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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Project Runway: "Surprise Me"

Illustration for article titled Project Runway: "Surprise Me"
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What a fun episode of Project Runway. There’s laughter, there’s tears, there’s four long flowing dresses, there’s you’re regular dosage of inanity from the judges. This is the highly entertaining show on fashion Project Runway can be.

This week’s challenge is the “Heidi Challenge”—where the designers are faced with the monumental task of designing for the show’s queen bee, resident supermodel, host, judge, and executive producer, Heidi "freaking" Klum. Heidi’s really embraced using the show as her own personal sweatshop—this week she’s asking the designers to create two looks for the launch of her new fragrance, Surprise. Heidi may be excruciatingly self-involved, but the woman knows how to run a challenge. She unloads a color scheme, the bottle design, the TV spot storyboard, what she likes, what she doesn’t, and tons of swag, just to sweeten the deal. For once the idea feels concrete, the designs un-gimmicky. Sure, it’s Heidi, but Heidi might as well be the Statue of Liberty for all the help and advice she gives the designers.

As a kind of isolated Project Runway phenomenon, I love the Heidi Challenge. It drives the show’s narrative internally, and minimizes that slow-moving opening section where the producers and hosts try to say as many sponsors’ names as possible. It showcases Heidi Klum’s particular brand of self-aggrandizement, a manufactured brand of smugness that puts even Michael Kors to shame with its subtlety. Let’s be real—I love Heidi, even though she’s infuriating in nearly every way, because although she’s often inarticulate and frustratingly status quo, she’s also coming to this contest from the point-of-view of the ultimate judge—the supermodel who can fit into and afford these clothes. She might say things like “too sexual” or “slutty” and make me want to tear my hair out, but I think Heidi has a far better understanding of what most people want from fashion than I do. (Of course, it still makes me upset, but that’s why I write snarky reviews!)

But most importantly, “Surprise Me”’s Heidi Challenge raises the stakes immediately for the designers. Which means that right from the start the show hums forward at a fast clip, dropping us into the design process almost immediately. (It’s also a shortened process, lasting just one day.) I barely even noticed the 90-minute format this week (maybe I’ve gotten good at fast-forwarding through the interminable commercials and their bumpers). And because the designers have been given such clear guidelines, we get an array of dresses that have a great deal in common, but also demonstrate the vision of the many designers involved.

So, unfortunately, in a wow-this-is-getting-embarrassing turn of events, Dream Team loses again to Team Keeping It Real. To be brutally honest, they provide almost no competition. Dream Team started out weak with a few incredibly bad designers grouped together. This week Cindy finally gets kicked off after two episodes in the bottom three. Her dress, like everything she’s done, has amazing construction, but—who on earth chooses iridescent coral-pink taffeta for high-fashion? As soon as she lets slip in Mood that she’s looking for taffeta, you just know it’s over for her. As much as I like Cindy, her taste is not haute couture. Even if she’s an excellent tailor, her style was not going to last long under Nina and Heidi’s hawklike stares.

But hang on—at least she produced a dress. For the second time this season, a contestant from Dream Team turns out a model with a top that is just tied on, instead of sewn or glued. (The bodice is tied and the leather straps are wrapped around the torso.) It’s a hideous bunchy mess, and Benjamin is the designer responsible for it. I am shocked he didn’t get kicked off for that heinous thing. He basically wigs out during the second day of competition, some combination of choking under the pressure and losing interest in the competition. He’s not long for this world, either, and I guess he does provide some compelling drama. Still, I’m surprised. Notably, Benjamin is also the first person to cry on-screen in “Surprise Me,” but definitely, definitely not the last. He shares an emotional abuse story that I for sure thought was going to be part of his losing-designer-arc but I think it’s instead a justification to keep him on for a few more episodes.


Team Keeping It Real has their share of criers—odd considering they’re proving to be an unbeatable group. They’re just really happy, guys. Their success is pretty obviously due to the leadership and creativity of Daniel, the clear front-runner for the season already. (Daniel is the second person to cry on-screen, by the way.) Daniel, Layana, and Kate are the team’s winners for the competition—Lyanna grants immunity, and therefore “the win” to Kate, who designs the winning dress for the TV commercial; Daniel’s dress wins for the press event. They’re both stunning, but to my mind there’s no doubt that Kate and Layana’s dress is the clear winner. The corseted number is a little early 2000s, but I thought they managed to class it up and created a really stunning gown with a lot of “movement” (as Nina put it) which is going to look great on film. They also, I think, did the better job of catering to the type of thing Heidi likes. Daniel’s dress is fantastic (the judges spend a lot of time gushing over the leather trim, and I have to agree, it’s pretty fabulous) but a little less striking for camera. Anyway when Kate and Layana get their win, they cry, and when Daniel gets his win, he cries again, and then when Cindy gets auf’ed she cries, and then everyone in the background starts crying, too. I tried to keep track of how many people shed tears and lost count because there’s a lot of tears I mean I’m pretty sure Tim Gunn starts crying.

All in all this is as good as Project Runway gets eleven seasons in. It’s a fun episode to watch and standout designs with a shortened competition time keep it engaging throughout.


Stray observations:

  • I left out discussing the judging because guest judge Kristen Davis doesn’t add a lot, and as the final arbiter of taste here is Heidi, there’s not a lot to get out of their dialogue except minor apoplectic fits whenever someone uses the phrase “too sexy” with perfect sincerity. I do not believe for a minute that Stanley’s dress is “too glitzy” for Heidi (I rather liked it) nor did I fully believe that Patricia’s dress is unconventionally sexy, but you know what, judges, I’ll take it for tonight. That’s how much fun this episode is.
  • Anyway, Zac Posen telling a designer to stop making excuses for their work will make my evening.
  • Nina makes a nautical reference (“she looks like she’s been shipwrecked!”), and Heidi follows that up with “Mayday, mayday, we have a problem!” That’s… not…. isn’t that what planes use? Do boats say “Mayday”? Don’t they say S.O.S., like the ABBA song?
  • Tim is wonderful this episode—demonstrating himself as both the technical advisor but also the encouraging, supportive figure that so many of the contestants need. He is everyone’s ideal fashion dad. He even reads his sponsorship lines with this perfect tone of detached interest, like he knows it’s his responsibility but he doesn’t care in the slightest.
  • My girls Samantha and Amanda are continuing to prove their worth. And hey, is Layana a good designer, or is she coasting? I can’t tell!
  • Nina is normal this week and I don't know how to feel about that.
  • Kristen Davis hedges more than once. “That’s…. interesting.” “I like the colors.” “My character wore a lot of dresses like this.”
  • Readers, do use the Lord & Taylor Commenting Wall thoughtfully. You’ll only have two hours to go through the L’Oreal Hair and Makeup Login Process, after all, and we don't want to keep Heidi waiting.