Has anyone in Project Runway history screwed up as hard as Kenley did in tonight’s episode? Well, yeah, probably, but by the standards of All-Stars, where everyone is seasoned and playing the game and safely catering to the judges’ tastes, she bit it hard tonight. And it’s a shame, because—potentially controversial opinion ahead!—she should have been in the top three based on overall performance, if only because her aesthetic, for as hard as she flogs it, is distinctive and consistent in its design work, much more so than that of Michael, who made another (gorgeously draped, whatever) freakin’ caftan tonight. Like Austin and Mondo, Kenley has a clear, recognizable viewpoint, whereas Michael too often gets caught in the trap of, as Georgina put it tonight, “people-pleasing,” designing something that looks really nice but says nothing about either the wearer or the designer. And yet Michael is going to the final challenge with the other two boys, because Kenley was dumb, dumb, dumb in how she approached this challenge.
And what a challenge! Easily the best of the season. It reminded me of early seasons of Project Runway, when there was at least a half-hearted attempt to demystify fashion as an industry and delve into the various aspects of being a designer, instead of just finding a creative way to incorporate that week’s sponsors/special guest. Not that this week didn’t go out of its way to fawn over special guest judge/mentor/ Bra Police Deputy Officer Nanette Lepore, but it did so within the context of a real-world fashion-design concern: creating a wearable, and more importantly sellable garment within an affordable manufacturing budget. This led to a legitimately fascinating sequence where a “coster” sat down with each contestant to hash out the price point and construction costs of their sketched-out (or in Mondo’s case, doodled-out) designs and present them with a fabric budget. It’s the sort of nuts-and-bolts thing that shouldn’t make for good TV, but I felt a game-show-like sense of anticipation as each contestant was presented with his or her number.
They then got to spend their budget, which ranged from $32 for Mondo’s tin-can-and-string dress to $65 for Austin’s frilly coat-dress, at Lapore’s textile warehouse. Why not Mood? Because the winning design will be sold in, and therefore has to fit the brand of, Nanette Lapore stores, with proceeds going to savethegarmentcenter.org—the episode’s pet cause, which seemed a little awkwardly tacked-on, but fit the spirit of the episode well enough I was willing to overlook it. The fabrics found therein turned out to be a boon to pattern-savant Mondo and idiot-savant Michael, who found a loud green print to bring the drama his design didn’t; a stumbling block to Austin, who picked a retail-friendly fabric that was nonetheless dinged by the judges for its lack of runway pop; and the downfall of Miss Kenley.
I can see why Kenley chose her pale teal peacock print. It’s pretty and flirty and youthful, playing right into her quirky vintage aesthetic while maintaining a modern twist, and it’s eye-catching as all get-out, which a sellable dress certainly needs to be. But it also handcuffed her, first by requiring her to ditch the element of her design Lepore responded most to—a keyhole cutout that would pair oddly with the print—and then by highlighting the fact that she is either unable or unwilling to make her damn print match up.
Look, I understand the designers are under a severe time constraint, and that pattern-matching requires both extra time and extra yardage that Kenley probably did not have at her disposal. But if I’m paying—choke—$380 for this dress, as the coster foolishly assumes I will, I want my damn print to match up. The other two designers who worked with prints designed around them—Mondo by creating a color-blocking effect, Michael by draping—while Kenley designed against hers. It was a rookie mistake, and combined with her apparent backslide into sass-mouthing (being rude to Joanna Coles and Lepore isn’t as egregious an offense as being rude to Tim Gunn, but it’s still dumb) she was acting more like the old Kenley than an all-star. Then again, considering the winning garment tonight was essentially a potato sack, perhaps she was right to ignore Coles’ and Lepore’s concerns about fit.
Alas, Kenley’s slightly-less-fitted-than-usual-but-still-nicely-tailored dress was deemed less desirable to consumers than Mondo’s eye-catching but distressingly square-ish pattern-striped dress and Michael’s navel-and-ass-crack-grazing caftan. (Which, Bra Police Chief Joanna Coles would like to point out while clutching her pearls, cannot be worn with a bra.) These are dresses made for models’ bodies, not everyday women, and in a challenge that theoretically valued showroom appeal over runway appeal, that was suspiciously glossed over—or in the case of Mondo, who won, pretty much ignored.
On a mostly boring runway, Austin came the closest to creating a retail-friendly look that actually looked, you know, designed, though his construction suffered for it. Whereas Mondo, Michael, and Kenley sent down looks that were polished but severely under-designed, Austin’s ambition resulted in a slightly rumpled garment in a dull-looking fabric that nonetheless showed stronger design work than anything else on the runway. Even though his three-way coat dress was a little too fussed-over, as is Austin’s wont, for my money, it should have earned him the win, though I’m happy it was enough to spare him a repeat of his first-season pre-finale elimination. (Somewhere, Nancy O’Dell smirks softly to herself.) Michael was eliminated at the same point in his season—which we actually see in flashback, whereas evidence of Austin’s defeat remains locked away in the Bravo vaults—and he should have been eliminated here. I don’t care how nicely draped or well-cinched that dress was, it’s still a caftan (his second of the season), one of the most intrinsically underdesigned dresses imaginable, in a freakin’ design challenge. If I may borrow a classic Top Chef gripe, this is Project Runway, not Project Caftan!At this point in the competition, his lack of imagination should have been enough to get him sent home, but Kenley’s mismatched seams had other plans.
As in his original season, it’s a bit baffling to see Michael get as far as he has, but as it was then, it’s essentially moot now. Austin and Mondo, Project Runway’s two most notorious runners-up, are in the finals, as we knew they would be. Neither got there without stumbling badly a couple of times, arguably to the point they should have been sent home, but given that they also have two of the franchise’s most memorable—and disparate—design aesthetics, it makes for a good, if predictable, showdown.
- Kenley: “I wonder what we’re going to be doing today?” Mondo: “Probably designing something.” The opening banter on this show just keeps getting more crackling!
- Michael and Mondo call themselves “Team M&M” while hot-roller enthusiasts Kenley and Austin are “Team KA,” despite the fact that “Team AK” is much more evocative and vaguely intimidating.
- Mondo’s Bulldog Strategy: Make something so ugly it’s cute.
- Still not sure how the two-part finale is working; Angela just keeps using the vague promise of a “final challenge.” Whatever it may be, I’ll miss the first part of it, as I’ll be out of town next week. My good chum Marah Eakin will be filling in. Be nice.