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Project Runway: “The Art Of The Matter”

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Love will find a way in this episode of Project Runway. Love will find a way to make these contestants dull again. Anthony Ryan says that he has come to a “truce” with Bert. For his part, Bert expresses a desire to not “be an asshole” today, so that he doesn’t have to “make amends” later. And as the women are consolidated into one apartment, they decide to “start fresh” with Becky and welcome her into their good graces, because apparently they hated her, I guess.

Amends, truce, starting fresh, not being an asshole—these are just things people say, right? Wrong. And for the makers of Project Runway, that’s the terrifying thing about these designers. They keep their promises to move on from petty conflicts and conduct themselves as adults.


The solution, then, is to introduce actual children into the mix. So the contestants are brought to Harlem School Of The Arts, where a bunch of tween- and teen-aged students  (who prove to be remarkably talented artists) are randomly paired with the designers. The challenge is to collaborate on a work of art with one of the kids and then create an avant-garde design inspired by that work.

Viktor is assigned a 12-year-old named Skyy who starts designing his dress for him before their painting is even finished. She tosses around the word “silhouette” a lot and suggests that Viktor make something “bustier-ish” even though she does not know what a bustier is. She has a bright future as a Project Runway guest judge. In fact, Nina was absent for the taping of this episode; they should have just asked Skyy to fill in.

Not content to let Skyy corner the market on irritating precociousness, the 11-year-old Kai salves the wounds of her partner Laura with an avalanche of fortune-cookie wisdom. “Failure is opportunity in disguise,” Kai says. Nearby, Mr. Opportunity himself, Josh C., confers with partner Sasha. They have painted a pretty kick-ass Final Fantasy boss, but even a musclebound werewolf with a demon maw in its chest is no match for Josh C.’s +5 Dreary attack.

Josh M. works with his partner on a tree made of blood with roots of green mold, and also, the tree is giving everyone the stink-eye. “It looks like the earth is crying into itself,” Josh says. I’m not about to critique a child’s artwork here, so I’ll just say that yes, that is exactly what it looks like.


Back at the workroom, Viktor recovers from the onslaught of Skyy. “I’m never having kids. Oh, my Lord Of The Rings,” he says. So I guess he really intends to make that Lord Of The Rings deal into a thing. If you’re going to hitch your stardom wagon to one turn of phrase, I can’t help thinking that a more copyright-friendly witticism, or at least one that made sense, would be a better choice. But maybe that just shows my lack of expertise in the complex world of catchphrase manufacture.

It’s the sadness parade. Bert talks movingly about losing his partner of 18 years to AIDS and his subsequent descent into self-destructive alcoholism. Josh M. describes his mother’s death from ovarian cancer. Josh C. mentions that he was an Eagle Scout. Wait a minute, that last one’s not sad. I guess Josh C. is a sad enough figure already; he doesn’t need the help.


Bert has a “We Didn’t Schedule This, We Just Can’t Keep The Designers Away From These Quality HP Computers” video chat. They make small talk for a few minutes. After the experience, Bert says, “It was definitely a bigger thrill than talking to my sister on the phone.” Wow, an even BIGGER thrill than that? You go ahead and set the bar as high as you like, folks, because Hewlett-Packard will vault right over it every time.

Tim arrives in the workroom, and so do the kids. “Skyy comes in, and I just kind of put on a happy face,” Viktor says in a testimonial. We then see it happen, and yes, he’s wearing a hilariously unenthusiastic grin. It’s the kind of expression you’d wear if your aunt showed up to visit and brought along her incontinent cat.


Contemplating Kimberly’s dress, Tim advises, “You don’t want to have this look say, ‘Take me to Geronimo.’” Considering that isn’t a thing anyone has ever said—OK, the phrase gets one Google hit—she’s probably safe. Becky’s working on a denim dress that has contracted Green Cube Herpes, and Tim says, “You don’t want it to look like a craft project,” because it’s looking very Etsy. He adds, “I don’t think this is doing enough.”

A couple hundred other designers get some variation on that “it’s not enough” note, and then Tim comes to Olivier, who is struggling. In a strange rhetorical dance that borders on passive aggression, Tim refuses to give Olivier any advice whatsoever. This is how Tim entertains himself this season, I suppose. He won’t say that he dislikes Olivier’s design, but he hastens to note that he never claimed to like it, either! It certainly needs to be better, Tim observes—that is, unless it’s already good enough. Then Tim giggles, clicks his heels, and vanishes in a cloud of sparkles, leaving poor Olivier to decipher the strange man’s conundrums. He’ll never find Tim Gunn’s pot of fashion gold!


Viktor says that he “secretly likes” Bert’s outfit. It’s “not tasteful,” but it’s “fun to look at, and I think that’s the most important key.” This is the most sinister thing that happens on this episode: Viktor decides to keep his mild admiration a secret.

Even the cheating scandal is lame (which, let’s not kid ourselves, we knew it would be). In desperation, Olivier attempts to glue his garment to the right breast of his model. Moments later, Tim enters the workroom, and you can tell he’s already aware that something is amiss—the man has little birds everywhere. Olivier’s saggy bodice is “a construction issue” that “cannot be mitigated” with glue, Tim says. “That is against the rules!”


The transgression threatens to throw Project Runway season nine into a tailspin of heartbreak and regret, until a few seconds later, when Olivier wipes the glue off and everyone instantly moves on. In a testimonial, Viktor asks, “If you go to a store, and you buy a dress that’s glue, would you buy it?” Hmmm—by definition, yes…? Enough with the goddamn riddles.

Runway show. The kids are there, although they do not stay for the judging, because the show does still have some sense of dignity. This isn’t Dance Moms. Zanna Roberts Rassi, senior fashion director for Marie Claire, fills in for an absent Nina. Kenneth Cole takes the guest-judge chair.


There is quality work on display, but it seems less “avant-garde” and more “somewhat out of the ordinary.” Given the experimental nature of the challenge—and the fact that it’s the first two-day challenge of the season—I was expecting a little more crazy than this. Then again, “I was expecting a little more crazy” could be the tagline of season nine.

Josh M., Laura, and Anthony Ryan comprise the top three. The faux-wood painted skirt of Josh M.’s outfit could have easily come off as station-wagon paneling, but Josh’s wood effect is not so literal. It possesses a natural depth and an understated vibrance that plays off the ruffled flames in the top, which are anything but understated. I could take or leave the “engraved” initials in the skirt, although I do have to admit that they add a touch of wistfulness that isn’t out of place. The judges approve. Kors does remark that the styling is “a little Tim Burton-y,” which is spot-on.


Laura’s design is tough to figure. It looks more compelling in the press photos provided by Lifetime (which I often use as reference for these reviews) than on TV. In the photos, the outer part of Laura’s dress has the waterlogged, deciduous look that she was going for, and the stark lines of the inner layer show through more than was apparent on TV. After watching the show, I thought that Anya deserved to make the top three over Laura, but now I agree with the judges’ decision. Of course, while they’re all fond of Laura’s dress, none of them are jumping out of their seats.

The same is not true for Anthony Ryan’s dress, which gets deserved raves from most of the panel. Using a sheer gown as a base, Anthony Ryan applies hand-cut strips of fabric like brushstrokes, drawing the viewer’s eye down with increasing size and boldness until the “strokes” thin and give way to a blank canvas. Anthony Ryan’s inspiration is the clearest of any of the designers—as Kors says, “You got the attitude of the painting without being literal.” Cole isn’t as enthused, questioning the “homemade” look of the fabric pieces, but it’s clear he will be overruled.


The bottom three are Bert, Josh C., and Olivier. Bert’s outfit is the most stupendous failure, a misbegotten exercise in bulbous high-waisted pants that could be characterized as Tweedledum Chic. Above the double-drumstick silhouette of the pants, the design explodes into a jumble of pastel-colored geometric shapes, which makes Bert’s model look like the intro graphics for an early-’90s Nickelodeon game show.

“Avant garde doesn’t have to be beautiful in the traditional sense of the word. Sometimes it can be oddly beautiful,” Kors says. “Unfortunately, she just looks like a girl with a misshapen body with some stuff glued on her.” Rassi nods at this. The design is “too perfect,” she says, which doesn’t quite follow. Kors just goes along with it, though, because he gets paid the same either way, so he might as well be nice to this lady who will be gone next week. Heidi jumps in to say that she actually likes Bert’s garment. Kenneth Cole grits his teeth.


Olivier takes a familiar tack for desperate Project Runway contestants: When you’re out of ideas, add layers. He produces a drab tangle of tatters in which angular mounds of khaki consume a few meek tendrils of color. “The bodice, the constructed side, is spectacular,” Kors says, wrongly. “But then the rest of the dress looks like Mood exploded on her.”

Josh C.’s outfit can be termed a “design” only by a fairly generous standard. It’s more of an anti-design, a post-structural effort to expunge any trace of the power-knowledge known as “fashion” from his creative process. This act of societal antagonism results in a terrible dress-and-shirtsleeves combo, which is bound by a stretchy, shiny black fabric. It looks as if the model is being strangled by a very angry roll of electrical tape. Heidi calls it a “hooker” look, while Kors says “Las Vegas cocktail waitress” and Kenneth Cole goes with “dominatrix.” So they disagree on which distasteful female archetype is evoked by Josh C.’s design, but they are certain that it is, in some respect, whore-y.


The designers leave the stage, and the judges confer. Kors says that Olivier makes “Valium clothes,” and then he keeps wanting to talk about Valium even after everyone else is trying to move on, the same way that a guy who’s starving doesn’t want to talk about anything but a delicious stack of warm, buttery pancakes with maple syrup.

They get chatting about Bert’s design, and everybody gets wound up. I can’t remember the last time the judges had this much fun shitting on someone. Kors shifts into his highest register of nasal flamboyancy, which is always an exciting Project Runway moment. It’s like when KITT on Knight Rider would go into Super Pursuit Mode.


Kors says, “Heidi, I know you’ve been craving a very stiff jumpsuit… and it looks like you’re having baby number five when you’re wearing it.” Rassi does him one better: “No, it looks like you ARE baby number five!” Kors squeals with delight and approval.

Then Cole starts riffing. He notes that when you have a small child, you might attach mittens to his outfit, and it seems like Bert attached every possession to his kid. “No, there were SPONGES!” Kors exclaims in a flash of inspiration. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m cleaning my kitchen!’ Beep! ‘Oh, I’m cleaning the floor!’ Boop!” he says as he joyously pantomimes the act of attaching sponges to himself. Nice to see that the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award winner can still bring it.


Anthony Ryan is the winner. He’s excited: “I’m not a bridesmaid anymore, I’m an official bride.”

Josh C. is out. He takes it awfully well, which is a relief, because for a moment his plight is genuinely depressing. In individual challenges, Josh went second-to-last, last, and last again, compiling an unprecedented record of failure in Project Runway history. Yes, he may not have been the first designer eliminated, but after barely surviving the first episode, he found a way to lose twice. “It’s been amazing to have you back,” Tim says, and it’s sort of true. Goodbye, Josh C. You were the best ever at not being good at this show.


Stray Observations:

  • Jeez, HP really wants the people who watch the commercials to know what “ombré” means.
  • My rickety satellite DVR went haywire while I was watching this episode, and the audio kept cutting out. I ended up having to watch the show at my sister’s place, but before I left, I tried turning on closed captioning in the hope that I could at least see what people were saying. The trouble was that the captioning data kept cutting in and out, too, truncating sentences and mashing different utterances together. Let me tell you, this is a really weird way to watch Project Runway, as your TV screen fills up with phrases like “YOU DON’T WANT MICHAEL KORS YAWATAHA MOMENT.”
  • Both of the guest judges are excellent tonight. Zanna Roberts Rassi is a delight. She’s well-spoken and open to reconsidering her opinion of a design; the latter quality makes her something of an anti-Nina. And Kenneth Cole has a clear, concise viewpoint to offer on every design. He exudes sophistication. Plus, they have their moments of easygoing wit. It’s a fleeting vision of what Project Runway might be like if it were judged by calm, rational professionals. They will never be invited back.
  • “What the hell is inspiring on this canvas?”
  • “My idea is—you know forest fires?”
  • Bert certainly experiences some character rehabilitation this week, having sworn off his previous assholery.
  • Stuff Tim Gunn Says Because He Has To: “Think very thoughtfully about how you’re going to style your avant-garde look with the Piperlime wall.”
  • Is anyone really going to argue with Handlebar Mustache Guy when he makes makeup suggestions? I’d be afraid that he would throw me through a wall. Hell, I already am afraid of that, every Thursday night when I close my eyes to sleep.
  • “I think it’s something a Teletubby would wear to a party.” Kors is on fire tonight, but he has been going to the Teletubby well an awful lot lately.
  • “He’s still in love with his hooker!”

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