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Project Runway: “The Rainway”

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The designers kick off this episode by mourning the recently ousted Samantha, and viewers at home likely sympathize, as it’s hard to imagine the show will go on without the 25 seconds of screen time that Samantha provided each week. Then Korina chortles over the fact that she has “the last immunity” of the season, and Kini complains that he hasn’t won a challenge yet. The producers used to conceal the fakeness of these segments in the designers’ apartments by including moments of silliness and character, but in season 13, Project Runway is too old for that noise. The result is a more direct, just-the-facts-ma’am portrayal of the designers’ home life, one that efficiently establishes central storylines for that episode and no more. The show is ruthless about hitting all the important points—who’s gone, who’s on top, who’s struggling—in the first 90 seconds. You can almost see the Project Runway staffer sitting just off-camera, brandishing a knife and instructing Kini to “TALK ABOUT YOUR DESIRE FOR A WIN OR ELSE.”

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Everyone gathers at the runway to hear about today’s task. “Your new challenge is intended to test your ability to push the boundaries of design, just as Samsung has done here with their new ultra-high-definition TV,” Tim Gunn says, gesturing to a bent television while Heidi daydreams about the melee weapons she’ll buy with Samsung’s sponsorship check. Now that Tim has the sponsor plug out of the way, we can move on. He continues, “In addition to being at the forefront of technology, its unique shape allows for a perfect viewing experience from any angle!” Okay, cool, Tim, you really gave Samsung their money’s worth, but let’s—“So every seat in the house is a great seat!”

The designers are spellbound by Tim’s lengthy explication of mighty Samsung’s technological genius.

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This curved-TV interlude is, like the opening segments in the apartments, another testament to late-era Project Runway’s functional streak. The traditional way to handle sponsorships on competition reality shows, Runway included, is to shoehorn the sponsor into some lame task—like the time Work Of Art: The Next Great Overlong Show Title had its cast produce artwork inspired by an Audi showroom.

Recently, however, Heidi et al. have dispensed with this coy pretense. Now, they allot a half-minute to all-out sponsor primping and then do whatever challenge they want. (Although Heidi does ask the contestants in passing to incorporate “curves,” her half-hearted affect signals that she doesn’t actually give a shit.) So yes, it may be discomfiting to see the erudite, unassailable Tim Gunn shill for an electronics company whose showcase achievement is a flat-screen TV that isn’t flat. But by unleashing this concentrated burst of grossness, rather than smearing a thin layer of sponsorship ooze over the entire hour and a half, Tim allows the show to maintain some dignity.

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Because as you know, Project Runway is all about dignity. That’s why, after Heidi explains that this week’s challenge is an avant garde affair, she and Tim lock eyes to announce in jubilant unison that this week’s runway show will take place on a “RAINWAY!”

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“A rainway is a runway with rain, duh,” says Char in a testimonial, thus concluding her primary contribution to this episode. That Tim Gunn Save is paying dividends.

There’s a brief scrum at Mood as rain-wary designers cram themselves into the store’s small waterproof-fabric section. Also, someone almost steps on the dog, Swatch. Nothing exciting ever happens at Mood anymore.

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Back in the workroom, Fäde appears headed for trouble, as his furious sketching hasn’t produced any strong ideas. He stares at the lifeless gray dress he’s piecing together on his form, casting about for an aesthetic direction. (Maybe he should try printing “ATHEIST” on the dress in large block letters? After all, it worked for every other piece of apparel that he owns.) Fäde offers a window into his creative drift: “I try to figure out some kind of a construction that is unexpected,” he says, “and I get frustrated if it doesn’t turn out the way I think it should be.” Aw, Fäde, don’t be so diacritical of yourself.

After a commercial break, Emily gives viewers the “if you’re just tuning in…” recap. “We’re going to be showing our looks on a ‘rainway,’ so there’s going to be real rain,” she says of the runway show that will feature artificial rain. Then Tim arrives for his check-in and appraises Emily’s work in progress, made of sweeping bands of black fabric with a jutting black bustier and harsh black shoulder pads. “It’s R2-D2,” Tim remarks, having never seen Star Wars in his life. He and Emily debate whether the look evokes a dominatrix, and Tim decides, “I don’t think it’s fetish-y, and if somebody says that, you know what’s on their mind”—a rare prebuttal of anticipated zingers from the judging panel.

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Later, Sandhya shares her technicolor concept with Tim, saying that she was inspired by the color bars that would appear on TV as a kid when there was nothing being broadcast. Always eager to play the old-fart card, Tim replies, “That was when I was a kid, not when you were a kid,” apparently accusing Sandhya of confusing her own life experiences with those of Tim Gunn. (Common mistake.) Tim suggests that Sandhya needs a counterpoint to the striped jumpsuit she has on her dress form, and Sandhya assures him that her embellished clear vinyl coat will elevate her look to a high taste level, as pinwheel-festooned rain slickers always do. I like that Sandhya is confident in her own voice and doesn’t lose her nerve when Tim gives her a mediocre review, even if Tim is obviously correct here.

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Korina tells Tim that she’s basing her look on a thunderbird, complete with wings. Somewhere, an owl turns off the TV in disgust.

After the mentoring session, Fäde is more worried than ever. Amanda is on board with his play/rewind graphics, though, telling him that she loves his concept. If I were competing against Fäde, I wouldn’t want him to change direction, either. But Amanda’s support for her colleague appears genuine, which is more than can be said for Fäde’s husband, who calls in for this week’s phone-home segment. The husband asks “So, when do you think you’ll be home?” and his casual tone suggests that his follow-up question will be to ask Fäde to pick up some milk, because the only stuff in the fridge is that gross soy stuff.

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Fäde is the only person in the conversation who realizes that his husband’s question basically amounts to, “So, when do you think you’re gonna lose already?” He tears up and responds, “I will be home soon.” It’s all quite sad, but luckily Fäde composes himself in time to chat with Kini about the innovative, life-improving features of the break room’s Samsung refrigerator.

Time for the runway show. Heidi emerges from backstage and steps out on the runway. She looks at the designers. They look at her. She walks to her chair and forces a laugh. The designers force a laugh, too. I think the joke here is that Heidi doesn’t want to stand on the “rainway” for fear of getting wet, but the editing is uncharacteristically clumsy, so for a moment it feels like the remainder of the episode is going to be a staring contest between Heidi and the designers. As it happens, this awkwardness is funnier than the intended gag, and Heidi should consider pitching a Heidi Klum Stares At You spinoff.

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Caitlin Fitzgerald, Masters Of Sex’s Libby Masters, is this week’s guest judge. She performs this role with insight and concision, unaware that the guest judge’s job is to squint at the clothes and complain that you don’t understand them.

After introducing Fitzgerald, Heidi closes her patter by saying, “We have an anonymous runway show, which means we, the judges, do not know who created each runway look.” She says the same thing every week, and I love hearing her say it, because she sounds like a game show host. Part of a game show host’s job is to recite the same rules every time—but in a pleasant way that doesn’t sound like you’re regurgitating something you’ve said a thousand times before. It’s tough to pull that off. The best hosts find a lilting rhythm, as Heidi has, that turns their standard patter into an aural security blanket for regular viewers. Just as I always found it soothing to hear Bob Barker explain that all retail prices are rounded to the nearest dollar, or to hear Pat Sajak declare, “I’ll give the wheel a final spin and ask you to give me a letter,” I savor Heidi’s anonymous-runway-show bit each week.

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Char’s blue vinyl faux-liage is striking, and it’s a nice match for the rainy environs, so I want to like it more. But the fabric is a bit too heavy and the composition a bit too lopsided, which takes away from the dripping-leaves effect and gives it more of a “soggy blue-corn tortilla chips” look. You can tell that Char tried to give the overall shape more balance with the bright section of smaller fragments near the waist, but it’s not enough—nor is the curl around the model’s calf, which feels like an afterthought.

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Amanda’s look resembles a Legend Of Zelda monster, but in her defense, it looks like a monster from a dungeon late in the game. It’s no pushover, this tower of eyeballs. You can picture the death beams that would burst forth from those eyes—at least, you would be able to picture them, but Amanda seems to have used the heavy-lidded gaze of fellow designer Alexander as her inspiration here. Those eyes look more sleepy than menacing, which is a shame; If Amanda had executed this idea with more success, she’d be a shoo-in as the costume designer for Heidi Klum’s Staring Olympics, coming to Lifetime in 2015.

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Sandhya, Kini, and Sean make up the top three. As much as I have enjoyed Sandhya as a character this season, come on now. Her model looks like the sidekick from a rejected Sid & Marty Krofft pilot. Nina and Fitzgerald, at least, have the self-respect to express some hesitation amid their praise. Nina says, “It is at the tipping point of looking a little bit circusy-slash-childlike,” which is like watching the 007-as-clown scenes from Octopussy and concluding, “That might be a little bit of a departure for the character.”

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But Posen is giddy. He declares, “This made me want to do a rain dance.” Then he gyrates clumsily but adorably to the beat of a Raffi song playing on a broken tape recorder in his head. Nina pines for the somehow-more-respectable days of Michael Kors, and Heidi is just confused, as German children are forbidden from dancing during inclement weather.

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Kini’s interpretation of an umbrella is the rare Project Runway design that’s an instant stunner when the model takes the stage and continues to develop as you look at it. The drama of the umbrella skirt is the most striking part at first glance. A still image can’t capture the mesmerizing way the model’s movement reverberated through this structure, which reflects its inspiration, an umbrella, but also evokes the blades of a jet engine.

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The skirt would have been a sad, heavy mess in less capable hands, and Kini also creates the perfect counterpoint up above, where the countless folds of the umbrella abruptly give way to a skintight black vinyl top. This top gives the look its soul. Even though you mostly can’t see the model’s legs through the skirt, you practically can see them—the silhouette of the top is so strong that your mind’s eye naturally extends the human form downward. The resulting effect combines an outward show of textile spectacle with a subtler expression of full-body kineticism. Fitzgerald isn’t wrong when she remarks that the hat looks “accidental,” but the model sells it with an insouciant nod at the end of the runway.

And yet there was a look in this runway show that was even more memorable and even more impossible to capture in a still image, hence the clip. Sean’s concept—to sew pouches of dye into his white dress so that they would color the garment as soon as it got wet—was a truly risky move on a show where “taking a risk” is usually code for “making something ugly that the judges might like anyway.” Like Sean himself, I can’t stop beaming when that initial burst of goldenrod emerges around the model’s waist. After that, streaks of red appear, and it’s as if a watercolor painting magically comes to life as Sean’s model strode down the runway, a moving scene of creative vindication. The rainway concept was fun to begin with, but Sean’s dress is what brings it home and makes this a runway show for the ages.

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Sean’s not the only one who achieves a metamorphosis: In the driving rain, Fäde’s look is transformed from a boring dress into a wet boring dress. Sitting in the bottom three with Korina and Emily, Fäde goes off the rails in an interesting way here by focusing on Samsung rather than the rainway. He seems to think that if he kisses up to the sponsor—it’s cringeworthy when he likens the hem of his dress to the curve of a Samsung TV—he can squeak by this time. In general, that would be a smart reality-show move, but Heidi isn’t going to play it that way.

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Posen nails it when he calls out the design as a “glorified T-shirt print,” and the problems here go beyond that lifeless, trite play button. Viewed up close, the frayed, sloppily assembled “wires” extending from the play button conjure the Old Man’s mess of extension cords in A Christmas Story; the model looks one sneeze away from starting an electrical fire on her chest. And, as the judges mention repeatedly, the look inexplicably has nothing to do with rain.

Heidi remarks that it “kind of looked like a subway map a little bit,” and Fäde starts to agree with her, but she ignores him because she was hoping to riff on this one a little more. “You know, I was thinking,” she continues, “are you going to the F train or the A train? Where am I driving to?” The fact that Heidi thinks you drive to the subway—just park your Range Rover in the tunnel there, Ms. Klum, anywhere is fine—tells you how often she takes the train to work.

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Korina has immunity, but she’s still in the bottom three because everyone would like to talk about how terrible this is. Her look is a plain black dress adorned by three distinct regions of Mylar horror. Most prominently, you’ve got a jangly prison of plastic bands that provide an answer to the question “What would it look like if you were trapped in the crown from the Crown Royal logo?” The strips on the arms aren’t assembled well enough to cohere into anything, and then the garment is finished off, naturally, with two steamroller-flattened slide trombones dangling behind the model’s butt. But it’s of no consequence: Posen gives Korina the obligatory “you’re lucky you have immunity” routine, and she lives to design another day.

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Emily sends a Salute To Zoolander down the runway, a look that the judges rightly call out as an unintentional parody of an avant garde fashion show. It’s not even a good parody, as the different pieces of Emily’s look aren’t on speaking terms. Look how meekly the midsection echoes the form of the shoulder blades—and these pieces, in turn, have nothing to do with the constricting, puckering sleeves and leggings. Caitlin says she “worried about the rain filling up the front” of the dress, an effect that actually might have improved this one, and Nina remarks, “It’s so cliché that…” before growing so disgusted that she can’t finish her own sentence. “I mean, it’s just too predictable, I’m sorry!” she cries as she overdoses on utter disdain.

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Sean and Kini both “win” the challenge, because sure, now that immunity is no longer in play and victories are practically meaningless, Heidi can hand them out like candy. And luckily for Emily, Fäde whiffs so completely on this challenge that the judges send him away instead of her. A Deutschland native, Fäde has a little conversation in German with Heidi, and it’s always fun to hear Heidi break out the mother tongue. She should do the whole show in German.

Backstage, Tim tells Fäde, “I have to send you to the workroom to clean out your space.” Given that the rainway is in Brooklyn and the workroom is in Manhattan, is anyone going to give Fäde a ride? No? Nobody? Okay, Fäde will just walk then. Maybe he can pick up a gallon of milk on the way.

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Stray observations:

  • It’s funny that Tim’s “color bars are for old people” remark aired the same week that color bars enjoyed their biggest star turn in years.
  • The contestants call home using their iPhones, to the certain delight of sponsor Samsung.
  • “It feels like black, dark Smurf gone bad.” Zac Posen’s pitch for his gritty reboot, Smurfs: Rise Of Gargamel.
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