Project Runway: “A Times Square Anniversary Party”
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Project Runway: “A Times Square Anniversary Party”

It could not be more fitting that Project Runway throws itself a 10th anniversary party after having been on the air for seven and a half years. What could more perfectly illustrate the relationship between Runway’s ego-distorted paradise of caprice and the “factual” world that the rest of us claim to occupy?

So yes, Heidi Klum, you go ahead and tell the crowds that “This is the 10th anniversary of Project Runway,” because July 2012 is December 2014, and Project Runway has always been at war with Eastasia. The venue for the show’s Tacit Denial Of External Reality Celebration is Times Square, considered by all thinking persons to be the most fashionable conglomeration of avenues on earth. The warm lights of Sbarro and T.G.I. Friday’s cast an impossibly stylish glow on Heidi as she welcomes the proles to the extravaganza.

Michael Kors declares, “We have more seasons than I Love Lucy! Pretty amazing!” Yup. Take that, the corpse of Lucille Ball. Of course, I Love Lucy ran for six seasons, but Kors didn’t say anything until Project Runway hit 10 because he wanted to be sure of the math.

The designers emerge to accept their moment of applause. “Take a glass of champagne,” Tim demands, because the most special kind of joy is compulsory joy. “This is like, mega mega mega mega mega mega mega mega,” says some designer who we don’t know who she is yet. And they all toast to the definitely-not-overselling-itself season 10 of Project Runway, hooray!

In case you were thrown, even frightened, by the daring in medias res beginning to the show, the good folks at Bunim/Murray have one word for you: Relax. This was only a three-minute fit of minor experimentation, and as demonstrated by the obligatory shots of designers walking in the vicinity of Manhattan subway-station signs, the remaining 879 minutes of the season’s programming will hew to long-established formula.

Therefore, it’s time for meet-the-designers soundbites. Buffi Jashanmal says she’s half-Indian and half-Australian, and she grew up in Dubai. Ho-hum. She thinks she sounds pretty exotic, but last season, we had a person who claimed to be from both Trinidad AND Tobago.

Gunnar Deatherage, the man whose very name is a Quentin Tarantino film, has returned. He was one of the four designers who instantly got the ax at the beginning of season nine—you know, as part of that elaborate, Candid Camera-style prank designed to sate Heidi’s ever-growing need for designer sorrow.

Lantie Foster, though, is brand-new. She says, “I’m 38, and I’m from California. I’m sorry, did I say 38?” What the—it turns out she’s actually 48, you guys! There’s a loud game-show buzzer sound and a visual “boing” effect in the on-screen graphic as the producers instantly age Lantie by a decade in the most humiliating manner possible. Lesson learned: You can’t play fast and loose with the numbers on Project Runway, sister.

Kooan Kosuke comes to us all the way from Japan. He appears to be a cross between an Osaka Prefecture utility-regulation bureaucrat and a 1977 women’s roller-derby champion. “My thing about the clothing is, I do make clothing because of ‘love,’” he says, inexplicably making air quotes for the word “love.” I think I’m going to like this Kooan fellow.

Then there are a million other designers, but what we really want to know is, will the designers still get to use Hewlett-Packard’s HP tablets from HP, the Hewlett-Packard company? In the workroom, Tim Gunn answers that burning question with a resounding yes. And if you had “Lord & Taylor” in your accessory-wall-sponsor pool, you have a gambling problem.

The designers were given homework before arriving at the show: “Make an outfit that describes your design aesthetic.” As tough as that “make clothes” assignment was, Tim reveals—big twist—the designers must now make ANOTHER clothes! Gee whiz, exactly how many clothes are these people going to have to make on this dang crazy show?

And don’t get this person named Beatrice started on the time pressure. “The first look I made took four days,” Beatrice said. “Now I have one day, so I’m a little freaked out!” Given that she’s presumably familiar with the show—it has had more seasons than Sanford And Son, after all—you’d think she could have steeled herself for this moment a little better.

As the challenge gets underway, rivalries develop. Buffi already doesn’t like Kooan, on account of he runs too quickly in Mood. Christopher gets into it with Gunnar, saying, “Mew-mew Prada, is that your aesthetic?” Later, Lifetime flashes a graphic on screen saying that Christopher is the No. 1 choice in the “fan favorite” contest or some such. I choose to believe this is because of his brilliant coinage of the phrase “mew-mew Prada,” one of my favorite designer-on-designer putdowns of all time. [Oops, okay, it's "Miu Miu/Prada," which makes much more sense. My Japanophile ears went straight to this.] Then again, after his catfight with Gunnar (the first one), Christopher remarks in a testimonial, “This isn’t Project Obnoxious.” So he still has a lot to learn. 

Some of the designers seem to be characters lifted from other television shows. After 58-year-old Andrea Katz hears that fellow designer Fabio is a “freegan” who forages in dumpsters for food, she remarks, “I’m a little dubious about having dinner at his house.” Her quiet, laughably banal disapproval sounds for all the world like Ruth Fisher from Six Feet Under.

Buffi’s response to Fabio’s freegan-ism is to shout, “I invented a diet! It’s ‘fegan,’ so it’s ‘fake vegan.’ You can eat whatever you want.” Later, in a testimonial, she notes with complete earnestness, “Even when it gets very stressful in the workroom, it’s kind of in my nature to keep talking to everybody and make everybody laugh.” Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Scott.

And then there’s Project Runway’s latest Balki Bartokomous type, Dmitry. He used to be a professional ballroom dancer, “in Belarus, and all over Europe!” (Translation: in Belarus.) He says that he’s tired of designing ballroom-dance costumes, though, and that his fashion sense has evolved. Here is a bold prediction: Dmitry will create a number of looks that look like ballroom-dance costumes.

Tim’s visit is uneventful, except that it gets us another early look at Gunnar, who seems to carry himself with a smug sense of superiority. It was about this point in the episode when I realized, no, it’s a smug sense of seniority. I think Gunnar believes he is better because he has been on Project Runway for about eight minutes longer than everyone else.

What a brilliant, cynical casting choice by the good (by which I mean evil) folks at Bunim/Murray Productions. It’s obvious that Gunnar spent the “off-season” practicing his bitchy mannerisms, and the casting directors would have seen this. So after ruthlessly banishing Gunnar in the opening minutes of season nine, they’ve brought him back for season 10—just so they could make him the person that we’re all supposed to hate! And once he’s outlived his usefulness, no doubt he’ll be tossed aside. It’s all pretty horrible, but then again, Gunnar did choose to prostrate himself before the reality beast-gods yet again, so he sort of has it coming.

Anyway, Gunnar and Christopher have another weird passive-aggressive showdown of snippy remarks and nervous smiles in the sewing room. Afterward, Christopher says of Gunnar, “He should be on Toddlers And Tiaras!” He thinks for a moment, and then adds, “Wrong show!” Because, you see, Toddlers And Tiaras is a different television program, so if Gunnar were supposed to be on that show, he has, in darkly comic fashion, ended up on the “wrong” show. You know what? Christopher would like to draw you a diagram—what’s that? We’re moving on? Okay. Christopher hopes you understand the broad strokes of what he’s getting at.

Ven is another designer that the editors would like you to hate, because he’s good at what he does, and he knows it. But the worst remarks they can pry out of Ven are things like, “I don’t want to be cocky, but I think that there are some people who should be worried.” That’s not very nasty. On the other hand, Raul talks a lot of trash, but he lacks Ven’s puffed-chest confidence in himself. So the editors are forced to combine the worst of the two men, constructing a sort of asshole-by-committee, and it just isn’t the same.

Time for the runway show, and we are supposed to get excited for Times Square again, but who can be bothered. Your guest judges tonight are Lauren Graham of Parenthood fame and Patricia Field, who was Project Runway’s first guest judge ever. Or so the Heidi Klum Ministry Of Truth claims. There is no owl. There has never been an owl. Two plus two is five Amazon parrots.

With 32 looks to fit in, the show is cut together pretty rapidly, which is fine, since there aren’t that many highlights.

Andrea’s second look, a bulbous cocktail dress with thick black-and-white stripes, makes her model resemble Dr. Robotnik from Sonic The Hedgehog, if he had existed in the Steamboat Willie era.

Fabio’s first look seems to embody some sort of “freegan” aesthetic, in an appealing way. The dark green two-layer top is fine, but I’m more attracted to the skirt, whose gritty stain pattern evokes a low-fi urban sensibility without being obnoxious about it. The skirt’s curved asymmetrical hem is a problem, though; it doesn’t cast the most inviting silhouette, and its gentle arc seems out of sync with the edgier feel of the fabric and the print. Fabio’s other look, from certain angles, comes off as a distended black Mao shirt. Sometimes the inconsistent designers are the most interesting ones, though, so I’m looking forward to seeing more from our dumpster-diving friend.

I also like Raul’s pantsuit look, which contrasts the austerity of the gray suit against the softness of a sheer pink blouse.

The bottom three are Kooan, Beatrice, and Lantie. Have you ever heard of those people who use young children’s drawings as the inspiration for stuffed animals? If those people started making women’s fashion instead, they’d probably generate something like Kooan’s first look, which includes a gray romper with big blue dots. Underneath this is a top whose print, a pastiche of neon and animal-fur patterns, appears to be concept art for the strip-club scene from Blade Runner. Kooan’s other look is just a big version of that heat-trapping bag they give you when you buy a rotisserie chicken at the supermarket, and this one appears to still have the chicken in it.

Nina Garcia and Kors make worried noises about Kooan’s potential inability to create serious work. They’re very concerned, and so on. It’s all a bullshit feint, because of course they are going to keep this nutjob around for a few more episodes just to be amused by his creations. “I want to be sure that we’re not going to see a joke,” Kors tells Kooan, maintaining the charade. “Thank you so much,” Kooan says, which appears to be his catchphrase but also happens to be a weirdly perfect response.

Beatrice has reminded us throughout the episode that she likes to work with knits. Well, she wasn’t lying. Her knit dress is accented with a Native American-inspired cape. When you find yourself saying on the runway, “I made her kind of, like, a cape,” you should know you are on borrowed time. The droopy ecru knit skirt in Beatrice’s other dress is the textile equivalent of sobbing quietly to yourself in your one-room apartment; it’s paired with a red fabric top that Beatrice has somehow made to resemble pleather. I don’t know how she did this, and it was probably hard to do, but it is also not a thing someone should do, ever.

Lauren Graham notes during the judging that she has “watched every episode of the show,” and a little while later she tries to pass it off like she’s just a longtime Project Runway fan, but I think she actually crammed before her appearance on the show, blasting through every episode as part of her increasingly apparent desperation to NAIL this judging gig. For an actress of her poise and talent, she’s one of the more flustered and eager-to-please guest judges I can remember.

“This dress is so pretty, it just gives me ideas of what else I wish you did,” Graham splutters during Beatrice’s critique, and I’m going to stop using the verb “splutters” now, but just know that I could keep using it for pretty much every Lauren Graham utterance. Anyway, she continues, “Like, I wish you’d done—be the knit jersey person, you know, and do it in a different lengths.” Yes, if only we could all live in Graham’s glorious dream world. If wishes were different-lengths-of-knit-jersey horses, beggars would ride! (They would ride terrible-looking horses.)

Graham has more for Beatrice, noting, “There are also designers who just make T-shirts….” At this point, Heidi steps in and says, in essence, “not in my house,” and this achieves Heidi’s desired outcome: the quietness of Lauren Graham.

Lantie’s looks are also dreadful. One of them, a “vintage”-inspired dress, looks like the handmade shower curtain that your senile aunt crocheted for you 30 years ago and you never had the heart to throw away. The other one appears to have been created when a snake resting on a dirty air-conditioning filter got run over by a truck. “Oh my god, it is horrifying,” Nina says.

Lantie is “somewhere between stylist and designer,” says Patricia Field, in the sonorous tones of a shopping-mall ashcan. “One step below design.” That’s a pretty devastating critique, but also an astute one—some fine guest judging right there. Why did they wait “10 years” to have Ms. Field back? 

Melissa has a black dress and this other black look with an angular leather top. It’s all fine. I’m bored by it and don’t feel like talking about it. All the judges like it just fine, too, and nobody is head over heels. I mean, sure, Heidi says, “I would want to wear it,” but it sounds like the unspoken end of that sentence is, “…to the bank.”

Christopher says, “My design aesthetic is chic, sophisticated,” which I don’t think counts as an aesthetic. He might as well say, “My design aesthetic is: good.” That said, his gown is quite beautiful, with complex layers of fabric strips that curl and flutter as the model walks down the runway.

Ven’s looks are extremely well made, and the judges clamor to praise his craftsmanship. And indeed the lines of his garments are remarkably precise. Yet for me, Ven’s garments lack a certain soul. They’re attractive, but his models come off more as vehicles for his clothes—walking mannequins—rather than human beings who are brought to life by the garments. There’s something sterile about Ven’s aesthetic so far. I realize this is an awfully esoteric complaint; I just don’t know any better way to express the vibe I get from his stuff. I found myself thinking, “Those clothes look good” instead of “She looks good in those clothes.”

The designers are sent away so the judges can kibitz. Melissa gets knocked out of contention for the win right away. The discussion turns to Christopher. Graham says, “I just wish the black dress had been”—here she pauses and tries mightily to think of a color other than black—“some other color. Like, any other color. So you could have seen….” And then she drifts off, perhaps because the voices in her head are screaming, “YOU ARE BLOWING IT!” too loudly for her to hear herself speak.

Kooan prompts another round of “we’re concerned that this fellow will make a mockery of our proud Project Runway institutions!” hand-wringing. Nina goes to a weird place, saying, “What worries me is his behavior. Because he also acts really funny.” Even Heidi thinks this is over the line, and she tries to brush it aside by saying that the guy was probably just nervous. But Kors will have none of it, and he criticizes Kooan for being “an attention magnet!” Wow. Hold on, that’s just too much. I need to give that its own paragraph.

Michael Kors criticizes another human being for being “an attention magnet.”

All the grown-ups gleefully crap on Lantie’s “bad,” “badly done” interpretation of vintage clothes. Then Lauren Graham jumps in. She says, “And then in terms of, like, her look completing the picture, in the way that Melissa’s did in the positive—she had the same bib thing here”—at this point, Field mercifully interrupts Graham to end the discussion with an abrupt, “She took a granny dress from the ’70s. That’s what that was.” I now have a pretty good idea of what it would be like to see a Project Runway guest judge dragged out behind the barn and shot.

Christopher wins. That is correct. Kooan predictably lives to make whackadoo clothing another day. Beatrice is out, which is also probably the correct choice, although this one was a toss-up. In the lounge, Tim gives her the “we’re so sad it had to be you in particular” shtick. He treats these early farewells as dry runs for later in the series, when he has to say goodbye to people about whom he actually gives a shit. And while Beatrice may be sad now, I’m sure that 10 years from now, she’ll be able to say, “Happy New Year 2020!”

Stray observations:

  • One of my favorite moments in this episode was a brief, blink-and-you-miss-it exchange where Tim Gunn first comes into the workroom and brushes past a designer, offering a nonchalant “Hello!” The designer is nonplussed—suddenly, this larger-than-life figure is flesh and blood before his very eyes. At that moment, Project Runway becomes real for him. I found that to be a poignant little thing, and as loopy and ridiculous as Runway can be, the show’s editors do often have a good eye for those small moments.
  • The entire critique of Beatrice’s work was summed up in Patricia Field’s gravelly utterance of, simply, “THE KNITS.”
  • Nina looked great tonight. I love that blouse. Sparkly!
  • I’m going to be splitting Project Runway review duties with the delightful Margaret Eby this season—not because I don’t love writing about the show. As you can probably tell by now, I find it a hell of a lot of fun. But these days, I edit this nifty A.V. Club sister site called The Gameological Society, which occupies a great many of my waking hours. You already know Margaret from her great coverage of America’s Next Top Model, so it’s going to be fun to get her take on Runway.

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