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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Project Runway: “In A Place Far, Far Away”

Illustration for article titled Project Runway: “In A Place Far, Far Away”
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Project Runway is not my normal beat—I’m pinch-hitting for John Teti this week—so I have never watched it critically before. It is a weird experience, especially on Lifetime. It felt like I was watching a 90-minute long L’Oréal commercial, punctuated with spots for Yoplait. If the commercials I saw were any indication, Project Runway viewers are expected to be yogurt-eating Steel Magnolias-watching colon-cleansing wholesome moms. That’s me, guys. Hit the nail on the head.

Unfortunately, the commercials were at times more compelling than this trainwreck of an episode, guest-judged by Zoe Saldana. I am fine with Project Runway most of the time (the baby episode last week was adorable!) but a poorly designed challenge meant that all the other elements of this show came apart, right down to the judging in the final moments. Competition reality TV is supposed to edit everything down into easy-to-digest visual narratives.

What it boils down to is that the writing and editing on this episode are just sloppy. The premise leans too hard on sponsorship material from L’Oréal, which makes the challenge weird, thereby undermining Tim’s critiques and confusing the designers. The resulting designs are all over the map and the judges can’t come up with a coherent consensus.

Let’s start at the beginning. This week’s episode was the last challenge before fashion week (except not really, if you saw the promo, but anyway, the point is, the stakes! The stakes are so high!) and the challenge was, er, sell L’Oréal’s new makeup line! L’Oréal is developing some makeup thing that is being marketed with four different “personality types” or “themed women”: The Enchanted Queen, the Seductive Temptress, the Wise Mystic, and the Artsy Muse. (I’m pretty sure at least one of those is racist.) Fabio and Christopher get the same type, the Enchanted Queen. Sonjia gets Seductive Temptress, Dmitry gets Wise Mystic, and Melissa gets Artsy Muse. They have a few minutes to stare at the grounds of a castle-like manor outside the city before returning to buy fabric and start freaking out.

Openings for competition reality TV shows are often completely interchangeable; this episode was absolutely no exception. The guidelines given for this challenge were very vague, and that’s probably because the challenge was based on a makeup line, to be quite honest. Make something kind of evoking a poorly defined archetype (maybe based on a fairy tale, but no one out and says it). It’s supposed to look like you spent two months on it. Oh yes, and make it avant-garde.

But it becomes rapidly clear as the action moves to the workshop that no one in the room knows what avant-garde means. As the tailoring wears on, the words “avant-garde” and “costume” are used so many times they begin to lose meaning. At first, Tim Gunn sashays in and out, dropping pithy critiques here and there that are all generally well-placed. Dmitry’s suit is a little too ready-to-wear for high fashion. Christopher and Fabio are getting too costume-y. Sonjia lacks vision. Melissa lacks time. I’m fine with all that. Talking about the craft of tailoring is always the strongest part of an episode of Project Runway, the nuts and bolts of the craft and the most interesting chunk of the show.


But devoid of proper guidance, the entire middle 45-minute segment loses focus. Tim keeps asking everyone to make everything more avant-garde. No one has any clue what that means, so they more or less keep doing what they were doing anyway, adding a few tweaks to satisfy him. An extended hair and makeup segment confirms our theories that the challenge was built merely to say the brand name “L’Oréal” as many times as possible on-air.

Here’s the thing: Every single person has a different idea of what “interpreting” the archetypes being marketed by L’Oréal would look like. Avant-garde is not a thematic element, it’s a design element. And the poor designers have no clue how to handle the mixed messages. On top of the confusion, this is their chance to prove to the judges that they could go to Fashion Week—so it’s not even about the challenge anymore, it’s about showcasing their long-term talent. It makes for muddled designing.


Perhaps directly as a result, the judges are completely at odds with each other about which dresses they like and don’t like. Heidi in particular is all over the place, laying accolades on Sonjia for her sad mermaid dress with illusion netting and dismissing Melissa’s odd, but coherent, skirt set. Kors can barely restrain his disdain for everyone in the room except himself, and Nina and Zoe spend most of the time making grand statements about designing for a woman’s body, as if a six-foot tall giraffe lady is a “woman’s body.”

In fact, the judges are almost universally horrible this week. They are often sharp and frustrating, but in this episode they depart from critical and go straight to bitchy. What is most frustrating to me was not their attitudes, though—it was more that many of the things they said directly contradicted Tim’s guidance. (It would be fine if Tim and the judges didn’t see perfectly eye-to-eye—but the entire episode is about creating big, obvious narratives to consume easily. Why would Tim’s contributions be included in the final cut if they have no bearing on the judges’ decisions?)


Personally I felt that while Sonjia deserved to go, Dmitry’s win for his “Wise Mystic” outfit was super shady. His asymmetrical skirt-suit is very well-tailored, but Tim had not been a fan, pointing out that there was nothing avant-garde about it. (No one brings up the fact that there is nothing either wise or mystical about it, either. I think by the end of the episode, everyone had just given up on the makeup themes.) But the judges universally adore it, and Dmitry ends up winning the challenge. The conflicting critiques here are disorienting for the viewer, and it makes the win feel unearned if we don’t understand the reasons why.

What confuses me most is that it’s obvious Project Runway could script their episodes better—they’ve done so in the past, after all. But they are leaning so hard on sponsorship material that the work is getting sloppy.


Stray observations:

  • L’Oréal makeup guy = BIZARRO TIM GUNN.
  • I’m sure you all have discussed this with earlier episodes, but I was struck by how badly the 90-minute format works for Project Runway. Every episode has, I believe, the potential to be really compelling. But in this episode especially, everything feels like it takes an eternity to resolve. Forty minutes of judging is too many minutes.
  • Four judges, four archetypes. Hmmm. Michael Kors as the Enchanted Queen, and Zoe Saldana the Artsy Muse? Please discuss.