“It’s a little costume-y.” It’s been a Project Runway go-to dis for years now. For as often as that critique is administered, you’d think the show wouldn’t ask its contestants to design costumes so damn often. Figure-skating costumes, wrestling costumes, drag-queen costumes, stilt-walker costumes, er, “couture”: This show has no problem moving the line between fashion and costuming wherever it wants in order to fit the needs of the episode. It can be puzzling from a viewer standpoint, and I imagine even worse from a designer’s. So even though this week’s challenge says right up front that it’s a costume design challenge, it’s understandable that some of the All-Stars seem confused about what they’re expected to do.
And it is a confusing challenge: Design a separates-based costume for a character from the current Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell. The woman playing this character is onstage to deliver the challenge along with Schwartz and Nega-Heidi, but all she can really offer the contestants is that her character is rich and ostentatious. This isn’t her fault: Godspell doesn’t really have “characters.” Actors usually go by their own first name, and as the musical is basically a collection of biblical parables, characters are associated more with songs than storylines. Based on her description, I’m guessing (with help from my theater-critic roommate) this actress is part of the Lazarus parable, but who knows. All we need to know is that she’s rich and likes to steal from the poor, yet somehow simultaneously exudes Lower East Side thrift-store chic. Without seeing the production number in question—which apparently requires her to don pieces of clothing throughout the number, hence the separates criterion—or having any sort of iconic character association to draw on, it’s no wonder the designers glom on, in varying degrees, to the words “rich,” and “thrift-store,” which leads to some pretty interesting looks on the runway. (And fake fur. So much fake fur.)
With all those thin threads hemming the challenge in, nobody seems interested in addressing what might be the biggest issue in costume design: movement. Godspell is a singin’, dancin’, jumpin’ show, and even the most rich and glamorous of characters is probably going to be called upon to do a twirl or glide here or there. So despite the judges’ hemming and hawing over how Kara’s fur stole and red pencil skirt was “a little unresolved” (No. 1 laziest PR judging cliché ever?), the real problem is that it is in no way, shape, or form made to be worn onstage in a musical. Period. It wouldn’t look good (one pop of bright red and a sad floppy bow is not nearly enough to play to the balcony seats), it wouldn’t move well (nor would the person wearing it), and its “rich bitch” concept doesn’t fit the overall Lower East Side, neo-bohemian aesthetic of Godspell.
Perhaps even more confusing is that no one involved with the production in question is on the judging panel, despite the fact that the winning design will be worn by the character onstage. (Oh, and did I mention the winning designers bio will be in the playbill, which is just the biggest honor a fashion designer could ever ask for yessir indeed Mr. Producer Man!) Not that Sutton Foster is exactly a poor substitute: From a Broadway standpoint, she is definitely worthy of the gushing bestowed upon her by the contestants, but beyond being one of the few big, recognizable Broadway names PR audiences are most likely to recognize, she doesn’t bring much expertise in terms of either fashion (good personal style, which she has, is not quite the same thing) or the production in question.
(At this point in the review, Joanna Coles would like to look up from whatever much more important thing she was doing and offer that she was in Godspell once and would probably be a much better judge for this challenge if only she weren’t so busy finding the quickest possible escape route out of the sewing room.)
It’s not surprising that Austin does well on this challenge—his name is Austin Starlet, after all! Oh wait, no, that was just an awkward slip of the tongue from Isaac that was made all the more awkward by Austin’s pursed-lip correction that “it’s Austin Scarlett.” But a challenge that calls upon him to be both over-the-top and glamorous couldn’t be more ideal, and he rises to it well with a Marie Antoinette-inspired rococo-rockstar look. The voluminous, shiny brocade skirt, fur stole, and floppy beret-type hat would be pretty ridiculous under normal circumstances, but it’s just big enough for the stage—and it’d be easy for the actress to move in, thanks to the catsuit underneath. (Though the deep V might be a little too deep for the Sunday matinee crowd.) It’s a good look that rises to the challenge well, and it deserves its place in the top two.
It’s a little more surprising Mondo does so well on this challenge: Like Austin, Mondo can do eye-catching, and the LES thrift-store thing is right in his wheelhouse. But Mondo’s looks rarely register as “luxe” or glamorous. He’s a very ready-to-wear designer, which could be hard to translate to a more glam, costume-y aesthetic. Not to mention he’s picked out a collection of patterns that seems to rival Jerell’s disaster from two weeks back in terms of retina-searing clash—and he spends the first day trying to out-Michael Michael by again bringing up the judges personally insulting his mother last week. Frankly, between that and his and Kara’s Tizzy Twins routine, Mondo’s testing my patience this week… until he pulls out a great look that somehow manages to bring all of the challenge’s dissonant parameters into harmony. It’s all pulled together through the idea of a slightly Asian-influenced smoking jacket, an old-money type of garment that gives his flowing, bohemian dress just the right amount of luxury, with plenty of kooky detail to draw the eye. Yes, the patterns are pretty intense, but this isn’t a dress to be examined up close; the shimmery, sparkly, psychedelic prints blend together and play off each other in a way that registers as opulent from afar, which is the point.
After diva-ing it up last week, Michael and Jerell keep to the background this week… mostly. Michael can’t help but fret that the judges will notice he’s used a matching ribbon to tie his model’s shoes on to her feet, a fear he quickly mitigates by pointing out to the judges that he’s used a matching ribbon to tie his model’s shoes on her feet. While Nega admires the practicality, Isaac is clearly annoyed at Michael’s neediness. And he doesn’t need to worry, anyway: Michael makes a perfectly cromulent outfit, a pretty layered chartreuse skirt and blousy silk halter that’s only dramatic due to the color and the ridiculous matching headdress he puts on his model. Without the headpiece, though, this is a ready-to-wear look, and a pretty nice one at that. But Sutton Foster makes the valid point that she doesn’t know who the character is by looking at the design. Whoops, Michael made fashion instead of a costume!
Jerell takes a similar route with his multi-textured lamé jacket and metallic grey skirt. While this is certainly very, very shiny, it’s somehow also subdued: The jacket it gorgeously made, and shows off the pattern- and texture-mixing chops Jerell has been bragging about all season. But the delight is in the details, and the farther you get away from his model, the more she starts to look like a mother of the bride, which isn’t enough for a win, but it is enough for that sweet, safe middle ground.
Speaking of safe middle ground, Kenley refuses to let go of the aesthetic that’s kept her there all season, and almost goes home for it. Kenley also fancies herself a pattern-mixing master, but she’s not nearly as ambitious in that regard as Mondo or Jerell or even Mila, and her cherry-blossom-ish coat and poppy-pattered dress come together in the visual equivalent of a sad trombone (and the hideous feather trim on the coat is the sad balloon-fart noise on top). Kenley is nice enough to make her failure extra sweet by bragging in that exquisitely Kenley-esque way, “I don’t make mediocre, half-assed pieces. I do every piece beautifully, with a wow factor. So it must be so annoying for those other designers.” And yes, the coat is beautifully cut and tailored under that awful trim, but again, these are two separates that would sell well as separates, but don’t work together as either fashion or a costume.
Mila is no fan of Kenley and Kara’s—especially the way they compliment and are nice to each other, I mean, what is up with that?—but that doesn’t keep her from joining her fellow females in the bottom three with what’s probably the night’s biggest swing-and-miss, a thrown-together-looking cheap fur bolero and unflattering asymmetrical wrap skirt that reads “Forever 21” at best and “dime-store hooker” at worst. (Or, as Sutton Foster more charitably puts it, “Pretty Woman before she got pretty.”) Luckily for her, Kara’s been designing at a lower level all season and was due to go, otherwise Mila would have had to figure out how to look down her nose at everyone as she packed up her workspace.
- Neiman Marcus must have paid extra for all the gushing it’s getting from the designers for the accessory wall this season.
- “Wow, what a shocker that Rami went home, right? CRAZY!” Yes, good, very natural, Kenley.
- Good thing every one of the designers is a huge Broadway fan! No, like huge. Really. Big ol’ Broadway fan over here. Yup.
- “To have your bio in a playbill on Broadway is pretty major.” Yes, Austin, for an actor, not a fashion designer. And no, this is not your “Broadway debut.”
- Mondo wins this week’s Creepiest Intonation Award for, “Ten minutes, All-Stars. Ten minutes, All-Stars.”
- Spinoff series idea: Austin And Kenley, Doin’ Hair!
- I don’t talk much about Nega, because she is basically the human embodiment of silence, but her dress tonight is major. MAY. JAH.
- This week, Isaac is also “an expert in designing for Broadway.” Is there anything he can’t do?
- Upon leaving the runway, Mila administers an obligatory hug to Kara while somehow appearing not to touch her at all.
- “Oh look, the mice have finished my gown, how wonderful!” Something tells me this is not the first time Austin has pretended he’s Cinderella.