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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Project Runway: “Sew ’70s”

Illustration for article titled Project Runway: “Sew ’70s”
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Seven designers remain at the beginning of this episode. A prime number! After consultation with leading mathematicians, the producers determine that this precludes a team challenge (although brief consideration is given to the possibility of dividing the group into 2.64575 teams of 2.64575 designers each). Thus Bunim-Murray is forced to produce a fairly normal episode of Project Runway, a notion for which the production company has shown increasing disdain.

And while “Sew ’70s” is mostly a by-the-numbers exercise, what a nice little exercise it is. A solid, well-defined challenge; no fake drama; plenty of creativity under insane limitations. It only took Bunim-Murray 10 episodes to realize that season eight is never going to happen again and that Project Runway is still an awfully good format anyway. Gretchen Jones is not coming through that door! We can be okay with that.


“For your next challenge, you will have to look to the past for your inspiration,” Heidi tells the designers. By “the past,” she means the 1970s, but she could also mean last week. The challenge—to create a look inspired by the ’70s for sale on Piperlime.com—is so similar to the previous challenge that both the contestants and Tim take pains to explain why it’s different. For one thing, they’ll be designing clothes for their usual models instead of a bewildered group of alt-rock wannabes who spend their whole time on the runway wondering if The Decemberists ever had to endure anything like this.

For another thing, the winning look will be sold on Piperlime.com! Because no known person has ever shopped on this website, the editors slap together a protesting-too-much montage. “That’s huge!” exclaims Laura. “It’s really a massive prize,” oversells Anya. “Your own design—online?” Viktor intones, with the same awe one might use to greet the news that your designs will be sold to extremely famous space aliens on the moon.

Tim reminds the designers not to fail as hard as they did last week with the hippie dudes—it’s “not vintage, not retro,” but “sophisticated”—and then everyone swears a silent oath never to speak of that challenge again.

“My look’s going to be really ’70s,” Bert says. Great start, Bert!

Off to Mood. In a testimonial, Anya talks ominously about her envelope of cash and how the contestants were told never to lose it. We see that she keeps her $100 budget precariously tucked into the strap of her dress on account of she has no pockets. The producers even blow the special-effects budget by freeze-framing a shot of Anya and drawing an arrow toward the “MONEY ENVELOPE” on her chest—eat your heart out, C.S.I.! It feels like something’s going to go down.


Or rather, since this is season nine, it feels like something is almost going to go down. The past couple of months have abounded with near-disasters like this one, where one of the designers faces certain doom, and then after the commercial break, it’s all fine. Remember that time Olivier was about to die? Yeah. So we’ll just sit through these previews of a new Lifetime flick where teenage girls beat the living tar out of each other, set our DVRs to record said flick, and return to a crisis averted.

Yet the commercials come and go, and Anya still can’t find the money. Would you look at that, an actual disaster. She faces an unappealing triage, forced to beg the other designers for their spare change and construct the bulk of her garment from plain old muslin. “It’s another Project Runway first!” Tim says. This might not be the moment for that shtick, old friend.


After scrimping about $11.50 from the other designers (mostly from Anthony Ryan), Anya buys a couple yards of fabric and some buttons. Her situation appears dire. Back in the workroom, though, the other designers—except, pointedly, Viktor—pitch in and offer Anya whatever scraps they can spare. It’s awfully sweet and fun to watch. “Anya’s in the middle of a ‘Make it work’ moment, and I’m very moved by all the support you’re giving her,” Tim says. The producers really have been missing the boat with all their impotent conflict-stoking this year. What if they went in the opposite direction? These designers could have been the love-and-harmony bunch.

Well, maybe. Josh is struggling with the challenge, so he wanders over to Viktor’s station to look around. Viktor suspects Josh of plagiarizing his designs, and while the evidence for that is thin, there is something menacing about the way Josh fondles Viktor’s garments. As any grade-school guidance counselor will tell you, there’s good touch and bad touch, and Josh is definitely engaging in bad touch. The shot of him running his hand down the front of Viktor’s jacket looks like it belongs on a fuzzy VHS instructional video with a flashing “NO” symbol over it.


“Okay, I’m not driving you anymore, Miss Daisy,” Viktor says in a testimonial. Like most of Viktor’s sass, it only works if you do not think about it at all. He also says that Josh can go ahead and copy him, because it’s not going to be as good anyway. That’s the right attitude. But wait, in the movie, Morgan Freeman doesn’t really… so what does that have to do with… aw, crap, I thought about it.

Anya and Laura are dubious of Kimberly’s design, and in the sewing room, they wonder aloud if they should go talk to her. Viktor says they should keep their mouths shut, to which Laura replies, “We made a pact! We made a pact.” According to Anya, the gist of this pact, forged between the three women who are still in the competition, is that “we’ll be honest when we see something of our work that’s going off track.” This is their sacred bond. They must honor it.


On the other hand, Anya points out to Laura that Kimberly believes in her design that they hate. If they say something, she might not believe in it anymore. And now that they’re thinking out loud, maybe they ought to examine the very premise of this so-called “pact.” After all, they muse, there will come a moment when they’ll have to admit that they’re competitors, not allies.

And in a fortunate stroke of timing, that moment appears to have arrived mere minutes after Anya’s fellow designers showered her with cash and spare fabric. Whew! Close one. Laura and Anya agree that the only ethical course of action is to let Kimberly die in a fire of her own making. There is much impassioned nodding. They are glad they had this talk.


Bert chats about his Studio 54 days, rubbing shoulders with Diane von Fürstenberg and Liza Minnelli. Laura asks Bert if he got his Halston job there. “No,” he says. Then he gets this impish little grin that we have not seen from Bert very much, and he adds, “I got it in the balcony. Third row.” Laura replies, “Is that a dirty joke, Bert?” You get the sense that Liza might have had a better rejoinder than that.

Tim arrives in the workroom. It’s the oldest twist in the PR playbook: They have to make a second look. I love the familiarity of it. For the moment, the producers have given up trying to justify their paychecks with zany cleverness. Instead, they are just letting the show be the show.


Bert pins his color swatches to his shirt so he’ll be able to consult his color scheme during the second trip to Mood. The other designers follow his lead. It’s another Project Runway First!!!!!!

Tim returns for critiques. He tells Laura that Nina has her “radar” up for Laura and is dissatisfied with her “taste level.” It’s a purposeful comment, and potentially a very helpful one, made in consideration of the clash-y optical illusion Laura has assembled on her dress form. Rather than heed Tim’s thinly veiled warning, Laura throws a minor fit. “I apparently found out in my critique that Nina hates me. I’ve never heard that before because I think sometimes my style is too refined!” But nobody can hear her over the loudness of her garment.


On the morning of the show, Anya and Kimberly bring it right down to the wire. It’s not the usual “Are they going to make it? Yup, they are” nonsense. This appears to be genuine panic, complete with Tim counting down the minutes, and then the seconds (!) while Anya frantically runs a last few stitches through her sewing machine.

Runway show. The guest judge is Piperlime.com Guest Editor Olivia Palermo. Is that a job? That doesn’t sound like a job. Palermo delivers every critique with a creepy, cold cadence, as if it is a cancer diagnosis being given to a patient she doesn’t know that well anyway. She smiles the smile of someone whose parents paid for expensive smiling lessons while she attended a tony Connecticut boarding school. Just look at those cheek muscles contracting in rigid unison! Now that’s a Hodgeworth Prep smile.


Kimberly is safe. The top three: Bert, Anya, and Viktor. Bert’s first look features a sexy, bare-shouldered asymmetrical blouse made from a spangly, expensive-looking (and era-appropriate) fabric. You could picture Jaclyn Smith wearing something like this to the 1977 Emmys, though maybe not with the daring black hot pants. I was concerned that the judges might pan this look for being too noisy, just as I worried that Bert’s second look, a cute jersey dress with a creme front and a gold back, would be deemed too simple. Yet the judges like them both. Palermo likes the thin belt on the second look, weirdly focusing on the fact that Bert put little silver caps on the knots at each end of the belt.

Anya makes 11 bucks go a long way with her first design, but the highlight is the jumpsuit, which hits some very Anya notes: a simple tropical silhouette in the bodice; long, flowing pants; and a beautiful choice of print. The judges swoon, especially Nina, who has clearly decided that Anya is this season’s Chosen One. Get ready to watch Nina gloss over flaws in Anya’s designs for the next few weeks. Meanwhile, she’ll nitpick the other designers to death, and nitpick them some more, until their desiccated corpses no longer threaten to obscure Anya’s panacean glow. That girl is our last hope.


No. There is another. Nina and the other judges shower Viktor with praise, too. Between his safari-inspired pantsuit, his snakeskin-patterned T-shirt, and a matching snakeskin-patterned dress, Viktor’s only mistake seems to be that he put too much judge-pleasing greatness on the runway. The jacket is excellent, but it blocks some of the brilliance of the T-shirt. “It is unreal what you can do in a short amount of time,” Heidi says, as we get a close-up of Josh, his quiet desperation bubbling to the surface.

And thus we move on to Josh, who joins Laura and Anthony Ryan in the bottom three. Looking at his main design, Heidi says, “This outfit is one of the worst outfits I have seen in a long time.” That’s fair. If your dad’s old tuxedo and your mom’s old fuchsia prom dress had sweaty, unprotected sex in the back of a ’78 Chrysler LeBaron, Josh’s top is the love child that would result. The plaid pants look like the test pattern from a black-and-white TV set, and judging by the warped, diverging lines on the rear, the tube on this unit is beyond repair. These pants “would be against every fashion law of nature in any decade,” Kors says.


Josh accentuates this maelstrom of regret with clashing leopard-print accessories, because he is Josh. “I don’t understand how you can put all of these things in one outfit,” Heidi says. Josh says that’s just who he is. Heidi replies, “I know. That’s scary, though.”

Suddenly, Josh launches into a monologue, demonstrating that he assembles arguments the same way he assembles an outfit: The components of the whole don’t follow from any other, and none of them are terribly convincing on their own, either. “It’s not scary,” Josh says. “This could be on a runway and sold right off of her. A lot of these still need work. And we have sufficient amount of time to be making clothing of this quality. And it’s not happening. So if that is off the mark as it is, I really put heart and soul into what I make.”


Heidi’s response, paraphrased: That’s super, but your outfit still sucks.

Anthony Ryan’s outfits are less maniacal than Josh’s but far duller. His rusty, too-long blouse and chintzy monochrome vest dangle on the model, and “dangle” is not a verb that typically comes to mind when speaking of great fashion. Underneath the unfinished-looking blouse is a tube skirt featuring what appears to be the inverse of Laura’s “shaving accident” tie-dye pattern from last week. Kors can only gasp as he observes how the skirt squeezes the life out of the poor model’s butt.


The second look is a whole lotta drab fabric that droops from shoulder to floor. Heidi says it’s schmatte, teaching us a new German word (and/or a Yiddish one). “They look like two boring girls that are part of a cult,” Nina says, and Heidi lets out a surprised half-giggle, as she always does when she thinks the judges are being too mean. But Kors is only concerned with being the cattiest person in the room, so when Nina ups the ante, he immediately tops her by deeming Anthony Ryan’s models “hippie sister wives.”

Laura’s main design is a tale of two shitties. The top of her garment is a black-and-white series of chevrons, which look like road markings that guide the driver to the bottom half of the outfit: “This way for more terrible!” The skirt is similar to the top in that it does nothing to evoke 1970s style, but otherwise it is a different beast altogether. The print of the skirt resembles the “art” that people created when the first Macs came out and they tried out every MacPaint brush in the same document. The skirt’s incoherence and garishness are only exacerbated by its complete lack of relevance to the top of the garment.


Laura’s other design is gray.

Backstage, Josh rages some more. He says that it’s unfair to make him design ’70s-inspired clothing because he wasn’t alive in the ’70s. In a way, it’s the least nonsensical argument he’s made yet, but the new clarity of his sentence construction only gives us a more vivid look at the man’s bottomless stupidity.


“I was never born in the ’70s,” Viktor tells Josh, although I find that hard to believe. Most of us try being born in the ’70s at least once or twice—you know, in college, during that experimental phase. Yet Viktor maintains he’s never done it? Whatever. Still, he argues that he has found a way to understand that faraway decade, by watching movies and stuff. Josh screeches, “You’re trying to get aggressive by telling me I should know these movies!” It’s the 10th episode, though, and nobody is interested in indulging Josh’s bullshit anymore. So in essence, everyone gently tells him he’s an idiot, the end.

The judges kibitz. This is the Piperlime.com challenge, so “it’s not just about how it is in person, it’s about how it photographs,” Palermo explains. “Because for Piperlime, if I’m shopping, you want to be able to see that it’s photographed well to buy it!” Michael Kors sits there and waits for the animatronic Internet mannequin to finish telling him how shopping from a catalog works.


“It’s like taking three sleeping pills,” Kors says of Laura’s second look, once again steering the conversation to his beloved narcotics. Then they all pile on praise for Bert’s designs. Nina says that both designs will photograph beautifully. Kors thinks that the jersey dress could work in any color. “And I think the silver ends on the belt really enriched the whole look,” adds Palermo once again, in case people didn’t hear her make this ultra-important observation the first time. “I AM OBSERVING SMALL DETAILS, A SIGN OF HUMAN INTELLIGENCE, PLEASE ACKNOWLEDGE.”

Anya is the winner, not for the $11 outfit but for the $50 jumpsuit. Palermo informs Bert that his jersey dress will also be sold on Piperlime.com, because only an unjust God would deprive the world of those glorious silver rope-tie thingies. “Thank you so much,” Bert says, with the polite indifference of a man who used to help put together the Halston catalog and will now appear on a website named for a spunky fruit.


Anthony Ryan is out, which makes sense. He’s the only remaining designer who has failed to express any clear point of view. (I’m not saying the other designers are all good, but at least we have some idea of who they are.) “We all want to make it to the top three,” he says, “but we all don’t.” Except, of course, for the three who do. Everybody, including Tim, is way more emotional for this goodbye than they were last week for Olivier.

As he cleans out his workspace, we hear Anthony Ryan mull his fate. “In the end, you’re not first, but you’re not last. It’s how you take that middle ground and run with it.” A galvanizing rally cry to the mediocrities of the world.


Stray observations:

  • My thanks to Donna Bowman for filling in last week. If you like NewsRadio and/or Breaking Bad but haven’t checked out her work on those shows yet, well, you have some enjoyable reading ahead of you. To me, a good critic manages to enhance the show they’re critiquing (whether they love the show or not), and Donna’s TV Club work consistently hits that standard.
  • Remember when they had that silly Austin & Santino show on after Project Runway? That was so much nicer than the shrill, unbearable 15 seconds of Dance Moms that I inadvertently watch every week.
  • What a weird makeup job for Heidi at the runway show tonight. She looked like she had a sunburn.
  • “Fashion is my food.”
  • “You have ideas that need to be confined.”
  • “Why didn’t you do a skort?” Here is a thing that has never been said before on this show, or maybe ever.
  • Nobody pronounces the word “dossier” better than Tim Gunn.
  • I wrote this week’s review through the combined haze of jet lag and a head cold, so if I messed up some detail, go easy on me. (And let me know so I can fix it.)

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