Let’s start with the obvious: Yes, I am the Joanna Coles to John Teti’s Tim Gunn, a jarring substitute to a singular personality who’s become beloved for his work with Project Runway—and for many of you, that could be a deal-breaker, though I hope that’s not the case, with me or the show. Like Tim, John isn’t the right fit for Project Runway All-Stars: Just as Tim’s established relationship with the designers could potentially color his advice to them—not to mention he’s busy filming season nine—John’s dislike for All Stars, as he wrote about last week, and general reality-show fatigue would keep him from crafting the best nicknames and owl gags possible. I may not share Tim-John’s ability to turn a phrase, but like the marzipan-nibbling Joanna, I am invested in All Stars. I enjoyed last week’s premiere, bargain-basement production and all, more than I have the last few seasons of regular PR for one simple reason: The designs were excellent.
I was talking with Teti about this, and we agreed that All-Stars might end up being a bit of a litmus test for fans of the franchise. Those who enjoy the show as a quality reality competition, with all the attention to pacing, editing, and sadism from the producers that implies, might be put off by All Stars’ janky visuals and kid-gloved treatment of its contestants; those who watch the show mainly for the pretty clothes and the occasional standout personality should love All Stars, which so far has had, on average, the best-looking collection of garments this show has sent down the runway in several years, at least for this early in the season. The judges may have been soft-pedaling their critiques, or they might have just been reacting honestly to a bunch of clothes that were, for the most part—cough-Sweet P-cough—worthy of more praise than criticism (within the context of the show, obviously). I have no doubt that Isaac Mizrahi can bring the cattiness just as well, if not better than Michael Kors—and hopefully with less self-congratulation—if provoked; but considering the decent-to-crap ratio of the usually crap-heavy unconventional-materials challenge, I like to think the judges were responding honestly to an excellent turnout from a notoriously difficult challenge.
Somewhat ironically, the designers seemed to struggle more with tonight’s much easier challenge: Create a high-glamour, couture-inspired ballgown for a night at the opera. Well, “easier” in that they’re not using mop heads and umbrellas for material; but as is often the case with Project Runway, a vaguely defined challenge can be the downfall of designers with a less-defined vision. This wasn’t quite “use your HP digital suite to make something that kinda represents New York City, I guess,” but it did basically boil down to “make a pretty dress.” Then again, when one of your judges is the founder of Marchesa—where pretty dresses go to breed and make even prettier dresses—and your guest judges are the fur-trimmed sequined hydra that is Badgley-Mischka, high glamour is pretty much the order of the day. This obviously wasn’t going to be a sportswear challenge, which put more ready-to-wear designers like Kara and Mondo at a disadvantage, and gave Austin the spotlight the producers have been planning for him since they booked him on this show and posed him 3 feet in front of everyone else in the promotional photos.
Look, I love Austin. He is to early-period Project Runway what Mondo is to late-period Project Runway, a perfect blend of memorable personality, a definitive style, and consistent execution. Yes, his Scarlett O’Hara shtick hasn’t aged that well, but he is the PR prototype, and aside from maybe Jay McCarroll (Jay! I miss you Jaaaay!), he is the producers’ best bet at roping longtime-but-lapsed PR fans into All Stars. And, well, he kinda stunk it up last week, especially considering the whole Legend Of Austin Scarlett is pretty much predicated on the unusual-material challenge. Now, I’m not saying that the producers tailored this challenge specifically for Austin, but outside of a “make a dress inspired by Austin Scarlett’s hairstyle” challenge, they couldn’t have handed him an easier win.
And the designers seem to know it: Mondo frets, “this is definitely not my strong point,” and Kara worries about achieving a “pa-poom” moment, like that’s a thing, while Austin preens, “The first season of Project Runway, they called me the King Of Couture.” Only Michael C., in an odd display of backbone, seems to think he has a chance, because he “grew up with opera,” like Pavarotti and Bocelli, and probably some other stuff… there was an opera scene in Pretty Woman, right? See, TOTAL opera fan! Rami, and to a lesser extent Gordana are left out of the discussion completely, which is somewhat odd considering their aesthetics are at least ballgown-adjacent. But there is no room for detours or surprises on Project Runway All Stars; this is not about creating suspense or even much in the way of drama—April and Michael’s “but I wanted to make a red dress” scuffle was over faster than I could stifle a yawn—but rather about getting to the damn runway show so we could see some damn pretty dresses, damnit.
After 30 minutes of sketching, the designers head to Mood to pick their fabrics without the help of “mentor” Joanna OR Swatch the dog. What’s an all-star season without Swatch, the biggest Project Runway star of them all? It’s left to Mila to give everyone their 15-minute warning, so Kara can ring up her pastel duvet cover, Michael can decide which trim is going to comprise 50 percent of his dress, and Anthony can pull on his complimentary “Thank You Mood” T-shirt and they can all head back to… 1407? Yes, legendary fashion-design hub 1407.
Once there, Joanna sidles in with a tentative “Houu-iii everybody,” then wanders around giving helpful critiques like, “I like the color scheme, I have faith in you, you’ll be great.” Actually, I kid; despite the fact that Joanna can’t be bothered to grace the designers with her presence either at Mood or the day of the runway show, I think she does give some good, though boring, advice. Unlike Tim, who approaches his critique from a place that’s half shrewd, what-will-the-judges-like conjecture and half touchy-feely be-true-to-you-isms, Joanna take a no-nonsense, editorial approach to the designers’ creations: How will Anthony keep his all-white dress from looking like a bridal gown? How is Kara going to make her pastel print evening wear instead of bridesmaid wear? Does Michael C. realize that women have nipples that might need to be covered up?
After retreating to Not-Atlas Apartments to drink champagne and talk producer-prompted shit about their fellow contestants—Austin says Michael C’s dress is “too celebrity and not enough socialite,” Kenly says Kara needs to get it together because Kenly is the model of having-it-togetherness and knows these kind of things—the designers return to glamorous 4170 to prep their models. Michael C.’s styling choices had me scribbling “Kardashian” in my notes long before Isaac invoked the name during judging, but it became clear during the runway show that the little shit was going to succeed despite himself, just as he did all through his season. Whereas last week Michael came off worse in his and April’s material mind-meld, this week his seemingly baffling decision to trash his idea of a red dress for black matte jersey—the most glamorous fabric of them all!—worked in his favor, while April chose to basically drag her beautiful red fabric through the mud in an ill-considered attempt to create an ombre effect. What she got was stained fabric, paired with an odd, unflattering bodice that certainly earned her her place in the bottom three.
Thankfully, Team Hideous Print was around to distract from April’s caked-dried-blood creation, an unfortunately literal interpretation of her desire to do a “Corpse Bride” kinda gown. (Though Kenly should be thanking her lucky headband that her ’80s Quinceanera Barbie dress didn’t land on the chopping block.) Despite the fact that both Isaac and either-Badgley-or-Mischka had tentatively nice things to say about Kara and Sweet P’s prints—either of which could have easily been turned into “cool” scrubs for a dental hygienist in the ’80s and ’90s, respectively—they were not utilized well, with unimaginative (though admittedly well-constructed, though that’s less of an asset with this group than in a normal season) silhouettes that made it look like the fabric wandered into the wrong dress. Based on simple “the worst design goes home” criteria, April should have been aufed—or, in Nega-Heidi’s case, “generic goodbye-d”—but the specter of Sweet P’s hideous washcloth dress from last week clinched her fate.
And speaking of fate: Austin’s ability to make gold lamé and black tulle tasteful—or “modest” if you’re Isaac—earned him the win, as was written in the long-ago. But it wasn’t the knock-it-out-of-the-park showstopper it could—and should—have been. (And the fact that his lamé wasn’t properly steamed would not have gone unnoticed by Nina Garcia.) Either Anthony’s sorta-slutty asymmetrical white Grecian drape or Michael C.’s even-sluttier feathered-cowl concoction could have grabbed the win, but this episode needed a narrative, and that narrative certainly wasn’t going to be Michael Costello usurping Austin Scarlett on a ballgown challenge. A safe-but-pretty outcome for a safe-but-pretty challenge probably isn’t going to convert anyone who wasn’t into All Stars last week, but at least April’s still around to scowl through next week’s sure-to-be-absurd “design a dress for Miss Piggy” challenge.
• I hope we get a real “couture” challenge down the road. As Anthony shrewdly notes, “We’re insulting the world of couture by even using that word to describe this challenge.” And while nothing made on Project Runway could really approach the realm of real couture, I’d happily give any of these designers $500 and three days to make something spectacular… as long as it’s not on stilts.
• “It sucks to be in the bottom, it makes me feel like some kinda loser.” If the shoe fits, Sweet P.
• Mila wants her model to channel Angelina Jolie, that paragon of style known for wearing only boring black evening gowns.
• Nega-Heidi bites one of Heidi’s signature moves, the flirtatious “I would love to wear this dress, call me!” game she does with Michael C. Don’t front, Nega-Heidi, nobody wants to talk to Michael C. if they don’t have to.
• Leather opera-length gloves? That Neiman-Marcus accessory wall is getting kinky.