The Bunim-Murray producers sipped their coffee with contentment on the morning of the finale taping. They took a moment to reflect. The show had gotten lucky this season. The casting had worked out beyond all expectations; the challenges had generated more drama than they could ever ask for. Ratings were up, and the viewers at home hadn’t even seen some of the best stuff yet. Life was good. Project Runway Season 8 was Thomas E. Dewey. The 2007 New England Patriots. Cliff Clavin on Jeopardy!. All that remained was to bring this glorious season in for a landing. Then, something else happened.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, like me, some of you may be upset by tonight’s episode of Project Runway. But that will fade. Someday, we’ll talk about the time that we saw a television show squander truckloads of built-up goodwill in rapid, breathtaking, disorienting fashion. And we’ll laugh, because really, the whole magnificent collapse was hilarious. It just doesn’t seem that way yet.
Before the ending, this episode didn’t feel like it would offer much in the way of historic moments. For the first 90 minutes, it was a paint-by-numbers affair, where 1 equaled “tedious montages,” 2 equaled “clichés about following your dreams and growing as a person,” and 3 equaled brown. There was a lot of 3.
We started at the Hilton suite. “I didn’t think I was going to make it very far,” Gretchen lied. Mondo and Andy indulged her revisionism. They had to be buddies—they were too physically and emotionally exhausted for anything else—and out of this necessary friendship had grown mutual respect. Ugh. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t tune in to this finale for maturity and professionalism. So Tim whisked them away to the designers’ reunion, which was perfect. All the contestants would air their dirty laundry, the layers of cordiality would be stripped away, and we would warm ourselves in the glow of their raw emotion.
It started slow. Heidi Klum—or, more accurately, the disembodied recording-booth voice of Heidi Klum—introduced an Andy montage. Peach reported that she had a huge gay following. Valerie said that she got a marriage proposal on Facebook. The “Putting Up A Good Front” version of Ivy tried to laugh about this, but a second later, Evil Ivy took control of her weak shell and twisted it into a snarl of hatred and jealousy: Why didn’t IVY get a marriage proposal on the face-book? It was like watching the two sides of Gollum from The Lord Of The Rings argue with himself. (If you’ve never seen those movies, just make an animated GIF of this Ivy moment and you’ll pretty much have the gist of the whole deal.)
The topic of conversation turned to Gretchen’s reputation as a “bitch” among the general public. “I think the funny [sic] answer is that I’m not a bitch,” she said, “I just play one on TV.” After a few seconds of tumbleweed-worthy silence, Heidi pretended that she had just gotten the joke and forced her larynx to utter a laugh-like sound. That was sweet of her.
Gretchen defended herself, and she was right that it’s unseemly for someone to apply the abrasive word “bitch” to any woman who rubs them the wrong way. Ivy was having none of it, though, snapping, “It’s fake.” Nobody was quite sure what that meant. In any case, the point was that Ivy was pissed, so the vibe in the room was “What else is new.”
Then, surprise, April rose up, tore the Gretchen Jones Youth Brigade patch off her chest, and stomped on it. The last surviving soldier from Gretchen’s squadron of fear, April turned on her master. Without remorse, she accused Gretchen of speaking out of both sides of her mouth—for instance, complimenting Christopher’s work while deriding it in the one-on-one interviews.
There was the spark! Everyone at home scooped popcorn into their grinning mouths because all hell was about to break loose. The frenzy was fast and furious. Michael C. and Mondo defended Gretchen! A brief, calm discussion about the value of criticism ensued! Heidi screened more montages of the winning designers!
Wait, no, no, this wasn’t right at all. Our voyage was sucked into a vortex of endless clip reels. We were buffeted by one montage after another. Hopes of escape dwindled. Yes, Project Runway producers, there certainly were some wacky moments on the program this season, and thank you for cutting them together—wouldn’t want to miss a chance to relive that “woolly balls” moment—but could we please get back to the electrifying human drama that is aching to play out before our very eyes?
In fact, we could not. Blessed with the most all-around volatile cast in the show’s history, the producers chose to piss away the reunion segments with banal clips. For Christ’s sake, the guy who wears a hat was there, and he wasn’t even wearing a hat! Couldn’t anybody at least ask him WHY? This was a season of clashing personalities, shifting and re-shifting loyalties, downfall, revenge, redemption, and all the rest. From this bountiful harvest, the creators of Project Runway were able to extract approximately 15 seconds of intrigue. That is awful TV-making.
The top three designers marched back to the workroom. Such was my shock over the essentially non-existent reunion show that I only remember the next 10 minutes as a series of fragmentary images. Gretchen wore a piece of the foil ball from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Andy unveiled a bathing suit that made his model look as if a human-llama hybrid with out-of-control pubic hair had attempted the world’s most ill-advised combover. Mondo ate walnuts because a couple thousand of his models failed to show up. Gretchen changed into a different top, made from one of those Tauntaun monsters that Luke Skywalker cut open in The Empire Strikes Back.
In their hotel room, the designers marveled at the fact that they now knew each other, whereas once they did not. We were treated to a clip of Gretchen shaking hands with Andy—video confirmation that, yup, they once met! This was a thing that indeed happened. Perhaps many more hours of this crackerjack material were left on the cutting-room floor, but it was time for the runway show, and the Project Runway finale-event freight train could not be stopped.
Even though he had applied a generous layer of spray-on sock glue that morning, everything was falling apart for Mondo. One of his models didn’t show, and his wranglers had his runway lineup “all jacked up.” Soon enough, he was standing by a rack of clothes, gazing in paralysis at his stack of index cards, like he’d been put into standby mode. Tim Gunn came by and instructed him, in so many words, to scurry between the makeup stations and his garment rack instead of just standing there. Never has aimless scrambling seemed like such good advice.
Gretchen showed her line first. It was called “Running Through Thunder,” and I’m not making that up, because believe me, I couldn’t come up with anything that perfect. The runway show was backed by the finest royalty-free Enya/house-music fusion track that Bunim-Murray’s budget could buy.
Gretchen’s first look featured a floppy cowboy vest with a brown knit diaper. Nina Garcia scribbled in her notebook: “The future of fashion!” She underlined it three times. The collection had plenty of nice silhouettes, albeit in that simple, not terribly aspirational mode that Gretchen prefers. But oh, the brown. It was like watching the world’s saddest 1990s ethnic-dance class. As she accompanied her fashion-forward mud pies off the runway, Gretchen did a fist-pumping leap in front of the Project Runway logo, in case the cameras hadn’t caught this spontaneous act of girlish joy the first time she did it. They had.
Andy went next. He came out of the gate strong with a pair of beautifully tailored short pants and a bright green bolero that featured a subtle pinstripe effect. That was as good as it got. There were other bright points, like a gorgeous pair of tight, metallic pants and the pleated “11th look” that we saw last week. For the most part, though, it was a same-y muddle of gray and silver. The collection was made immeasurably worse by the fact that Andy had festooned each of his models with a mangled, glammed-up version of those wire head-scratchers they sell at “Gifts For Dad!” shopping-mall kiosks.
Finally, Mondo. This was not quite the slam-dunk I had expected, but it was close. I had problems with a couple of the skirts, especially the splotchy gold and silver number in Mondo’s second look. Reviewing photos of the collection after the show, though, I became convinced that Mondo put a superb collection out there, and I say that while making every effort to put rooting interest aside. It had rhythm—for example, it went from the low-fi Day of the Dead T-shirt in his third look and ascended beautifully to a puffy cocktail dress in the third look. The dude knows how to make an incredible pair of pants, too. His gray plaid slacks almost matched the sexiness of his plus-sign pants from earlier in the season.
The most memorable design for me, though, was Mondo’s penultimate look, a tunic dress with a pink border and blue squares down the front. I wrote in my notes “8-bit chic.” Now, I’m into games, so maybe this is just a more appealing motif to me than Gretchen’s equally retro ’90s safari fare. But the tunic dress really stayed with me, and made me excited all over again to see what Mondo could invent.
Back at Parsons, the contestants lined up on the non-Fashion Week runway to kill a little more time in this two-hour slogfest. The judges went down the line: “You all did a great job. Here are some criticisms. Still, great job.” Et cetera. Guest judge Jessica Simpson thought they all were super, too.
The contestants were asked why they should win Project Runway. Mondo said that he had grown as a person. Hooray! Gretchen said that she, too, had grown as a person, like that scene from The Simpsons where Richard Nixon says that he ALSO would like to express his fondness for Duff beer. Boo hiss. Andy said something about dreams leading to bigger dreams, because he had just seen Inception and Christopher Nolan had totally blown his mind.
Luckily, Andy would soon have time to catch a repeat screening, because after the contestants left the runway, the judges chatted about him for a hot minute, and Heidi said, “I think we all agree that Andy’s out.” Huh. That was kinda weird, insofar as the show has never spoiled its own reveal like that before. I didn’t think much of it, though. A guy in a horror movie doesn’t think much of it when he hears that rattling noise coming from the trunk, either. Neither of us has any way of knowing that in truth, we are on the precipice of a descent into MADNESS.
With the competition down to the final two, talk turned to Gretchen. Nina and Kors were thrilled that Gretchen took their advice by tarting up her models and drenching them in accessories. Heidi played devil’s advocate: “Did the clothes need help by accessorizing the right way?” Nina urged Heidi to perish the thought: Gretchen was “in tune with what’s happening in fashion right now. These clothes are current.” It was warning sign number two: Nina was flashing a rusty hook in the rear-view mirror. I was still oblivious, driving down the road to what was clearly an inevitable Mondo victory.
On that note, it was time to talk about Mondo. “He has a little ‘wink’ with his clothes,” Heidi chirped. Kors was not so delighted. “I think a black dress could have been his best friend!” he sniped, with a conspiratorial tap to Nina. The tap—that little move finally aroused my attention. Something was amiss here. Nina said her vote was to make them both winners. There was a non-verbalized “but…” at the end of that statement.
It came spilling out. “Gretchen has a little more of a range.” “We’re in a sportswear moment.” “There’s more design in her clothes!” Gretchen had seemed at her lowest point earlier in the episode, abandoned by her most trusted followers. But it was all a terrible ruse! She did not need the trifling support of April or Ivy anymore, for she had succeeded in co-opting the unholiest alliance of all: Garcia and Kors!
Open dissension raged on the judging panel. Heidi and Jessica Simpson pointed out that Mondo’s collection was the only one to inspire any feeling of excitement. They would actually wear his clothes. He put on a better show. Heidi pointed out, quite accurately, that Garcia and Kors were dinging Mondo for the same quality—showmanship—that they had praised him for all season. The two jackals howled in protest. What was Heidi talking about? Didn’t she hear Nina ask Mondo to adjust the sleeve on his polka-dot gown? And still the sleeve remained!
There was the rub. Mondo had not altered the sleeve. He hadn’t shown proper deference to the great arbiters of fashion, as Gretchen did. One day earlier, Nina had questioned whether Gretchen even had the capacity to create alluring clothes. But now she was hailing the Taupe Princess as the next wave in fashion, because Gretchen had Listened. As for Mondo, well, the sleeve had not been cut. The sleeve was intact. Justice had to be served.
As the argument got nastier, Heidi became more nasal. By the time it was over, she was all nose. For the first time in memory, she had the better of an argument on the judging panel, and to her credit, she didn’t want to let go.
We cut abruptly to the three designers marching back out on the runway. Andy was Aufed quickly. Heidi: “One of you is the winner of Project Runway.” The long staredown. Heidi said, “Gretchen….”
It was one of those moments where you know it’s over, but all you can think about is the hope that it’s not. Maybe Heidi was going to say, “You’re out!” A nation of fashion-conscious TV junkies would spill out to the streets in a spontaneous explosion of joy. A fashion renaissance would sweep the nation. Nothing could ever be bad again, because Mondo would have won Project Runway.
Except no. What took place instead was that the four members of the Gretchen Jones fan club emailed each other an ASCII-art high-five while the rest of the nation slumped in their couches and uttered a collective “What the…?”
Was it the worst judging call ever? No, there have been worse. Gretchen’s collection was hardly a train wreck, and the judges have embraced train wrecks.
Take into account the stakes of the decision and the momentum of the show, though, and maybe it is the worst. It ends Season 8 on the down-est note possible. Twitter is already awash with angry viewers who say they will never watch the show again. I don’t believe them. The disappointment of the final moments will pass, and in the final calculation, this was still a vibrant, memorable season. I’m delighted that I was able to see it.
But seriously. Gretchen?
Gretchen. Your Project Runway Season 8 winner.
— Collier Strong plugged “Infallible Plumping” lip gloss. So is Sigmund Freud himself naming the L’Oreal makeup line now?
— I need to not see or hear the word “Jobmother” ever again in my life.
— “This is literally salt and sugar!”
— Heidi: “How do you feel?” Gretchen: “Like a hundred thousand dollars!” OK, maybe I was wrong. It's possible that this hurt will never heal.
— “You wiggle right into that puppy and walk right out here.”
— “The collection is called Running Through Thunder.” The winner of Project Runway said this, without irony, twice.
— It was hard to judge Andy’s woven blouse given how aggressively Lifetime blurred out the general nipple area.
— “Mondo’s work is like him, his name, Mondo.”
— Allow me to get a little mushy as I wrap up this emotional season. You guys have made this enormously fun. I loved reloading the comment threads every Friday, to the point where it was my least productive day of the week. Likewise, when I meet people “offline” who read these recaps, they always mention how awesome the comments are. Some of you took the time out to say that you enjoyed my writeups, and that means a lot to me. I appreciate your readership quite a bit, so thank you.