Project Runway All Stars: “Return To The Runway”
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Project Runway All Stars: “Return To The Runway”

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Project Runway All Stars

“Return To The Runway”

Season 1, Episode 1

If you took a bunch of students from a top broadcasting school and gave them the assignment “make an episode of Project Runway,” the result would look a lot like tonight’s premiere of Project Runway All Stars: a technically capable, structurally correct hour of television that nonetheless feels hollow compared to the real thing. 

All Stars solves the most glaring problem of recent Runway seasons—a dearth of talent—and muddles through every other aspect of the production. The core pleasure of Runway is watching creativity flourish under limitations, yet when the show is at its finest (which is a rare sight lately), it is more than that. Fashion isn’t merely a craft; it’s also a madly ephemeral art form and a heady social sphere. Put another way, fashion is a world, and an ideal episode of Runway immerses us in a microcosm of that world, with all its caprice, humanity, farce, and hard-won glory.

Can you build such a world without a pie-faced sportswear designer who squeals “she looks like a prostitute!” when you pull his tail? Without a Teutonic bombshell who derives her very life force from the discomfort of those less powerful than herself? Without the  impossibly stylish gay-male version of Mrs. Garrett from The Facts Of Life? Without an owl? Of course you can. But these peculiar sources of life must be replaced with some other vivaciousness, and too often, All Stars gives us cardboard cutouts instead.

For the most part, this criticism doesn’t apply to the contestants, who open the show by toddling back to New York and re-introducing themselves. This process begins with Mondo, who is arguably this show’s raison d’être. “Last time I was here, I made it to the very end, and my heart was broken.” It’s like he’s setting up a flashback, but of course Lifetime does not have the rights to footage produced in the Bravo years, so they can’t set a precedent by going to the videotape here. That makes some sort of sense, but I can’t explain why Mondo is apparently compelled to speak in this sidelong way about his loss to Gretchen, as if he cannot speak her name—the Voldemort Of Beige.

We travel back through the seasons now, as ghosts of Bluefly-Dot-Com Accessory Walls Past dance across the screen. There’s season seven’s Mila, who puts her competition on notice by noting that her previous loss is “sort of driving me.” And Austin from season one. “Darling, of course I had to be here mustache! Someone had to mustache the ‘star’ in ‘all-mustache’!” he says, according to my notes.

Season five’s Kenley is back, of course, because reality television is the lifetime pension plan of fame for America’s jerks. “Sometimes, I can come across as really stuck-up, snobby, and just rude, but screw everybody else,” she says. She has a limited understanding of the conjunction “but.”

Finally, a couple of the designers meet—Kenley and fellow season-five competitor Jerell—so we brace ourselves for the first taste of inter-designer banter. All the history! All the tension! It comes to a head in this exchange that practically picks itself up and etches itself into the highlight reel:

Kenley: What’s been goin’ on?

Jerell: You know, workin’.

Everyone convenes in what appears to be the foyer of Arsenio Hall’s beach house. Now we meet our host, Angela Lindvall. Lindvall’s performance as host will inevitably be compared to her forebear, Heidi Klum, but that’s not fair, as they each have their own distinct qualities. Heidi Klum is puckish, incisive, poised, and funny, while Angela Lindvall is the host of Project Runway All Stars.

Lindvall tells the contestants of the many spoils the competition’s winner will receive. There’s a boutique in “select” Neiman Marcus locations (read: a display case between the elevators and the men’s bathroom in the Fort Lauderdale store). Also at stake is a selection of equipment from Brother (read: a pile of fax machines that only work with Windows 95) and a guest-editor position at Marie Claire (read: a guest-editor position at Marie Claire).

“This total prize package is worth close to a staggering half a million dollars!” Lindvall says. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard the words “this prize package is worth…” when it wasn’t some balding dude totaling up the value of, say, a La-Z-Boy and an armoire. Come to think of it, Rod Roddy might have been a better choice for host of this show, even taking into account the fact that he’s been dead for eight years.

Time to meet the guest judges. Georgina Chapman, steward of the Marchesa fashion line, joins Isaac Mizrahi. I guess that whole The Fashion Show thing didn’t work out too great for you, did it, Isaac? And now, as punishment for your transgression, the Project Runway people have created this exquisite prison for you. It’s poetic retribution: He who stars in dismal Project Runway knockoffs is now doomed to do so until the end of time.

The designers put on a quickie runway show, each of them featuring one garment that represents the work they’ve been doing recently. The camera lingers on each look for a solid three-tenths of a second or so. From these subliminal glimpses I’m able to discern that Rami has made large strides since his very drape-y first appearance and that Kenley is still making the same dress as ever.

The judges weigh in. Lindvall: “Well, guys, that was a great start to the season.” Georgina: “Congratulations, designers, that was really great.” Mizrahi: “This is going to be a great competition, I can tell.” Ha-ha, okay, nice work, judges. Let’s just try it once more from the top, and this time pretend like you are on a television show—you know, the kind where there are home viewers, and you make at least a cursory effort to maintain their interest.

This season, the designers will be staying in FLATOTEL, the only New York living experience that combines the glamour of a British council flat with the luxury of a motel where the first letter in the sign is burnt out. In their suite, everyone scrambles to reestablish the character quirks they worked so hard to develop during their original appearances on Runway.

Elisa, she of the spit-marked measurements, claims a bed by kissing it, reminding us all that she is the one who puts her mouth on stuff. Anthony needs us to remember that he’s a good old Southern boy from the school of hard knocks, so when a champagne cork pops, he cries, “Y’all, I’m from the projects, I thought that was shooting!” A little desperate, but it gets the job done.

Michael holds up a note that says “Press Play” and a remote control. He declares, “Hey, there’s a note. It says ‘Press Play,’ and there’s a control.” Thus he slips back into the role of Barely Functional Man-Child like it was a pair of old loafers.

Michael hands the remote to the nearest grown-up, who presses play, causing Giancarlo Giammetti to appear on their TV set. Giammetti offers some words of encouragement, and then Valentino himself shows up. He says, “Project Runway all-stars, I wish to you lots of success. Lots of talent. Try to make beautiful clothes, clothes that they speak, and they are beautiful to see them in the runway.” I guess that’s why they call him “One-Take Valentino”—nailed it!

Of course there is no earthly point to any of this. The whole scene is just a sad effort on the part of All Stars to prove that it isn’t Project Runway’s little brother. Because look! They pointed an iPhone at a couple of mildly annoyed, famous Italian guys for 30 seconds.

Through all the time-wasting self-puffery, All Stars still hasn’t given the designers anything to do. At long last, that is rectified the next morning when they all meet up with Lindvall outside a 99-cent store. “This is the challenge that the designers hate and the fans love. You guessed it! The unconventional challenge,” Lindvall says. I can’t stand that Bunim/Murray has decided, as of last season, that “the unconventional challenge” is a thing. It’s not a thing; it’s the premise of the show. The fact that the producers consider “unconventional” to be a special case explains why recent seasons have brought us so many challenges along the lines of: “Outside, you will find a city. We invite you to be inspired by it.”

Anyway, this is more aptly described as a weird-materials challenge, which, in fairness to Lindvall, really is fun. The contestants have to make a garment from stuff they buy in the 99-cent store. The barely-there “twist” is that the garment must be inspired by the look they showed off at the micro-runway-show at the beginning of the episode.

It’s a mad scramble. April, sporting a badass silver-blue hair treatment, says that she needs a “clusterfuck of mops.” If that isn’t the name for a group of mops, it should be. Michael also wants mops, and when he learns that April has gone for the same material, he becomes “terrified”—one of the two emotional states that Michael is able to perceive, the other being “thirsty.”

Mondo appears in a testimonial, giving us our first glimpse of his glorious “What if John Lennon and a gypsy gave birth to a character from M*A*S*H?” look. Despite the many lowlights of All Stars, getting to spend more time with Mondo is no small victory.

The designers arrive at the workroom, which apparently is not at Parsons but resides in some undisclosed location. No matter, the walls have “all these different color squares,” which is enough to dazzle Kenley. At Michael’s station, there is a brief continuation of the turmoil over competing mop dresses. Jerell advises Michael, “Y’all need to have a woman-to-woman talk,” but if it happens, we don’t see it.

In theory, Marie Claire editor Joanna Coles is a smart choice for the mentor role on All Stars. You’ll never come close to replicating Tim Gunn, so don’t even try. Instead, go in a different direction with a tart-tongued ice queen—that approach seems particularly apt for the all-stars, who are hardened veterans of the process and should be able to take the harsh honesty.

In practice, Joanna Coles is among the most witless, joyless, unpleasant Project Runway guest judges, not so much an ice queen as a bore. The sole pleasure of Joanna’s appearances on the show is to watch her express her hate for Marie Claire subordinate Nina Garcia by way of stiff, thinly veiled verbal abuse. And that is actually quite entertaining in its own way, but the point is that we don’t get that here.

Coles walks into the workroom and, weirdly, rattles off the list of prizes again. “Of course, one of you, on top of this incredible prize, is going to be a guest editor at Marie Claire,” she says, before adding, “And I couldn’t be more excited.” I’m not so bothered by the fact that she says “I couldn’t be more excited” with the same enthusiasm one might invoke when watering a fern; the unsettling thing is that she’s probably telling the truth.

Joanna’s mentoring technique consists of reminding the crappier designers that they need to “surprise” the judges and telling everyone else that she looks forward to seeing what they come up with. Each visit is a business transaction, and would the designers like her to deposit her pablum in their checking or savings account?

When Joanna arrives at Gordana’s dress, we get a testimonial from Mondo, who says, “It’s a piñata. I hope her model is full of candy.” See, Joanna, that wasn’t so hard. Does Mondo have to do ALL the heavy lifting around here?

In Joanna’s defense, she does deliver the unintentionally hilarious line of the night on her way out the door: “I think the judges are going to have a real difficult time.” Exeunt.

Crisis! Late in the evening, a stray hot-glue gun burns a hole in the front of Austin’s plastic-bag dress. Crisis averted! He patches it in the morning, and it looks fine.

Runway show. Lindvall introduces the guest judge, Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing. My impression of the chipper Downing is that he would make a fine guest judge on Runway proper, where you often need a calm, straightforward voice of reason to contrast the loopiness of the regular cast. But given that Mizrahi is the only energetic member of tonight’s judging panel (and even he barely registers on the Kors scale), Downing fades into the mix. His observations are still more substantial and astute than the dull Chapman and the practically nonexistent Lindvall.

There are a few duds in the designers’ lineup. Sweet P.’s washcloth frock fails to transcend itself; it’s just a bunch of old towels. Similarly, Michael’s model looks every bit the mop. Kenley’s dress looks like a tornado struck a Super 8 bathroom floor. Anthony’s dress would win third prize in a Chinese beauty pageant.

Overall, though, the quality of the work is quite high. After Runway season nine, it feels like whiplash to have all this talent on display. If you watch Project Runway purely for the designs, it appears that All Stars will suit you just fine. Rami, whose name became synonymous with “draping” on his first go-round, defies expectations with an over-the-top plaid cocktail dress that features a voluminous neckline. The neck’s shape is nicely echoed in the waistline. The stiff material gives a geometric feel to the shoulders, which only heightens the badass vibe of the outfit.

Jerell’s look is more in line with expectations, as it’s flowy and light, like many of his past creations. This sheer steel-blue dress with a high-low hem is beautiful, somehow deriving elegance from ultra-cheap materials. I would have liked to see how Jerell turned dollar-store handkerchiefs into this gorgeous dress. If only there were a TV program that could show me such things.

Mondo, no surprise, does not disappoint. The bodice of his little black dress is quite nice, but the real accomplishment is in the skirt, where he constructs three layers of ultra-crappy garbage-bag-type plastic. The proportions of the tiers, relative to both the dress and the model, and a coquettish bow/belt at the waist lends the dark garment a bit of humor.

Fun fact! Kara Janx is a contestant on Project Runway All Stars. If your DVR has advanced freeze-frame technologies, you can glimpse her presence in this episode, hidden by the producers as a sort of “easter egg” for dedicated viewers.

After the runway show, we get one of the strangest Project Runway judging sessions I’ve ever seen—one in which the judges seemed to be cowed by the designers, rather than the other way around. Six designers are invited to stay around for the critique: Rami, Sweet P., Jerell, Elisa, Mondo, and Gordana. We can presume, as per usual, that these people constitute the top three and the bottom three. Yet it’s impossible to tell who’s who because, as with the runway show that opened the episode, everybody is great!

With the exception of Sweet P. She receives the only discernible criticism of the group. Mizrahi prattles on about how “unresolved” it is—you’re allowed to say something is crap, Isaac—and everyone generally sneers at the towel-y nature of the thing.

But there is no ill will for Elisa, whose hot-pants/leotard/angel-wings contraption is certainly the strangest look of the bunch. She muses about “sacred geometry” in her hippie-dippie way: “It’s half of 360; it’s 180 degrees.” Yes, that holiest of shapes, the half-circle. I can picture Kors and Nina eating this poor woman alive. Yet Mizrahi simply tells her that he likes garments that tell a story.

Rami is great. Jerell is great. Mondo is great. When it’s time to speak with Gordana, Chapman mutters some shopworn business about “too many ideas,” but Mizrahi also says, “My favorite thing is the steel wool. The texture looks so divine.” This is not a word, “divine,” that you typically hear applied to Project Runway losers.

The designers leave the runway and suddenly, the judges’ private kibitzing session takes on added import, as it’s our last hope of discovering what these people think (if anything). As it turns out, they love Rami, Mondo, Jerell. And in the somewhat-less-loved column are Sweet P., Gordana, and Elisa. Most of their displeasure with Elisa stems from her long-winded explanation of the dress—apparently, they hate the fact that Elisa made them do math.

After the designer returns, Lindvall crowns this week’s champion. “Mondo, Rami, you had the highest scores, which means one of you is the winner. And that designer IIIIIISSSSSS … Rami!” Holy crap. The windup slays me. That “and the winner IIIIIIISSSS…” move is perfect if you are emceeing a church raffle, and you’re about to announce who won dinner for two at the local Arby’s. And sure, Project Runway is not that much higher up on the scale of importance beyond a church raffle, but it is high up enough that this moment is amusingly hokey. It couldn’t be farther removed from the tension of Klum’s trademark torture-stare.

But it’s the way Lindvall dismisses this week’s last-place finisher that sums up the show for me. Elisa is “out,” and once she’s alone on the runway, Lindvall approaches to say goodbye. You know that she can’t do the kiss-kiss auf wiedersehen thing, as that’s Heidi’s trademark. But what does Lindvall do instead? She shakes Elisa’s hand and mumbles “thank you.”

In other words, Lindvall does nothing. That’s Project Runway All Stars for you. It doesn’t seek to duplicate the specific energies of Project Runway, and that’s smart. Yet time after time, it replaces these energies with nothing, and that’s baffling.

I don’t need Angela Lindvall to have her own charmingly foreign catchphrase. It’s just that the producers ought to recognize that the kiss-off moment is one of the most charged moments of this or any other elimination show, as reality-show creators have known since the beginning of time. This is basic stuff. It’s all basic stuff. And so much of it is flat. There’s no doubt the designers are all-stars, but they’re surrounded by amateurs.

Stray Observations:

  • I didn’t even get into what a strange judging decision this was on the merits. Elisa’s garment had at least some artistry and flow to it, while Sweet P.’s was horrid. (Gordana’s glitter-plastic and steel-wool robot-maid uniform was not much better.) I can’t believe Sweet P. gets to stick around—words I have uttered a number of times before.
  • Austin has been rattling around the Bravo/Lifetime reality circuit for so long that his persona and patter have become too polished. I still like him, and I’m glad he’s on the show, but everything out of his mouth arrived tailor-made for a 15-second promo spot. I also find it odd that he’s placed so prominently in the opening-credits designer lineup, as first among equals. Isn’t this whole thing just an excuse to give Mondo the win? Make him the star!
  • “Did he push boundaries with some unusual paper plate?”
  • Michael was right on the money when he predicted that April’s mop dress would be much better than his own.
  • It makes me sad to say this—although a bit less sad after seeing this show—but I’m taking a hiatus from reality-show reviews. For a while now, I’ve been staying up until 4 or 5 a.m. (I know, I’m slow) once a week putting together reviews of Runway or Work Of Art, and that schedule has caught up to me. I love writing these, but at the end of last year, the fatigue factor started to creep up on the fun factor. I think the writing is better when I’m having fun, so I decided to take a break. No worries, though, as I’m told someone else (we don’t know who yet) is going to handle Project Runway All Stars the rest of the way, so you will be in good hands, and you’ll have a place to comment on the twisted psyche of Joanna Coles. And of course I’ll see you around—I’m working on some very cool A.V. Club-related projects, in fact. Thanks for reading my stuff and for your consistently entertaining commentary!