Project Runway: “Europe, Here We Come”
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Project Runway: “Europe, Here We Come”

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Project Runway

“Europe, Here We Come”

Season 11, Episode 12

In retrospect, it’s amazing Layana made it this far. She’s always had impeccable sewing, but her skill massively outpaced her vision, which often produced the same silhouette that (all together now) “played with hard and soft.” She’s really not a bad designer—I think she’s a designer with a strong future in commercial work—but she’s not haute-couture. Or as Nina might put it, she’s just not expensive enough for Fashion Week. 

What I like most about “Europe, Here We Come” is how the small number of designers, and the caliber of their work, create a fascinating conversation about what fashion is supposed to be in the last half-hour of the show. Tonight’s episode is a whopping two hours long, but for once, I did not find myself bored. The designers spend their time well, and the producers give us huge chunks of their creative process, as well as their impassioned pleas to pass this final test and make it to Fashion Week. This is the last challenge before the big runway show—which means tensions are running just a bit high.

Before I go any further, though, I have to address whatever it is that happens with Michelle in the first half-hour of this episode. Last week I complained at length at the frustrating way the show handles Michelle’s entirely unfair near-elimination—because though she did break the rules, she’s also clearly one of the best designers on the show. The judges and producers decide to give her a “do or die moment”—which is nothing except not being kicked off, as far as I can tell. Admittedly, they do not fly her to an exotic foreign country, and she is a bit put out by that. But, real talk—that’s hardly punishment, is it? If anything, Michelle doesn’t have to deal with weird fabric stores and jet lag. Traveling is great, but flying eight hours into a foreign city, spending the day there, and then flying right back again, without even sleeping in a real bed, sounds like a disaster. I’m not sure what anyone was trying to accomplish by phrasing her non-elimination as some kind of sudden-death challenge, when it’s nothing of the sort. It would have been better explained if they’d told her that because she had the lowest score, she didn’t get to fly somewhere fancy.

On the upside, though, the travels to foreign lands are a surprisingly fun opening section to “Europe, Here We Come.” Each designer goes to a different fashion capital to be inspired, and they take a sewing assistant along with them—the earlier contestants, the same five as last week. I liked watching the designers get inspired, and it says a lot about each personality when you hear what each one fixates on. Stanley is very interested in period—his pieces reflect his vast understanding of fashion history. So he conjures a Georgian-ish look out of London, complete with a capelet. Layana is intensely interested in detail, so she draws on the tiles and patterns of Barcelona for her coat. Michelle likes grunge—let’s be real—so naturally she fixates on coal and soot patterns, on leather and metal. Patricia loves creating textile, and she uses the walls of Paris as inspiration for creating a totally weird and maybe awesome textile.

And Daniel—well, for once, I agree with the episode’s edit of his narrative arc. Something did happen to him in Berlin, because what he produces is leaps and bounds away from his earlier work. It’s still a jacket and a dress, but first of all, there’s movement, and second of all, there’s something… refreshing about it. I kind of do believe what he and Amanda say about their time in Berlin—it inspired him, because it feels like something came apart in his tightly constructed view of the world. I’m sure there’s a bigger story there, which we might get a piece of next week, but in the meantime, it’s intriguing to see someone’s work shift right before your very eyes.

For what it’s worth, I also enjoyed watching the designers struggle with foreign fabric stores. This is what I mean when I say Michelle has a leg up—every other designer runs into trouble when they’re shopping for textiles. Patricia can’t communicate to her French saleswoman and has a meltdown; Stanley comes close to running out of money because of the conversion rate; and Daniel and Amanda can’t find leather or silk in their German store. There’s something delightfully real about this kind of struggle, and even though it’s all a bit manufactured, it was entertaining.

The designing process is also satisfying to watch because all the garments are really quite good. There are some obvious issues—I’ll get to the outfits themselves in a minute—but we’re finally at the point where the caliber of the work is incredible. Every outfit that goes down the runway is impeccable—finished and striking, if not totally perfect. For once it feels like the primary drama of the episode is about the clothes, which warms the cockles of my heart. Tim’s visits to each team are full of good stuff, too—he encourages Michelle to go with her ombré idea and trims back Patricia’s vision to just the top.

I didn’t realize the episode was going to be two hours long until I was already an hour in—so that runway show takes much longer than usual, and the judging includes a lot of back-and-forth with each designer about who should go to Fashion Week and why. It’s a little too long, to be honest. But it opens up some space in the last half-hour for a fascinating conversation between the judges. After the runway show, it’s pretty clear that Daniel, Stanley, and Michelle are all in. I personally didn’t love Daniel’s whole look—pleather! Ugh—but it’s cool, and that’s very new for him. Stanley’s look isn’t my favorite either—the back is phenomenal, with the leather sequin lining, but the front seems a bit too dreary to me. Michelle’s dirtied skirt is really cool, though weird under those lights, and the quilted breastplate is insane, but insane in the way that fashion editors are totally into. The reception for all three is overwhelmingly positive, and after Stanley takes the win, those three exit with a ticket to Fashion Week.

But Patricia is divisive as usual, and her layered-textile outfit goes up against Layana’s questionable coat and pegged pants. It comes down to a pretty fundamental question of what we think fashion ought to be, and unsurprisingly, Nina comes down hard on the side of fashion as a commercial enterprise. She sees the industry as tradecraft—and Patricia does not produce clothes that are salable, while Layana consistently produces store-quality stuff. I rarely find Nina’s critiques valuable, but this week I was nodding at everything she said. Layana doesn’t have a high-fashion mind—she doesn’t have much in the way of a point of view. But at least it’s wearable. Patricia’s, Nina argues, is “unshootable and unwearable.” It serves no purpose except art. “I understand the fascination with her, but this artsy-fartsy thing… Fashion is not art. Stores are not museums. You go to stores to buy clothes. You don’t go to stores to look at clothes.”

I haven’t heard such a perfect distillation of the tensions within fashion… ever.

Zac takes the opposite tack, pointing out that he appreciates risk-taking over commercial appeal. He uses a phrase that might need to enter my lexicon: “chic banal.” That which approximates chic-ness but has absolutely no point-of-view, essentially. He doesn’t quite come out and say that Layana’s vision is banal, per se, but he’s looking for the opposite of that. And Zac has a very good eye for creativity, which is why I value his opinion on the panel. (It’s actually a very good contrast, to have Nina looking for commercial value and Zac looking at creative appeal. Heidi is looking for her new wardrobe, which is also fine.)

Ultimately I’m happy with the decision they made. Layana has been coasting a little on good tailoring; I don’t think her collection would be very interesting. Patricia’s is going to be something to talk about. Layana’s coat has good elements (and is very well-constructed) but why did she insist upon it being closed? It looked very stiff, and the pink sleeves are very distracting. I disagree with the general stereotype of Barcelona as a “romantic” city, but it’s certainly more fluid than that coat. Meanwhile, Patricia’s outfit is not Parisian in any stereotypical way, but the layering is really something, as is the collar. I think the slacks made it very clear that she had no imagination with that half of the outfit, but with more time, hopefully she’ll find a way to make her vision work.

Four designers and two episodes left. Let’s see how this Fashion Week thing turns out.

Stray observations:

  • I am always happy when Samantha is back, and she definitely delivers one of the best lines this week: “Bitch, you fly!”
  • Heidi has some choice words for Michelle’s dress: It looks like a “dirty horse blankie.” Zac responds by pointing out that New York is dirty. As a New Yorker I have to say I agree with this wholeheartedly (and proudly).
  • Is this around the time we can start a betting pool? We’ve got four in the running to be America’s Next Project Runway Winner. Stanley has a lot of judge goodwill; I predict Daniel will go off the rails, and Patricia might. Based on the way the camera confessionals have been edited, though, I have a sneaky feeling that Michelle might take this competition.
  • Paris, Berlin, London, Barcelona, or New York? I vote Berlin. Sprechen sie AMERICAN?!