Far too much of Project Runway All-Stars has consisted of “make a pretty dress” challenges: Make a pretty dress for the opera; make a pretty dress inspired by a gelato flavor; make a pretty dress inspired by a vacation destination; make a pretty dress inspired by a flag. Very few challenges have placed serious limitations beyond the vague “inspired by” tag. (And even then many of the designers haven’t been able to pull together a pretty dress. Whither All-Stars?) The dollar-store and “clothes off your back” challenges definitely did so, and the Godspell and Miss Piggy challenges could have if the designers were required to take into account their supposed clients’ needs, but we all know how that turned out. So after my initial dread of hearing Angela shout flatly that this challenge would be about “INN-O-VA-TION AND TECH-NOL-OGY”—oh God, what HP product are they going to have to pretend to be excited about this week?—I was delighted to see that all of the designers were going to be put way out of their comfort zones, designing an avant-garde dress that incorporated lighting technology. My first reaction was, “Thank God, an actual challenge”; my second reaction was, “This is going to be one stupid-fugly runway.”
“Avant-garde” is one of those Project Runway coded descriptors like “unresolved” or “couture.” Just as nothing the designers could ever make in 36 hours could be considered actual couture, nothing they made tonight is truly avant-garde—the word is just the producers’ cue for them to make something wacky and eye-catching and not particularly wearable. Basically, not a pretty dress. Of course, by affixing lights and battery packs to a garment, you’re already rendering it those things, so calling the challenge “avant-garde” is just an invitation to the designers to go nuts. Nothing that comes down that runway flashing with LED lights and glow-tape is going to make a viewer say, “I would wear that”—unless perhaps that viewer is planning a trip to Burning Man this year—so the challenge becomes making something dramatic and unusual without being totally hideous. I’d argue that only two designers did that tonight, and neither of them had the winning look.
Austin’s win tonight was puzzling. He was obviously getting either a winner’s edit or a loser’s edit, but it was hard to tell which up until the judges’ comments. His evident delight at the challenge’s premise: winner’s edit. Joanna Coles pointing out that his fairy-lights-and-tulle confection might be too romantic for guest judge Pharrell, who will give the winner the vague honor of “incorporating the design into one of his performer’s looks”: loser’s edit. His tearful Skype call with his mom, whose house was just foreclosed upon: winner’s edit. (Everyone is doing it for Mom this season!) His actual dress as it came down the runway: Oof, loser’s edit. Except the judges loved the hoop skirt draped in Christmas lights (which admittedly sounded much cooler in concept) and awarded the only designer to eschew neon the win, perhaps because his dress read as the most avant-garde—which, as Joanna Coles described it in the workroom, meant it had “a strange bit sticking out of it somewhere.” Somewhere right now, a random Pharrell associate is batting that fairy-light-laden swoopy headpiece thing out of her face and cursing the day Austin Scarlett was born.
Even though they lacked strange bits sticking out of them, both Kenley and Mondo’s dresses were much better contenders for the win in terms of not being hideous eyesores, if not in terms of being “avant-garde.” Mondo’s success isn’t that surprising: Despite his apparent inability to turn on a light switch, he does have a way with bold color—or neon, in this case—and pop-art inspired design, which lends itself well to this sort of challenge. However his opinion that avant-garde comprises a minidress with conical boobs and what seems to be a light-up parrot on his model’s head was wrongheaded enough to cost him a spot in the top two.
Kenley, on the other hand, seemed to be blowing it from the word go, announcing she would be making a plaid gown—the likes of which Project Runway has never seen before!—then proceeding to cobble together what looked like yet another Kenley Dress, only with neon-tape plaid instead of polka dots, prompting Mondo to snidely comment, “You’re really stretching yourself this time.” But lo and behold, she had a trick up her lace-lined cap sleeve: a voluminous shrug made out of upholstery netting woven with tiny lights. Despite the fact that it was basically a cool coat overtop a Kenley Dress—which, let’s not forget, is generally lovely and wearable, if not innovative in the slightest—this seemed like a contender for the win, and when Isaac praised her for taking his instruction to move out of her comfort zone and called it “divine,” it seemed like a lock. And in my opinion, it should have been. I hate neon and shrugs, and Kenley somehow managed to combine them in a way that was… well, not wearable, nothing up there was wearable; but it was the most visually appealing, and that’s more that can be said for a lot of what surrounded it on the runway.
Like Jerell’s hairy glow-in-the-dark panniers, which looked like a costume from the future Broadway production of The Lion King 3000: Simba In Space! As we saw last week, Jerell loves bringing the “ethnic flair” to his designs, and while that can occasionally work for him, it more often careens into costume land, as it did tonight. And thanks to the inclusion of a horrible black pencil skirt covering his model’s legs, it wasn’t even a vaguely nice-looking costume. Without the underskirt, Pharrell might have been able to incorporate it into the costuming for his combination Ice Capades/laser-light-show project or something, but with the skirt and accessories—which were apparently purchased for $5 from a stadium vendor during a night-game—it was just too silly for words.
Michael’s blacklight samurai was too silly for all but two words, which Pharrell apparently read off of my notes during judging: Mortal Kombat. That was some Bride Of Scorpion BS, and the closest it should have come to a runway was a costume contest at Comic Con. (Which yes, I know Pharrell also referenced, but it’s not my fault he keeps saying what I write 10 seconds after I write it!) It was also kind of hilarious, and considering it was the 17th or so design Michael made tonight, you almost have to give him credit for pure audacity. Or perhaps it’s more like obliviousness: “There’s no way I can go home for something this cool.” Maybe not this week, Michael, but you—and yes, Kenley too—better pray for yet another “pretty dress” challenge next week.
- With four designers left, I suppose it’s time to speculate on who the three finalists will be—assuming All Stars wouldn’t be so audacious to pull the ol’ “Surprise! Four finalists!” move in its first/only season. Mondo and Austin are shoe-ins, as the whole concept of PRAS is basically built around their near-wins; I honestly couldn’t care less who the third will be, but for the sake of giving Mondo and Austin someone to make catty remarks to and cutting the number of crying jags by at least half, I’ll go Kenley over Michael.
- On that note: How is the finale working for this show? From what I can tell, the All Stars didn’t show at Fashion Week… does this mean we’re just getting regular challenges up until the end, or will the producers come up with some other conceit for them to create a final collection?
- Austin is “motivated by making fairy tales come true.” Also, hairspray fumes.
- Did you hear? Pharrell was voted Best Dressed Man In The World! What’s that? You’d like to know who voted him that? Huh? I’m sorry, I can’t hear your point over Nega shouting that he was voted The Best Dressed Man In The World!
- Austin: “I’m making a galaxy of gorgeousity.” Michael: “I’m making a coat dress.”
- “Remember Mondo, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything to Kenley.” Man, I know she’s annoying, but the designers are really piling on Kenley this season. Jerell is lucky they don’t allow cats in the workroom.
- Isaac lives for Telletubbies.
- DVR Alert: At the end of the opening sequence, when Angela says “THIS is Project Runway All Stars,” watch in the background as Austin nearly topples over while assuming his Sassy Stance ™