I’ve tended to blame the malaise of recent Project Runway season finales on the bloated running time and the natural mundanity that emerges as a TV program ages. But I watched tonight’s episode with an eye toward figuring out why the hell Runway is unable to finish strong anymore.
Because this season started strong. The designers were talented, and the challenges were lively. I realized tonight that the problem is this: The late stages of a Project Runway season are no longer about designers making art—they’re about Project Runway. That is especially true of the finale. And as long as the producers take this approach, the show will limp to a finish each year regardless of the designers’ prowess.
The run time and the show’s age are just amplifying factors, exacerbating the dull atmosphere that sets in when Project Runway ignores its core narrative—passionate, flawed human beings working through a pressure-filled creative process—in favor of self-puffery. I have often wondered why recent years of the show have spent such a massive portion of their final hours on repeated banalities from the contestants—how nervous they are, how much it means to them, and so on. Of course, the reason is that these moments burnish the myth of Project Runway. The effect is weak and transient, but the producers don’t seem to care about the diminishing returns. They just need to pound it into you that the finale of Runway is a Real Big Deal—and the more they protest, the smaller it all feels.
That contrast of big intention and small impression is embodied in an early moment from this episode. The designers are slouching around like zombies in the Yotel Hotel. (Why isn’t the Hotel Yotel? That would be so much classier.) Fabio, whose energy level is slightly higher than the rest of the group, holds up his mug. “Grab a cup, let’s just toast for a little bit,” he says. When his semi-spirited entreaty is met with heavy-lidded apathy, he mutters, “Fashion Week.” And so they toast, mostly to shut him up. Here’s to Fashion Week. Yay. Hooray.
The designers go to Mood and buy $300 worth of extra fabric and whatnot. It used to be that in the finale, Runway would press the designers to the limit with an extra challenge, an added twist or two. The idea was to make them create more and more with increasingly limited time and resources until they reached the final runway on the verge of collapse. But now, Runway coddles its designers. Here’s some more money! Buy whatever you want! You can use it to make another look, or not. The old attitude was, “We will push you.” The new attitude is, “We need to make sure you don’t embarrass us out there.” Because this is Project Runway, after all. Haven’t you heard? It’s a pretty big deal!
We are treated to our first extended L’Oreal commercial of the evening. They offer a wide line of hair care products. One of those products, apparently, is silver leaf, which the stylist crinkles across the hair of Dmitry’s model as if it is a good idea. We don’t get to see how they arrived at this treatment, but I’m guessing that Dmitry said something like, “You know when you wrap up the leftover part of your burrito in aluminum foil and stick it in the fridge, and then you forget about the burrito for about six months, and then when you pull the burrito out, shards of the foil are fused to the refrigerator shelf by the accumulated layer of grease? Do you think you could do that, but with hair?” And yes, L’Oreal can.
Christopher doesn’t know what he wants to do with the hair for his show. He also isn’t ready for his model’s fitting. This indecision settles into permanent mope mode for the remainder of the proceedings. If the judges had any mercy, they would have eliminated him last week. The poor guy is tapped.
One of Melissa’s models can’t walk properly in her slim white dress. Melissa asks the model if the problem is with the shoes, perhaps? The model says that the shoes are fine; the problem is the dress. Melissa considers this new information. “I think it’s the shoes,” Melissa says. Project Runway’s own Mars Blackmon.
Melissa and Fabio tell each other how incredibly calm they are, which is no surprise, since it seems like there’s not much to do in these last couple days. But calmness is not epic enough, so Fabio is soon before the testimonial cameras, telling us how nervous he is. “My nerves are traveling through the screen right now,” he says with a wave of his hand. This is accompanied by an ultra-cheesy post-production ripple effect that distorts the image—perhaps Project Runway’s effort to convince us that they can send Fabio’s actual nerves to us over the airwaves, in a manner akin to Wonkavision. I’d rather have the chocolate bar.
Next up is a showcase of L’Oreal’s makeup line. The makeup guy informs Melissa, “This is the Infallible Lipstick”—the same brand used by the pope himself! The color is called Coral Seduction, and Melissa lets out an awestruck “Oooohhhh!” because there ain’t nothing sexier than coral, the polyp-spawning seductress of the sea.
Tim visits. He has an emotional moment with Fabio. “I just felt as though here was a chasm between where you were and where I saw this going,” Tim says, “and you’ve arrived.” Now there is a creative journey it would have been nice to see. Instead, in the space of two 90-minute episodes, I have only a vague sense that Fabio revised some of his garments. Added a little color, perhaps? Project Runway just can’t be bothered to portray that story with any depth. That’s the finale for you. So little time and so much to do!
Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it. On the eve of the final runway show, Dmitry and Fabio are lolling around the workroom, having finished quite early. Christopher, however, is so addled that he thinks he’s on an earlier season of Project Runway where the “you gotta make something else” twist was customary. So he’s scrambling around, trying to finish his additional garments. Tim shows up with champagne. He wants to have a toast, and dumb worker bees Christopher and Melissa are spoiling all the fun. “I had two more looks to make!” Christopher whines. Tim scrunches up his face: “Oh, THAT’S RIDICULOUS. You don’t have two more looks to make!” Why the hell is Christopher making clothes when there is mid-shelf booze to be drunk?
The last minutes before the Fashion Week runway show are always an entertaining chaos. Dmitry really does go with the “silver bird poop on crown of head” hair treatment, but it takes so long to apply the Foil Of Fashion that mere minutes before showtime, he still doesn’t have anybody dressed. Christopher is the only one who faces a true crisis, though: The model wearing his final look, a layered ball gown, stumbles over it and rips the hem. In her defense, it does not look like it’s very easy to walk in that frock. Christopher grabs the scissors, hacking and tearing away at the thing. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him. (The gown doesn’t seem that much worse for wear on the runway, though.)
Heidi welcomes the Lincoln Center by wishing Runway a happy unspecified anniversary. She declares, “Project Runway has become so big, so thank you very much!” With the bigness fully re-established, it is on to the less important matter of looking at clothes.
Christopher and Melissa’s collections are remarkably similar, with Melissa’s being the slightly more effective of the two. Both collections are cheapened by an unimaginative use of thin black leather—the two designers even made practically the same droopy, unflattering leather vest. Christopher’s bleached leather effect is hardly noticeable; he probably should have pushed the bleaching a little more. On the other hand, his X-ray print is striking and, as the judges will note, the only standout use of a print in any of the final four collections. But he uses it in garments that feel rote. A blouse that might as well be a tanktop. A staid, businesslike high-necked sleeveless blouse. And a cocktail dress that’s perfectly charming and perfectly forgettable.
The final look in Christopher’s lineup is his intricately constructed pewter-to-black gown, which looked stunning on the mannequin but falters in motion. The model’s backstage stumble was no fluke, and she gamely shuffles down the runway, tripping over herself once again as Christopher escorts her offstage. The gown also has nothing to do with the rest of the collection, although it is hardly the only garment holding these looks back from coherence.
On the eve of the runway show, at the Hotel Yotel Hotel, Melissa remarked, “I definitely feel that I pulled a 360 from my first critique with the judges.” It sounds stupid, but the ensuing runway show reveals that she’s quite right—this collection has evolved little since the last time we saw it. That said, Melissa does make two notable changes based on the judges’ feedback. First, she cuts back the long sleeves on her white leather jacket, as per Nina’s suggestion. Nina was right about that one: The jacket is the highlight of this collection. Second, she creates a “blood orange” (or as Christopher calls it, “just fucking red”) leather dress. Both of these looks are sharp, but they don’t mesh with the aloofness of the rest of the collection.
There’s a certain detached, bored spirit to Melissa’s runway show. Many of the looks are dark and gloomy, and they sort of drip down the model’s bodies, too aloof to put in the effort of making the woman look good. Even a tailored white cocktail dress, with an asymmetrical neckline and half-exposed midriff, looks limp and slouchy on the model’s body. And that terribly tubular white gown conforms to no known means of human locomotion. It’s not the shoes.
As we have learned a couple hundred times in the past two episodes, Dmitry’s collection is based on organic architecture. (That is to say, “awr-gay-neeck” architecture.) This is borne out nicely in the first half of his runway show, which opens with two looks—a dress and a skirt plus jacket—whose austere, angular geometry put a stamp on the proceedings in a way that Christopher and Melissa could not. I still think that jacket with the fringe arms is horrid, but the complementary look—a diamond-patterned dress with a fringe hem and an elegant bronze band around the midriff—is not only gorgeous but has the best movement of any garment on the night.
The architectural underpinnings get muddled as Dmitry’s show draws to a close. Both lemon yellow garments look out of place, and the yellow dress in particular, with its metal-beaded shoulders, exemplifies Dmitry’s less flattering, more severe side. The skirt on the final dress incorporates what appears to be beads and shredded tulle to create a gritty feather effect. It creates a flurry of activity as the model walks, but this jumble of motion falls somewhat short of the mesmerizing kineticism that Dmitry has managed to create in his best looks. Still, it’s an accomplished collection.
Fabio, on the other hand, is in a different sphere. I haven’t been this moved by a collection since Mondo two years ago. I think the most potent praise I can offer is that by the end of this runway show entitled “Cosmic Tribalism,” I had completely bought in to the concept of “Cosmic Tribalism.” I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it now strikes me as the perfect summation of this enchanting collection. There is a consistent thread of primitive, simple, prideful identity in these clothes. And there’s also a retro-futuristic spirit, not in a chintzy sci-fi way (except for those necklaces) but rather in a sort of New Age way.
The lightness of both weight and color lifts these garments, and these women, to where they seem to float down the runway. In contrast to Dmitry’s work, Fabio’s collections don’t draw lines so much as they sketch proportions, and the latter approach keeps the clothes in a state of flux—as if the silhouette is always oscillating between “there” and “not there,” a tension that makes it hard to look away.
The collection is assembled beautifully, balancing complex looks at the beginning and end of the show with simpler, palate-cleansing forms that provide clear statements of Fabio’s perspective. I’d happily write about every look, but I’ll pick out a couple of favorites. On the simple end, there is the creme-colored dress whose draped, toga-esque hem curves up the midriff to complement a much subtler, barely-there curve that descends from the shoulders. On the complex end, the final look layers a shining white robe over a thin pink dress over gray leggings. Each garment on its own is so unassuming and wispy that it’s hard to tell where one begins and one ends—again, that state of flux—but as a whole, the robe literally ties the whole look together, with its knot skewed insouciantly off to the side. There’s a fine line between “aloof” and “effortless,” and if Melissa’s vibe fell in the former category tonight, Fabio’s work glided into the latter.
The judging session offers few surprises, at least until the very end. Before long, it becomes clear—not that it wasn’t already—that the contestants fall into two camps. Christopher and Melissa have no shot, so it’s between Dmitry and Fabio for the title. Heidi poses the “Why should you win Project Runway?” question, which used to be a highlight of the final episode, but we have been through so many “I want this!!” moments by now that this latest iteration on the theme has no juice. Fabio says that he’s become a better designer. Dmitry says that he wants wings.
They could have just given Dmitry a can of Red Bull. Instead they make him champion of Project Runway season 10.Fabio seems stunned. I know that I was. It’s hardly a dramatic upset on the scale of Gretchen Vs. Mondo, but I thought that Fabio was a lock. Maybe there’s a generational thing happening here. Maybe Kors and Nina simply do not like the ’80s. Mondo’s collection had overt references to the ’80s—I called it “8-bit chic” at the time—and the pastel pink and blue of Fabio certainly evoke that era, too.
In any case, Fabio is left to record heartbreaking testimonials like “I’m sad that my mother’s sad,” while, back on the runway, we finally get to meet some of Dmitry’s friends and/or loved ones: three blond women who receive little in the way of introduction. Dmitry dutifully tells the home audience that this is the biggest day of his life. That could go without saying—but on Project Runway, it never will.
- Christopher, after losing: “Whatever. Too exhausted to even cry right now.” I believed him, too. I can’t remember the last time I saw a contestant who was so obviously running on fumes for the final stretch.
- When Nina told Fabio, “I think you listened!” I thought that was a very good sign. Nina loves when the designers listen to her. Still not good enough, I guess.
- That wraps up another huge, enormous, gigantic, epic Project Runway season. Thanks very much for reading!