Heidi opens the festivities this week by cryptically telling the designers that they will have to “spread their wings” for this challenge. Enigma! They all try to figure out what the theme of the episode could be. Someone speculates that they’ll be making fashions for parachutists, who of course do not have wings. Hence the need for a parachute. So not a great guess, yet I do like the notion of these sleep-deprived, emotionally volatile designers designing something that must be constructed perfectly or else someone dies.
Like the others, Viktor has no idea what lies in store—except for a heaping helping of patented Viktor Luna sass! “My wings are spread, girl, OK?” he says in a testimonial, before adding for some reason, “I’m just playin’!” Viktor continues to operate under the assumption that it’s sufficient to merely say a sequence of words in a zinger-ish tone of voice. As such, he feels no need to provide any actual zing. A lot of this episode is like that.
The next thing we see is Tim Gunn, Collier Strong, and an assortment of semi-exotic birds. Hold on, I have to go check the DVR to see if this really happened or if it was just a dream I had. … Yup, it’s real. There are birds in the Parsons lounge.
The contestants are paired off. “Each pair is designing for a bird,” Tim says, suggesting that the birds themselves are the customers for this episode.
The challenge is to design a garment inspired by this bunch of birds over here, whose provenance goes unexplained and is therefore really sketchy. They gotta have the birds back to their bird guy in a coupla hours on account of he’s really not supposed to lend ’em out like this, so everybody hasta get inspired real quick-like. Anya and Laura, you look at dis here crow, name of Phoenix. Joshua and Bert, you’re with Sweetie, she’s an Amazon parrot, so treat her nice. Viktor and Kimberly, you invent a dress with this white one. Nobody look at the owl, he don’t need any fashion, he’s an owl.
Bert says that the parrot has a very “dime-store look,” which is just mean. Never criticize the client!
The prize for the winner is $20,000 cash and the opportunity to abet Project Runway’s ongoing assassination of the English language by creating what is called an “advertorial” in Marie Claire. Tim tells the designers that they will be competing “head to head” for this challenge, meaning that one person in each pair will be in the top three, and one will be in the bottom. It’s the producers’ extremely subtle attempt to incite conflict. The other idea in the brainstorming meeting for this episode was to have a P.A. go into the workroom and beg the designers to hate each other or he’ll hit them with a hammer.
As the owl realizes that he seriously just came all the way across town for nothing, the designers head to Mood. Josh licks a piece of fabric. “I was embarrassed that I got the bold and bright-colored bird, but at this point, I’m feelin’ it,” he says. Somehow he will find a way to incorporate garishness into his design sensibility—truly a “make it work” moment.
Back at Parsons, they all set to work. “This is, like, hello sexy dot-com,” Viktor says of Anya’s design. And I finally get it. It’s all a knowing send-up of the Christian Siriano-type catchphrase machine. Viktor intentionally juxtaposes the visual of a hip, non-brain-damaged gay man with the sound of word salad. The dissonance of the resulting image prompts us to ask, “When is a catchphrase not a catchphrase?” The answer: When Viktor Luna says it.
“I think the effect is going to be glam-mazing,” Viktor Luna says.
Tim pops in to deliver some further instructions to the designers. Surely this twist will see justice served and finally incorporate the patient owl into the competition. “You are designing a second high-fashion look inspired by your bird,” Tim says. In a nest somewhere, a single tear falls on the corpse of a half-devoured mouse.
The spirit in the workroom is downright bubbly. Josh and Bert tease each other. Everyone jokes around. The world’s gayest little cockroach chooses this moment to make his splash on the fashion scene, and everybody has a good time being horrified at shabby, dilapidated old Parsons. “We don’t have this angst going on,” Bert says in a testimonial. It’s open rebellion against the premise of the head-to-head idea.
Not all is well. Kimberly is, to use Anya’s word, unraveling. First, she finds some stains on her fabric. Next, her sewing machine makes a terrible noise as she drives the needle through her finger. This pushes her over the edge. After staggering around the workroom for a minute in an exhausted daze, she retreats into the bathroom—the Bathroom Of SORROW. As the show heads to commercial, the camera isn’t able to follow Kimberly in. But it drinks in that women’s room sign, inviting viewers to imagine that the generic female icon is, like Kimberly, overcome with stress and anguish.
After the commercial, Kimberly collects herself. In a testimonial, she talks about how her mother died, followed by her stepfather and her brother. Good God. Even by the standards of Project Runway backstories, which exist on a scale from “heartbreaking” to “devastating,” that is an awfully sad tale.
Josh scraps his first design, which was looking like a pile of crepe-paper sweepings from a St. Patrick’s Day parade cleanup. Probably a good choice, but now he finds himself out of fabric. He asks Anya if she might lend him some. She doesn’t. It’s as good a time as any for Josh to go into Pissy Mode. He opts for seething petulance over his usual loud bitchiness. So much personal growth this season.
In the lounge, Laura and Anya talk about her rejection of Josh’s request. “At some point, it’s a different game,” Anya says. Laura agrees, and they reach much the same conclusion as they did last week, in a similar conversation: Once Anya no longer needed help, it was unethical to help people. (Putting aside the convenience of Anya’s reasoning, I’m inclined to agree with her. Offering help to a designer does seem more problematic when people are competing one-on-one.)
Tim returns for a critique. He gives Laura’s second look the once-over and tell her to “ditch it.” It’s rare for him to be that direct, but he’s right, of course. Then he wanders over to Josh’s table, his eyes drawn to a big green skirt. “What is this? Qu’est-ce que c’est?” he asks. “What’s a guess-kasay?” Josh asks. Ugh. Josh’s entire Project Runway career should be accompanied by a slide whistle. (And it probably will be on the season-finale highlight reel.)
Kimberly’s critique session starts off grim. She hates her designs, but she says that “it’s too late” to recover. Tim insists that not only is Kimberly wrong to be pessimistic, but also he is Kimberly’s “cheerleader.” Here’s a question. When they do this Project Runway All-Stars thing with a bunch of scabs filling the mentor and judges’ roles, do you think that the icy, Nina-Garcia-hating Marie Claire editrix is going to tell anyone that she’s their “cheerleader”? This is why you can’t replace Tim Gunn.
Anyway, Kimberly mutters, “I know, Tim. It’s always good to see your face.” She’s not trying to be dismissive; she just sounds like she hasn’t slept in a couple of years. Yet Tim’s assault of rainbow-kittycat-sparkle-cupcake cheer is unrelenting, and Kimberly turns the corner.
Until she burns a hole in her dress with a glue gun. To recap, Kimberly has stained her fabric, made the stain worse, sewed through her own hand with a sewing machine, and burnt a hole in her dress. She’s basically operating off the script of a vintage Donald Duck cartoon (“Tulle Trouble,” 1948). “Think I’m gonna have to pull out an Anya moment and go from tragedy to triumph!” Kimberly declares. Anya endures this with a vacant stare. She finds it displeasing to hear her name taken in vain.
Tim visits the workroom yet again: “I have a special announcement! … Only one of your two looks will walk the runway. It’s up to you which one.” What the hell…?
Tim recites some half-hearted claptrap about “editing,” but this twist doesn’t even come close to making sense. The challenge has gone from one design, to two designs, and back to one again. I mean, the practical reality is that having the same models change into the second looks would have made the judging session cumbersome, so something was fishy with this challenge from the start. But still, you’re not supposed to be so brazen when you mess with the contestants, Project Runway. There needs to be some sort of creative justification, however thin, for the chicanery. You can’t just ask them to make less stuff on a show that’s about making things. This is madness.
Oh, by the way, STILL NO OWL.
The designers do their pre-runway makeup consultation. The thing is, they already had a makeup consultation with Collier Strong the day before, so instead of conferring with the staff when they go down to the L’Oreal Paris makeup room, the designers simply tell them to do whatever Collier said. Burly Handlebar Mustache Makeup Guy handles this subordination with his usual delightful smile, but it must gall him a little. He could probably do Collier Strong’s job with two mustaches tied behind his back.
Time for the runway show. This week’s guest judge is Francisco Costa, women’s creative director for Calvin Klein Collection. He’s fine. He makes no waves in what proves to be a dull judging session.
Viktor and Kimberly both make asymmetrical over-the-left-shoulder white gowns. Viktor suspects Kimberly of copying, but who cares. The instant that Viktor’s model comes around the corner, you know that he’s going to get dinged for a “too literal” interpretation of his cockatoo muse. And so he is. In the judges’ eyes, nothing is worse than literal.
Not even Kimberly’s gown, which opens a window into the world of copious jiggling sideboob and accents the experience with a chintzy stripe of pearls on the bodice and a raggedy hemline. Then there’s the horrid flesh-colored slit that crumples at the waist like a diseased appendix in dire need of amputation.
Yet it is mentioned on more than one occasion, mostly by Kimberly herself, that her garment was made in only three hours. So, hooray?
“We got this short, dumpy, little parrot,” Bert says, and his professed hatred for the bird manifests in a dull, gray dress, an implicit insult to all of bird-dom. The cheap material for the corset looks like it was repurposed from a middle-school production of Land Of The Lost. And while Heidi is right that there is the spark of a good idea in Bert’s layers of color, those semi-hidden splashes can’t keep everything below the waist on this dress from being sucked into a vortex of gloom.
There is nothing gloomy about Joshua’s dress, because it is very orange. It’s a serviceable orange dress, capably assembled. When the judges start talking about the “exuberance” of the garment, though, it becomes a bit much. Without that Thanksgiving-on-St.-Bart’s centerpiece/corsage thing adorning the model’s shoulder—which the judges hate anyway—this is a boring dress. The draping is ordinary; the front of the dress straddles the line between “simple” and “shapeless.” I’m not getting the excitement here. It’s fine. I guess the judges are just delighted that Josh didn’t unleash another Crayola orgasm on his model, so he gets graded on a friendly curve.
Anya, too, has received a charitable assessment from the judges on occasion, but she doesn’t need charity here. She produces the only outstanding garment of the lot, a raven-inspired geometric black dress that creates inky layers on the model’s body, giving way to striking hard angles at the edges. In a classy way, the garment’s aesthetic evokes the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. Nina tells Anya that it’s “probably my favorite outfit that you have produced so far,” which she was going to say no matter what, but at least she gets to mean it now. “You really get a sense of bird,” Costa says.
“It’s too birdy,” Heidi says of Laura’s outfit. Apparently there’s a perfect amount of bird-ness in this challenge, and Laura has overshot it. Her satin tights wrinkle and bunch, looking as if the model just wore them on a transatlantic flight, in coach. On top is a jacket with a bulging crimson-purple fringe on either side of a tapered oval silhouette. It has a little bit of a Georgia O’Keeffe vibe to it, if you catch my vulva-esque drift. Although that is not to suggest there is anything sexy about this shabby ensemble.
The judges’ comments are slim on the bons mots. Instead, Kors, and Nina lazily compile a greatest-hits album of Project Runway adjectives. Bert’s dress is “pageanty” and “costumey,” and everyone who they didn’t like was “literal.” Despite being fully aware that this is the 11th episode of the ninth season of the program, Kors declares, “It’s Project Runway. It’s about design.” Then he wraps it up because he’s almost exhausted the anytime minutes on his phone-it-in plan.
Heidi says Anya is “the clear winner” of the challenge. Josh pouts. “She definitely has some kind of strategy,” he bitches. Yes, Anya’s unorthodox approach of “being good at making clothes” will be analyzed and debated by Project Runway tacticians for years to come.
Bert’s out. He’s OK with it; he hated his dress anyway. “You made the right choice,” he tells the judges, completing his weeks-long journey of rehabilitation to the ultra-classy Bert that we originally fell in love with. He realizes how far he’s come. “I was really grateful that when I did say goodbye to the other designers, I felt they genuinely liked me, and I liked them.” Aw. It’s a calm before the pre-finals storm. For a moment, everybody’s warm and happy again.
Except the owl.
- Whenever I hear the phrase “for the birds,” I think of Norm MacDonald’s brilliant anti-comedy performance at the Comedy Central Bob Saget roast. I know “Comedy Central roast” is not the most enticing phrase, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s genius. Here’s a link to the first part.
- I watched that After The Runway thing that followed the show, purely out of a sense of obligation. I like Zanna Roberts Rossi, and she does a fine job as moderator. I also can get behind the idea of more “reunion show” type affairs, in theory—especially since the show so badly bungled what should have been a spectacular reunion last year. But this debut episode is inessential at best, and insufferable at worst. Here are some of the reasons why.
- Only four of the designers show up for the first segment. Then Anya comes in for the second segment onward, ostensibly to stoke confrontation, which promptly fizzles out. Laura never shows up, and her absence is unexplained.
- Rossi introduces a “Clearing The Air” segment that might as well be called the “Can You Guys Say Some Stuff That Will Piss Each Other Off? Because That Would Really Help Us Out” segment.
- Season 3 contestant and professional annoying person Laura Bennett is allowed to be on television again. Her ham-fisted inquisition gives a blithering Josh the opportunity to stoke his own martyr complex even further.