Project Runway: "Come As You Are"
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Project Runway: "Come As You Are"

“Are we really back here again?” Woo! Heidi Klum sure knows how to ring in the new season with a blast of enthusiasm: by questioning the very existence of her own show. Season NINE, you say? On Lifetime? Isn’t that the channel that shows all the movies with that woman from Who’s The Boss? How did we end up here? For that matter, where is here?

Let’s give Heidi a break. The first episode of a new Project Runway season is always a disorienting experience. This year, the producers have made it even worse, smearing a full 20 contestants across our screen for the Season 9 premiere, like a Cy Twombly composition of half-formed personalities.

“I was getting married in Iceland, and I canceled my wedding to do this,” says Potential Narrative-Production Unit #9, and then she is whisked off the screen as the editors realize, good lord, 20 people is a lot of people. We do not have time for endearing backstory!

In last year’s instant-elimination gambit, the oh-so-many-contestants field was narrowed down by having everyone compete in a challenge, and then the judges kicked one person off. In other words, it was a normal episode of Project Runway, except that the whole time the contestants were told, “You’re not on the show yet!” This year, at least, the initial culling process makes sense. Gathering in what appears to be an abandoned Chipotle, all 20 designers are marched before the regular judges (plus Tim Gunn) with examples of previous work, and the panel chooses 16 to proceed.

Of course, it’s extra work for the judges, and they respond to it with different levels of engagement. To nobody’s surprise, Heidi doesn’t take the exercise too seriously, mainly using it as a venue in which to mindfuck the bejesus out of the contestants.

In walks Anya, a former Miss Trinidad & Tobago. (She’s from Trinidad. Poor Tobago. Always the bridesmaid.) She has a nice mix of sleek and militaristic looks on her five-garment rack. But, a twist! Anya reveals that she has only learned to sew quite recently. She’s been sewing for four months, although the judges act like she just picked up the hobby in the cab on the way to the studio.

Tim Gunn is “horrified” by her lack of experience, while Michael Kors and Nina Garcia roll their eyes the same way the panelists on To Tell The Truth used to do when they spotted the contestant that was obviously thrown in there as a gag. Heidi, though, is delighted at the notion of watching Anya fail, so she says, “I think we should give her a chance!” Translation: Let’s keep this mouse on the string a while longer, so that I may bat it around some more.

Another borderline contestant is Gunnar Deatherage. Here you have this fellow with a name that you’d expect to see crudely printed on the drumhead of some high-school kids’ thrash-metal band. And yet he pulls out this froofy pink number he designed for a woman attending the Kentucky Derby. He seems to have stuck his chewed-up pieces of Bubblicious on a sheet of pink silk for a couple of months and called it a dress. Continuing to maximize the psychological torture of her interrogations, Heidi asks Gunnar, “What do you think WE think about this dress?” And he answers that the judges probably don’t like it! It isn’t enough for Gunnar to step in Heidi’s trap; he has to stick his whole face in. The poor dear.

Then there’s Olivier. It’s pronounced “Oliver,” but apparently the usual spelling didn’t have enough of the first-person pronoun in it. He went to London when he was 16, and so he “acquired” an English accent, and I think that’s all you need to know right there. The funny thing is, it’s not even a very good English accent. Olivier seems to have practised his English vowels for a couple hours in his flat, perhaps taking cues from the presenters on the Beeb, before deciding his new voice was cracking good, innit.

Heidi thinks this irritating narcissist is “cute,” of course. She doesn’t even want to see his clothes. Stop wasting everyone’s time with fashion, Olivier! You have impressed Heidi with your trite affectations, so you may leave, duh.

Later, Anthony Ryan walks into the burrito boardroom. He’s a testicular cancer survivor blah blah Heidi doesn’t care she wants that scarf. “Did you make the scarf? Can I have it? I want it.” Kors, who has had it with Heidi’s cutesy antics, straight-up cuts her off: “LET’S SEE SOME OF THE CLOTHES.” See, not everyone is having as much fun as Heidi is. Some people want to get out of this earth-toned hellhole as soon as possible. Some people specifically had it put in their contract that they would not be asked to attend any shoots before noon.

Rafael says, “Nina and I are clearly talking sex with our eyes.” You silly goose, that’s not sex in her eyes, it’s murder. But she is turned on by it, so half credit.

The unworthy four are eliminated. First to go is Gunnar Deatherage. He returns to his day job as the alter ego in an indie superhero comic. Also gone are two other people whose names presumably appeared on screen at some point. Finally, Serena is out. Quick, somebody call Iceland! Maybe they haven’t thrown away the wedding cake yet.

The remaining 16 move into their Atlas digs, in the heart of New York’s glamorous Garment District! Notice they never show much of the Garment District, on account of it is pretty much a bunch of sad old button shops, plus the Port Authority Bus Terminal, named World’s Most Hope-Draining Bus Terminal five years running.

Tim Gunn skulks down a corridor at 5:00 a.m. and then uses a secret spare key to let himself in to the contestants’ apartments. Breaking and entering while people are asleep, Tim? You’re such a scamp. A creepy, felonious scamp.

The contestants must each grab a bedsheet and walk with Tim to the workshop at Parsons The New School For Design. “I’m out in New York with a headscarf on. Not good,” Rafael says. Somehow, Rafael manages to navigate the famously intolerant streets of midtown Manhattan with his subversive headwear intact. Thus begins The Saga Of Rafael’s Freaking Headscarf.

The challenge for the designers is to make a look using only their pajamas and the bedsheet they brought with them. They’re allowed to dye their materials and to add some little fabric clippings provided by the show, but that’s it. I like this challenge. It gives the contestants enough leeway to show off their identity without being too generic.

Of course, it’s also devious. Since the designers aren’t sleep-deprived yet, the show needed to find a way to make them appear haggard and strung-out. Solution: Don’t allow them to shower or put on makeup, and put them all in hospital scrubs.

Everyone gets their own HP tablet PC. That’s right, HP, you go, girl! Those Apple scoundrels are gonna run out of mojo any day now. “I like these things. The sketching is really fast,” says Becky, and somewhere a bunch of HP marketing executives nod their heads with approval. The tablet’s input-response lag is indeed quite competitive with paper and pencil.

Anya spends much of her time reminding anyone within earshot that she is clueless. “Why did I give myself something that I have never done before, in my first challenge?” Later: “I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m using common sense, because I don’t know what else to do.” And so on. Yet her garment always seems to be in pretty good shape, so I’m calling B.S. on her “What is this strange notion you call sew…ing?” act.

“It didn’t really occur to me that I would be that far behind until I was that far behind, because this is something that I haven’t done before,” Anya says later. Oh, can it.

Tim comes to visit. Rafael’s design doesn’t look like much of anything. Rafael says, “I’m waiting to see exactly which direction I want to do with it.” Tim has an excellent follow-up: “Why are you waiting?”

The increasingly agitated mentor points out that Rafael hasn’t incorporated his leopard-print headscarf into his design yet. Why not use your only interesting piece of material? Rafael says he doesn’t want to bother with the headscarf right now because if he removed it from his head, his hair might look bad. I swear, this is the actual thing that he says. Look, I get that the guy is just making up an excuse because he doesn’t have any ideas. But for Pete’s sake, come up with a better excuse than potentially frizzy hair. Just say you have some terrible scalp disorder. They love disease on this show.

Naturally, Tim is having none of Rafael’s nonsense. He puts on his stern face and lectures, “Can I share something else with you? We had to eliminate four designers from the 20-plus who arrived in New York. Your name was in and out of that ‘out’ pile.” Jesus! This is the first time I can remember Tim telling a contestant that he fundamentally sucks and that he should stop doing that—i.e., sucking—as soon as possible. Rafael makes a bunch of “Oh, wow, oh” noises, but that’s about it. And he STILL doesn’t take the headscarf off.

The models come in for a fitting. Olivier speaks a bit of Italian with his model. Another designer asks, “Are you speaking foreign?” By way of an answer, he strikes a cute pose and puts on a demure little smile, which is pretentious-twerp-speak for “I am being a pretentious twerp.”

Runway show. This week’s guest judge: Christina Ricci. She will be starring in ABC’s fall series Pan-Am, Heidi notes. I remember a day when young actresses with a TV project to promote would go on The $25,000 Pyramid and try to outwit Poet Laureate of TV Nipsey Russell. Now they judge fashion shows alongside an ersatz Anna Wintour and a braying tangerine. Times change. The question is, will Christina Ricci continue the tradition of hapless actresses on Project Runway proclaiming themselves “confused” by a garment?

Before we get to the top and bottom three, some observations on the vast middle ground.

Danielle puts together a nice shorts-and-sweater ensemble. I’m not sure about the geometry on the sleeves of the brown/black sweater—it strays dangerously close to elbow-patch territory—but the colors are cool, and the brown fabric belt on the weathered blue shorts is a beautiful touch.

Blue doesn’t work for everyone. Becky’s dress combines a faded aquamarine with a speckled black strip down the middle and a couple of Art Deco button details, which makes for a “1950s refrigerator” aesthetic.

I don’t know how Kimberly avoided the bottom three. Her top resembles a huge flat-white butterfly that got smashed in a car door. The white pants are even worse, with a crotch so ill-fitting that as it comes down the runway, it turns into a walking tribute to that scene from The Godfather where Marlon Brando stretches his mouth out with an orange.

The top three are Anya, Bert, and Anthony Ryan, fine choices all. The only one I can find some fault with is Anthony Ryan. His sleeveless top is great, bringing a scalloped stripe pattern up the garment to culminate in a lacy, lightly sequined flourish of black on the shoulder. It’s an elegant composition for what could easily look like a cheap piece. I’m less convinced by the skirt. It’s a nice color (impressive for a designer who is both red-green and blue-yellow color blind), but that gray block on the crotch and the butt? It’s too harsh. He avoids that “pubic patch” look that Tim warned of earlier, but even if it’s not raunchy, it’s still clumsy.

Anya’s look is gorgeous. As the judges point out, Anya lucked out a little with the fabric print she chose to wear to bed the night before the challenge. Still, I can’t believe how deftly she worked that print into a sultry top with an elegant, snaking neckline. You can practically feel the Trinidadian heat rising off that top. The pants are freaking insane for someone who “doesn’t know how to sew.” The long, slightly flared cut complements the curves of the top, and Anya’s dyeing job transforms the bedsheet into an expensive-looking fabric.

I’m most delighted by Bert. He is genetically engineered to be lovable. He got out of the fashion business in 1992 after losing friends to AIDS and then turning to alcohol. Now, 20 years later, he’s emerged from the pain and wants to make his comeback on this TV show populated by kids who could barely read and write the last time he was sketching an A-line. The story so good it’s almost hokey—it IS hokey—but it works on me. I’m rooting for him.

Bert starts out the episode looking like he’ll be this season’s Peach: The older designer who’s a little too timid to impress the judges. And there are some Peach-y whispers to Bert’s dress, namely the orange-checked boxer-short pattern. But this is a memorable dress. An asymmetrical hem echoes the line of the dark-gray fabric coming off the shoulder, and the other shoulder, made from the aforementioned boxer shorts, provides a bold, effective counterbalance of asymmetry in the other direction.

The styling, as the judges note, is nuts. With her dark sunglasses, big hair, and crocodile-skin luggage, Bert’s model looks like the wife from a Scorsese movie high-tailing it to the bus station to flee her abusive husband. Yes, it’s bad, but I sort of love it. Last season, the judges were suddenly obsessed with styling. On this episode, they think the styling is stupid, yet they decide not to care that much anymore. I’m sure this bit of caprice won’t last, either.

The bottom three are Julie, Josh C., and, inevitably, Rafael. Julie somewhat ill-advisedly decided to turn her bedsheet into a pajama pant, coming full circle without ever leaving the realm of “homely.” The sleeveless top features a pukey yellow slammed against an equally hideous pink print. This mess is crapped together at a 45-degree angle, and the bad news for Julie is that a shit sandwich cut diagonally is still a shit sandwich.

“The whole thing is just—bad,” Heidi says. Christina Ricci chimes in: “Yeah, I’m a little confused.” YES!!! She said the secret word! Oh, if only a cigar-smoking duck could have descended from the rafters to give her a hundred dollars. 

When the judges kibitz, Ricci elaborates: “You could take that print, and you could make it something wearable by making it darker, and then match it with a color that goes with something that’s more sophisticated.” Hey, Christina, you sound kinda confused.

Josh C.’s outfit looks less like clothing and more like one of those stretchy vinyl ads they wrap around the outside of a bus, as applied by someone who is in a real hurry. The red-and-white ensemble just warps and burps around the model’s torso. There is also a hood, the better to hide your shame with, my dear.

Heidi says to Josh, “I don’t know which one is worse. Rafael’s or yours.” Josh is devastated by this line. He repeats it backstage to the other designers, unable to imagine anything worse than to have his craftsmanship compared with Rafael’s: “It is like having someone look into your soul and tell you everything bad you’ve ever done.”

And you know what? He’s not even overreacting that much. Because Rafael’s look is a breathtaking symphony of awfulness. Is it even possible to single out the most atrocious element in the whole? Perhaps it is the sleeveless belly-revealing blouse, which makes Rafael’s model seem like she’s seven months pregnant but refuses to shop in the maternity section out of principle.

Then again, it could be the skintight pants, with their horrid dead-earthworm-on-the-pavement gray piping. These pants’ bulbous profile evoke a ballet dancer trying to smuggle packs of sweatsocks out of Wal-Mart by stuffing them down her leotard.

Yet surely the crowning achievement of this monstrosity is the headscarf—at long last, the headscarf—which is reimagined as a droopy jumbo coin purse, seemingly made from recycled bowling-lounge upholstery and slung around this woebegotten model’s neck. Unsightly, sure. But hey, Rafael’s hair looks great!

“Fashion backward,” Kors says of Rafael during deliberations. I’m surprised he hasn’t used that line more often. Christina Ricci inexplicably remarks that “The shirt kind of saves it a little bit.” It is such an inane notion that Kors cannot even muster the words to respond—he just lets out a moan.

The judges debate who should win. Heidi crows about Anya’s success: “I always said that she should be in here. You guys weren’t so sure about that!” Kors mutters something about how he loved Anya’s taste but was worried about her skill set. Meanwhile, Nina takes the more efficient tack and simply lies: “I was sure. I wanted her.”

Bert is the winner. Hooray!

Rafael is out. “Rafael, we’re going to miss you,” says Tim Gunn, without even bothering to look sad while he says it. He’s wisely saving those frown muscles for future episodes. After all, a Project Runway season is a marathon, not a sprint. And we’re off and running. 

Stray Observations:

  • There is no way the editors aren’t doing the “confused” thing on purpose at this point.
  • Kors: “Who’s your customer?” Joshua M.: “She’s definitely someone that lives her life in confidence, kind of neurotic. Just white, white gloves, like she’s coming in to, like, basically figure out what the hell happened on the scene here.” Kors: “K…”
  • “Is my bronzer running?”
  • Incredibly Ripped Handlebar-Moustache Makeup Guy is still here, and he’s now rocking some ferocious window-pane glasses.
  • Kimberly: “Your model’s going to have nut juice!” Look, Project Runway, I know you’d like to recreate that rip-roaring “woolly balls” moment from last season, but some things are beyond the pale.
  • “She’s wearing, like, a Flintstone disco pouch.”
  • Julie: “I was kind of referencing an oversize pant—snow pant.” That is probably not a thing that one references if one wants to remain on this show.
  • My favorite contestant at this early, subject-to-revision stage is Bert, obviously, but for sentimental reasons. This seems like a pretty talented group overall. It wasn’t a very hard first challenge, though, so we’ll see.
  • I am glad this show is back.

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