Somehow, this eleventh season of Project Runway manages to stumble past team competition, the loss of Michael Kors, and increasingly lackluster corporate tie-ins to come to a satisfying close. I found myself glued to the screen throughout this two-hour finale, in which for once I felt that the length was justified. Two hours is still a very long time to devote to a show about clothing. but when a solid half-hour in the middle is pure runway show, it’s hard to feel cheated. The special special guest judge this week is also a real treat—the one, the only, Michael “Underwhelmed” Kors, who always brings a dash of unpredictable insanity to the proceedings. It’s a fun finale episode—and a nice way to cap off The A.V. Club’s regular coverage of the show.
After finally jettisoning Daniel last week, the finale takes our three remaining designers through the very last challenge—New York Fashion Week. As silly as so much of the artificially raised stakes have been this season, Fashion Week—and the huge runway show in Lincoln Center—still feels like a big deal, even eleven seasons into this show.
Stanley, Patricia, and Michelle have a few days left to finalize their collections—incorporating the judges critiques, hopefully—and are given back their trustworthy assistants and $500 at Mood to add that little extra zing right before the last battle. This season has been all about designer deja-vu—no one really goes away! How many times have we seen Layana and Amanda and Richard waltzing around in the background, given that Amanda was kicked out approximately mid-season? There’s something oddly familiar and comforting about seeing the crew of six traipse into Mood for the last time—and at the same time, it’s rather maddening. Just get it over with, already! We’ve seen you buy fabric at Mood dozens of times.
Tim’s critiques also feel a little bit tired. There’s no doubt that the designers themselves are committed—and they’ve already received a whole slew of critiques from the judges—but at this point, in the eleventh hour, the comments are more exhausting than helpful. Tim suggests that Michelle jettison her compass, and she responds cagily that she’ll “think about it.” Nina and Zac asked her last week to tone down the costume-y messenger bags, and she pretty blatantly does not. Meanwhile, Patricia tries to bring cohesion to her collection—and largely ends up running herself around in circles before abandoning the project as entirely too stressful. As she points out to her assistant Layana (who complains to the camera at every opportunity): “Nina’s a right-wing conservative sometimes.” Point being… let’s ignore Nina for right now.
The only designer who can’t seem to let the judges’ critiques go is Stanley, who suffers from a major crisis of vision in the last few days before the runway show. Stanley’s general meltdown is a terrifying and beautiful thing to behold—a perfect storm of control-freak obsessiveness colliding with a rapidly approaching deadline and a vision that appears to be rapidly falling apart. I was not quite convinced of Stanley’s collection last week—and neither were the judges, really. Stanley senses their disinterest and tries to compensate by reworking half his collection from scratch. Michelle helps him put together his kit at the last minute and she’s shocked to find half-finished garments put in his garment bags—not a single outfit, she confides, is ready to go on the runway. She mouths to Patricia when Stanley’s in the other room: “Patricia. It’s bad.”
In part due to Stanley’s meltdown, the workroom scenes have an intensity that they’ve been lacking the last few weeks—there’s a sense of urgency, of concentration and of vision. Even some obvious padding—a quick visit to Season 10’s winner, Dmitry Shokolov, and a bit of family gushing time in the workspace—doesn’t detract from the intensity. This is happening—the clothes are going on models who are going to walk around in front of an audience, and the winner is going to get a lot of money. Winning has felt very distant and unreal up till now, but all of a sudden it’s a distinct possibility.
The second hour doesn’t waste any time—it launches into the runway show, which is the real meat of the episode. The run-up to it is quite dramatic. A runway show appears to entail a bewildering amount of tiny but important details—steaming, hemming, fitting, pressing the outfits, of course, but then also—makeup, hair, accessories, shoes for twelve different models, and managing a sudden staff of dressers and assistants. It’s a nightmare, to be quite honest. Michelle and Patricia are sort of throwing their collections together, with a limited amount of understanding of what’s being asked of them. But Stanley, who has entirely derailed, is in a circle on the floor with his dressers, who are not professional seamstresses in the slightest. He’s hand-sewing garments together literally as the models are in line backstage; they have about five minutes to throw on the clothes, and a few of the pieces go out missing some crucial design elements. Stanley has never been slapdash, and all of a sudden he is hurried and making mistakes.
But ultimately, it’s not his shoddy tailoring that dooms him. Stanley’s collection is just very uninspiring. It’s sumptuous—the theme is supposed to be “urban opulence”—but it doesn’t really do or say anything interesting. Many of the outfits are a little depressing—I wasn’t particularly impressed with any of them, to be honest—and as much as I like Jessica McClintock prom dresses…. NYFW is not the place for them. He’s quickly discounted from consideration, and rightly so. I hope he finds a good place somewhere as a masterful tailor and project manager—that would play to his strengths rather admirably. He says at the end that he didn’t like working in teams—but Stanley probably benefited more from the team structure than anyone else on the show.
That narrows down the competition to Patricia and Michelle, and in my mind, it was a heartbreaker of a choice. Michelle is the ruthless contestant here—she’s resourceful and effective. Her collection is polished, which is the upper hand she has over both of her opponents. Michelle’s collection looks finished to within an inch of its life—it’s a highly structured set of outfits, with only a few very controlled draped pieces added to the mix. The color scheme is also relatively neutral, with yellow and red accents. Nina likes that every outfit can be taken apart and styled or sold separately; Michael and Zac and Heidi all point out that it’s perhaps a bit too “overdesigned” but Nina will not be swayed.
Meanwhile, Patricia really steals the show in this episode. Her raw emotion at showing her collection—an expression of her Native American heritage—and at seeing her children just leaps off the screen. Even though her collection is like, both insane and scattered, I wanted her to win more than anyone. Her craft is gorgeous, and her vision is way more interesting than anything Michelle or Stanley could come up with. Of all the collections, her show is the only one that really looked like a haute couture fashion show—big headdresses, weird materials, and a messy, kind of genius aesthetic that seems to have sprung from outer space. Michael and Zac—the two working designers—absolutely adore her work. Heidi is mostly into it, though she has some questions about wearability. Nina purses her lips, puts on her sour face, and will not be swayed.
So Michelle takes home the glory of winning the eleventh season of Project Runway—and I suppose as usual, Nina gets her way. I’m not convinced I disagree with the choice, but emotionally, it felt like Patricia’s moment, and I was sad to see her defeated at the end, telling her grandmother that she tried her best. Still, Michelle (or as we have been fondly calling her, Portland) isn’t half bad, when she’s not being edited to be the cranky, whiny designer. Of all the shows presented, hers was the one that felt most like a coherent show with a start to finish. Patricia’s work felt like an artist’s memoir; a life’s work. Michelle’s able to pump out an aesthetic every few months.
Once again the end result of Project Runway comes down to that tension between artistic vision and marketability, and marketability will always win as long as Nina’s on that panel. I wonder that Patricia didn’t say—I am the ideal consumer of these clothes. These clothes tell a story that women will want to be a part of. You say you want to see what “kids these days” are wearing—you say you want to bring back trends, not copy what already exists. I put a blue powwow smurf astronaut on the runway. Powwow smurf astronaut. And the audience loved it.
Finale grade: A-
Season grade: C+
- The show feels a lot lighter without Daniel. A quick glimpse at next week’s “reunion special” reminded me of how difficult he was to watch.
- Also LOL LAYANA STOP WHINING
- Zac says, “Women love things that twinkle.” Uh… really?
- Patricia’s kids are so cute.
- Michelle wears a ridiculous fascinator to her runway show and it falls off as she’s walking around with her model, which feels about right.
- Absolutely ludicrous phrases thrown around regarding Patricia’s collection: “oh my god the art teacher is on an acid trip,” “so insane i loved it,” “techno powwow,” “fashion-tainment.”
- “Oh, this whole process is a nightmare!” - Michelle, to the producers and creators of Project Runway, about Project Runway
- Nina comments that she agrees with Zac. Zac squirms in semi-delight: “That’s the first time all season!”
- There are a lot of notables in the runway audience I didn’t recognize—feel free to ID them in the comments!
- Super awesome that Heidi Klum’s eating disorder is just like, out there for everyone to talk about. Yikes. (Which is to say, I love Heidi, and I wish she didn’t berate herself for eating too much. This episode reminded me that Heidi is strangely astute during the judging—and seems to genuinely care about the contestants. It’s either true emotion or an elaborate appearance of sincerity—which is basically the same thing, right?)
- I would watch a show that is just Zac’s reaction face to most things. Watching him during the runway show is a real treat.
- Tim Gunn cries. I think this is a season where the contestants got along much better than they usually do. One of the nicest things about this episode is that it felt like there was no rancor between the final three.
- I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my reviews this season. I’ve certainly enjoyed reading your comments. And yes—this is the last time The A.V. Club will be covering Project Runway regularly. The show’s changed a lot, and lost many of its fans. I’m sad to say goodbye to this season, despite its inconsistency. But stick around—and in the meantime, tell us what else you’re watching!