Project Runway All Stars: “Fashion Face Off”
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Project Runway All Stars: “Fashion Face Off”

Part of what’s been making All Stars frustrating this season is that every episode before tonight’s has felt vaguely crowded, a mad dash through three-second quippits and rushed fashion-show footage that never quite adds up to a satisfying, well-rounded episode. Part of that could be the jump back down to an hour after growing used to regular PR’s bloated runtime, but the bigger issue is the fact that, unlike regular PR, where the first four or five episodes are packed with soon-to-be-gone chaff we can ignore outside of their few moments on screen, on All Stars we’re invested in some way, positively or negatively, with all the designers from the get-go, so only getting to spend mere minutes—or even seconds—with them feels like we’re being denied something. On regular PR, by the time we get down to eight contestants, we’ve established favorites and villains and want to spend more time with them, and having fewer contestants to check in on, the show obliges, stretching out and developing personalities and storylines a little more. Going into All Stars, we already had favorites and villains, and having them treated like regular PR chaff felt like a bit of a ripoff.

So it’s probably no coincidence that episode six is the first time it feels like PR:AS has some stakes. We get to spend a lot more time with the eight remaining designers in the workroom—just the designers, not Joanna, who is late for lunch and has to go, dammit—and drama subsequently develops. Rather than letting Jerell and Michael bitch in a couple of five-second clips and then abandoning the Great Cape-Coat Controversy to the cutting-room floor, as they might have in an earlier episode, the producers goose the situation, ordering Joanna Coles to put down her Blackberry and pay attention to the designers long enough to yawn out a “gather ’round everybody” and deliver some vaguely threatening thoughts on being original on the runway. Then later, when Mondo and Michael C. sneak off for some spaghetti and talk about how hurt Michael is at Joanna’s implication, the producers coincidentally let Jerell know there’s food so that he can coincidentally enter the room just as Mondo is coincidentally asking Michael “Do you think it’s just a coincidence?” And just like that, their meal turns from spaghetti to awkward, and the seeds are sown (seams are sewn?) for what Jerell predicts will be an “interesting runway.”

And it is an interesting runway. Not necessarily from a fashion standpoint—there’s a lot that was wearable, but very little boundary-pushing; then again, this is a sportswear challenge—but from a judging standpoint. Part of that success is built into the challenge, which is a head-to-head showdown between two designers who each have to create a “weekend getaway” sportswear look for one of the four seasons and send it down the runway at the same time as their direct competitor. (One designer from each season will be in the top and bottom.) A larger part of that success is Cynthia Rowley, who barrels into judging with claws bared, apparently looking to fill this season’s Michael Kors-sized bitchiness void. She’ll get her due in the Stray Observations section, but it’s worth noting that this was also a very, very good challenge. Again, not necessarily from a fashion-spectacle viewpoint, but in that it challenges the designers in a practical, telling way. It’s specific—“design for this woman”—but not overly specific—“oh, that woman is Miss Piggy”— allowing them to choose their inspiration of their imaginary woman’s weekend destination and judging how well they evoke it. (Plus, the head-to-head challenges are always more fraught with peril.)

Thinking up your own inspiration can be tough, though, as seen in Michael C. and Mondo’s fumbling. It’s not that surprising to see Michael C. scrap his high-backed winter vest concept and start over with a coat that looked a lot like Jerell’s—as Isaac points out during the judging, his talent lies more in execution than original design—but it’s a little distressing to see Mondo struggling to come up with an idea, and referring back to last week’s winning design in conceiving his new one. (And, oddly, styling his model just like his direct competition, Kenley, would.) And the idea he eventually does come up with—the female version of himself going to visit his mom at her 60th birthday party, which he’s missing—has just enough of a whiff of bullshit around it to crinkle your nose. When his black-and-white basket-weave shorts and soiled-kerchief top end up in the bottom, he starts crying like it’s a personal affront to his mom in a manner that seems borrowed from Michael’s bag of tricks. If I were a more cynical person, I might say Mondo’s trying to recreate some of the sentiment of the episode from his season where he told his mom about his HIV. But dammit, I still love that lil’ guy and his inexhaustible collection of glasses frames, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to unfortunate editing and producers egging on drama.

Besides, the whole Jerell-Michael hullabaloo is meaty enough conflict. Neither has been the pinnacle of not-obnoxiousness this season, so it’s really a case of bad-vs.-worse in their little scuffle. It might be a little easier to root for Jerell were he not being followed by the eye-searing, tie-dyed shadow of his creation from last week, but his smugness coupled with that close call is almost as bad as Michael’s pretty obvious idea-biting. They could both lose and no one would cry about it, which makes Jerell’s victory all the more surprising.

And it’s not unearned: His miniskirt and cardigan with a flowing wool coat was my second-favorite thing on the runway (minus the cartoon buttons), after Kenley’s adorable cornflower polka-dot romper, which, granted, was very “Kenley” but that I would press “like” on the second it popped up on Modcloth.com. Mondo definitely deserved to lose to her, poorly aligned polka-dots and all, and be in the bottom four along with Austin’s vision of a rich sorority girl’s Golden Girls Halloween costume (which just barely out-blanded Kara’s grey-white-and-fuchsia shlump-wear), Michael C’s middle-aged-J.Lo furry black winter ensemble, and Rami’s chartreuse and cerulean draping disaster.

Poor Rami. He’s really failed to distinguish himself this season. I have vague memories of people loving Rami his season, but he’s really been keeping his giant, buff shoulders hulking in the background on All Stars, regularly eschewing the thing that people associate him with from his season—draping—only to return to it tonight with extremely poor form (though the suede shoulder panels were a nice touch). We didn’t get one beautiful, draped Rami Dress this season, and we barely got any beautiful Rami in interviews or workroom footage, either. It’s hard to say for certain if his garment is the worst of the bottom four: Austin’s flirted very heavily with the line between “unique” and “ridiculous,” beautifully tailored pants aside. But Austin is still breathing life into this show—his outfit evokes perhaps the strongest reaction Nega-Heidi is capable of, and he’s such a reliably goofy prissy-pants—while Rami has been just taking up space, albeit a well-toned, muscular space.

Unlike last week’s episode, which derived entertainment from its crack-addled judging, this week’s results seem fairly spot-on, if not the most audience-pleasing. Thankfully, a solid challenge and well-executed sewing-room drama is even more interesting than head-slapping trainwreckitude, and allowing it all room to spread out and build steam makes the night’s win and elimination feel more significant. Hopefully, with the number of contestants dwindling and that hour-long running-time staying the same, we’ll continue getting episodes like this as we enter the season’s second half.

Stray observations

  • I didn’t mention Mila’s baggy-skinny-jeans and cape because it barely made an impression. Considering how much flack Kenley gets for clinging to her aesthetic, Mila’s skinny-pants-and-colorblocking routine is getting far more tiresome. At least Kenley’s aesthetic is cheerful and bright instead of dour and severe.
  • Kenley herself, on the other hand, is showing sparks of her old nastiness this episode: To comfort a crying Mondo, she offers, “Hey, they said they would never have lunch with Austin’s girl.” 
  • The “I’d never have lunch with her” remark may have been Isaac’s most blistering of the night, but he has nothing on Cynthia Rowley, who apparently noticed she didn’t get the standard “designers gushing over the guest judge” cut and took it out on her least favorites with extra bile: “I don’t see anything original about any of these pieces at all,” she sniffs of Kara; “She looks like she could be her mom,” on Michael’s version of Jerell’s outfit; and perhaps my favorite, after pulling a Kors and asking Mondo’s model to turn around, “[sucks in breath] hooo booyyy…”
  • For the sake of record-keeping, everyone’s inspiration is as follows. Austin: A rich woman going to stay at her second home for the weekend. (More like her nursing home, amirite??) Kara: Palm Beach casual chic (read: sartorial Prozac). Rami: Woman going wine-tasting with her friends (lots of folds to hide the wine stains). Kenley: Cool girl heading to Art Basel in Miami. (Whatever). Mondo: Himself as a girl (as previously discussed, suspect). Mila: Skinny pants and color-blocking. Jerell: Something with wool. Michael: Whatever Jerell is doing.
  • Joanna Coles likes everything. Consequently, the designers like her and are free to gush about her arrival every week.
  • Joanna all but patted Mila on the head and handed her a treat for using her HP Pad to sketch her design this week.
  • “This feels just like dinner at my house,” says Mondo of his meal with Jerell and Michael. “What, spaghetti?” Michael C responds, tuned in as ever.
  • For those of you who can’t get enough of this show’s slipshod editing, there's a nice, blatant audio splice during Rami’s comments about the Neiman Marcus accessory wall, and several now-standard out-of-focus shots during the runway. It’s almost become charming at this point. 

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