything Is Awesome” song from The Lego Movie, and now his confidence is shaken.
Tim says of Mitchell’s half-finished dress, “You’re on your way, but it’s only part of a look.” Mitchell agrees. “It’s only part,” he says, and then he trails off as his nervous smile melts into an empty gaze of despair. As he returns to consciousness, he adds, “Very much only part.”
Alexander’s brown first-person-shooter vibe from last week has migrated this week to Sean’s dress form, where Sean is deciding whether to assemble his dress inside-out with the seams showing or to go with a cleaner look. “Boring Sean says this side,” he says as he looks at the back of his material. Tim considers this and replies, “Do you know something? I think Boring Sean says the back because it is boring.” I know, right? It is just like Boring Sean to say something like that. Boring Sean is so—I can’t find the right word, but you know.
In a testimonial, Hernan does an impression of the “hate it” face Tim makes when he first sets eyes on Hernan’s dress. And it’s not bad! The impression, I mean. See:
As for the dress, it is dreadful. Tim tries to tell Hernan as much, but it doesn’t fully register. Then we blaze through short clips of all the other designers who aren’t going to be in the top or bottom, so the show doesn’t care about them this week. There’s Samantha, for instance, who is a contestant on the 13th season of Project Runway, and Char, who is also that as well.
Kini finishes his look with two hours to spare on the first day, so he just lazes in the lounge, nosing around for some of those “bottomless fries” he’s heard so much about. In a testimonial, Mitchell says of Kini, “Just because you’re quick doesn’t mean you can design.” This is true, but not all quick designers are necessarily bad designers. Set theory was never Mitchell’s favorite subject in math class.
Later, Mitchell tries to judge whether his dress is too short by lying on the floor and attempting to glimpse his model’s vulva.
Hair and makeup time arrives. The Hair Product Brand I’ve Never Heard Of hair stylist offers to make Amanda’s model look like “she’s been running is a garden.” I would like my hair to look like that every day. Meanwhile, in makeup, there is Amazing Mustache Makeup Guy. Project Runway may change, but it’s nice to know that he is a constant. While Kristine is making important makeup decisions, her model can only think of one thing: DAT MUSTACHE.
The closing minutes of the designers’ work time are vicious. Hernan gets blood on his dress. Sean explains to his model that his coarsely finished dress is “meant to look like it’s been attacked. By a pack of dogs.” Don’t worry, Sean, it will be.
For the runway show, Mitchell keeps his measuring tape around his neck in case he has a measuring emergency. You never know. Heidi introduces the guest judge, “YouTube sensation Bethany Mota.” Everyone stops listening after “YouTube sensation.”
The contours of Char’s periwinkle top suggest that it fell down the stairs on the way to the runway show. The too-tight skirt doesn’t help, nor does the the bow, which is executed on a scale rarely seen in non-Lexus-Christmas-commercial contexts. There’s nothing flattering about Char’s look, but her model shows admirable poise as a Muppet porpoise tries to eat her head.
It’s baffling that Fäde’s look doesn’t crack the top three—it’s a strong candidate for the outright win, in fact. The silhouette here is more provocative and interesting than in any of his competitors’ looks, and his decision to complement the plaid with other simple, loud patterns is a daring and inspired choice. The only thing I can say in the judges’ defense is that this might be the rare garment that looks more striking on TV than it does in person, as the tight lines and dots create a moire effect on the screen, lending an added vibrance to the patterns.
Mitchell’s look comes out better than expected. His suit’s fabric couldn’t have looked more dead, and he managed to bring it to life, somewhat, with all that shiny vinyl. Yes, the stain-preventing plastic layer makes the model look a bit like the couch that belongs to your grandmother who lives upstate, but the original suit resembled the couch that the same grandmother finally put on the curb this year. So it’s an upgrade.
Alexander, Kini, and Amanda make up the top three. Alexander doesn’t deserve to be there. This dress is okay. The neckline has the look of a reappropriated cummerbund, but it’s fine. Even the judges struggle to muster raves for it. Heidi teases Alexander during the critiques by asking him, “Do you think you’re high or low today?” Alexander says, “I’m praying to God that I’m high.” Then he thinks for a moment and hastens to add, “That I have a high score.” Good thing he clarified himself, as drug use is strictly forbidden on Project Runway, with special dispensation given to Nina “Quaalude Queen” Garcia.
Kini does more to earn his top-three spot. The understated lines of the bodice initiate an elegant downward flow that dovetails beautifully in the immaculate pleats of the skirt. Kini stands out as one of the few designers who used his suit as a source of both fabric and inspiration, which is a brave move when you’re practically dealing with a zoot suit.
I view Amanda’s rise to the upper echelon of this season’s group with suspicion, as her aesthetic, bearing, and fawning treatment by the judges have the whiff of Gretchen 2.0. But I have no complaints about this dress. (Okay, one complaint: That fringe doesn’t need to touch the ground.) It has an effortless retro hotness to it, and the arrangement of the fringe extends the geometry of the bodice while also loosening up the whole composition. Like Fãde, Amanda decides that one garish fabric deserves another, but unlike Fâde, she does so in full color.
Guest judge Bethany tells Amanda, “I am so impressed with this,” and Amanda gives her an “Aren’t you sweet?” face, the kind you use when you’re praised by someone whose opinion you don’t care about. “I think it’s obvious that what you had to work with was not ideal,” Bethany says, shrewdly identifying the stated premise of the challenge.
Although Korina’s look didn’t exactly dazzle anyone, Kristine is the loser of the motorcycle-jacket sweepstakes, as she finds herself in the bottom three with Sean and Hernan. “I guess the pants don’t look that bad,” she guesses, wrongly. Her almost-jumpsuit is designed for the modern working woman, specifically the modern working woman who smuggles office supplies in her crotch. Organza accents at the bottom of the pants flap around as the model walks, a motion that evokes the romance of a dilapidated screen door banging against a shed.
Sean says of his design, “I know my look is not the strongest, but my model is really working it,” and he’s correct on both counts. This is a mediocre effort that starts with the idea of deconstruction and ends there, too, elaborating on nothing. But his model absolutely sells it, and by the time she retreats backstage, I’m almost a believer.
As such, I don’t think this dress deserves all the stick it gets from the judges. Posen says the top looks like “peeling skin,” which is an okay zinger, but I can hear Michael Kors yelling at the screen. (“Christ, kid, at least make it a cheap whore’s peeling skin!”) Meanwhile, Nina criticizes the shabbiness of the look, which inexplicably leads Sean to explain the concept of deconstruction by way of real and invented synonyms: “Clearly, I intentionally left it raw. It’s deconstructing a suit. It’s unconstructed.” The judges bristle at this lesson, and Heidi sneers, “I think we understand that. … It’s not our first day here.” Heidi loves when the designers get uppity. It provides relief for her aching talons.
In the judges’ private session, Posen assesses Sean’s progress in the competition thus far and declares, “I’m very concerned.” His face cycles through countless expressions as he searches for the particular configuration of facial muscles that might convey the human emotion of concern. The search ends in failure.
There’s no need for Posen to be so fake-worried about Sean, at least for this week, because Hernan’s Project Runway career was over the instant his model emerged from behind the scrim. The dress manages to fit an astonishing number of unflattering shapes into one silhouette. There’s the big brown “X” across the breasts, an apparent tribute to the scene from The Big Lebowski where nihilists dance around with giant scissors. There are the severe points of brown on the half-lapels, which make this dress the perfect choice for your next Romulan bridal shower.
And then there is that “V.” As the judges consider this element of the design, Nina observes, “It looks like she’s the vagina superhero.” I asked my friend and Gameological colleague Derrick Sanskrit what he thought “the vagina superhero” might look like, and an hour later, this landed in my inbox:
During the runway show, Hernan once again blames the material for exposing his lack of talent, going so far as to say, “Fucking polyester—thank you, Sandhya, again, bitch.” He appears to realize that he’s crossed a line, and he puts on a nervous grin, the way men do when they need to apologize but are also men. His compatriots try to join the grin squad, too, but Sandhya quite rightly is having none of it. She first gives Hernan the finger and then flatly says, “Don’t ever speak to me like that again.” Hernan looks not just abashed but downright frightened when Sandhya says this. Damn straight.
Hernan tries to defend himself by claiming that the suit material was prone to come apart. “I’m more about fitting,” he says, under the adorable illusion that this explains anything. He turns his model around so that he might draw the judges’ attention to one of the worst shapes fabric could possibly make, and also there’s a stain. Even Jezebel comment-thread trolls look at this and say, “Okay, that’s gross.” Strangely, Nina says, “This, from the back, looks very spot-on and beautiful.” Beautiful, no. Spot-on? In a sense, yes.
After the contestants leave, Posen tugs at the fabric and declares, “It is strong, strong, strong,” like he’s the chairman of the National Polyester Council. He continues tugging on the dress long after the other judges have lost interest and are deciding what to have for lunch. But that’s par for the course with Posen, who regularly abuses his touching privileges—about 20 percent of his model-groping is arguably necessary in the interest of fashion criticism, and the other 80 percent is creepy.
The judges tacitly acknowledge that Alexander only made it to the top three so that Heidi could say he went “from the bottom to the top!” a dozen times. He’s removed from consideration for the win. Yet they remain torn over whether Amanda or Kini should take first prize. “I’m tossed between the two of them,” Posen says. He makes a juggling motion so that we might imagine a mini-Posen being tossed between the hands of the regular-sized Posen. I also picture another, giant Posen tossing both Posens in his hands, but that is my personal choice.
Amanda is named the winner. “That was really difficult. I worked very, very hard,” she says, perhaps in the hope that the judges will award her a rare SUPER-win. Amanda never misses an opportunity to humbly note how gifted she is, and back in the designer’s lounge, she remarks on the fact that she and Sandhya have both won two challenges now. “It’s on, girl!” Amanda says. Sandhya responds by making a stabbing motion that, halfway through, transforms into a jerking-off motion. Weirdly, it’s the perfect response. Sandhya is great.
Kristine is safe. “Kristine, you’re in. You can leave the runway,” Heidi says. A wave of joy washes over Kristine. “Thank you, thank you,” she says, “I’m really going to try and dig deep next time.” Heidi simply replies, “You can leave the runway.” The word “can” is only there for courtesy’s sake, dear. When your presence before The Grand Teuton is no longer required, it is no longer desired.
Hernan is out. Sandhya does not give him a hug. Tim comes back for the Tim Gunn Consolation Moment, except now that Tim has the “Tim Gunn Save,” this exchange has a dark twist. As long as the save is still in play—meaning that Tim can immediately rescue a designer from post-reality-TV oblivion—every kiss goodbye is also a kiss-off, a consolation masking a rejection. Tim says that on every episode, “it’s going to be someone” who leaves, and his silence after this statement indicates that he’s content for that someone to be Hernan. In the end, Project Runway is about surviving, and Hernan, you simply didn’t, bitch.
- The tie pin Zac Posen wears in this episode looks like the thing Janet Jackson had on her nipple for the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction.”
- Nina looks great in glasses. She should wear them more often, not just for the close-up garment inspection segment.
- The music package is much better than it has been in the past—I especially enjoyed the runway show soundtrack—but I think it’s time to finally commission some new music for the final you’re-in-you’re-out judgment.