It is strange to think back on last year’s finale and recall that back then, we thought that season had really tested our collective Project Runway loyalty. Not for the way it played out over the first dozen episodes, of course, but for the way it ended. When Gretchen won, people were tearing up their Klum Society Of Teutonic Charm membership cards left and right. This was the ultimate injustice! They would never watch the show again!
What lily-livered fools we were. That one insane judging decision was nothing. Mediocre, frequently pointless, uninspiring season nine has been our true test. What asses we were to feel sorry for ourselves after a finale that, while bloated and rote, still at least offered the lure of emotional investment and high stakes. At least we actually cared about the end of season eight—why did we take that for granted? We didn’t know what we had!
Yes, there have been dark periods before. To speak of such things directly is taboo, but there are tales… there are tales of a time when winds of change deposited Project Runway on a far-off Western shore, when the enchanting spell of warm climes and low production costs proved irresistible to the brothers Weinstein, and when Michael Kors and Nina Garcia were reduced to mere shades, passing into our realm only when the moons were in alignment and Kors would agree to fly business class.
But the Angeleno Adventure was a product of witchcraft, a sorry homunculus, a freak—and it could be dismissed as such. The failures of season nine, however, are not so easily explained away. They are all too tangible. Time after time, glimmers of intrigue would spring to life, only to be extinguished in the next instant. A designer shows a flash of inspiration and then reverts to blandness. An elimination is promised, yet nobody is eliminated. A regal bird of prey is presented to us in all his inspirational splendor and then whisked away without explanation. Tantalus himself never had to endure such torment.
And still we watch. Even as the Bunim/Murray vampires drain Runway of its vital humors, we insist that some soul is still extant. We see it in a Heidi Klum zinger, in a Tim Gunn bon mot, and in the thrill—yes, somehow it is still a thrill—of seeing the designers walk onto that grand Lincoln Center runway for the biggest moment of their lives. In short, we are suckers. At least, I’m a sucker. And most of us will be back next season, if only because surely things must get better from here. But we will not be the same, because our spirits have been hardened. We have been tested.
“Do you think the boys are genuinely happy for us?” asks Kimberly. The fact that she has to ask the question is its own answer. They are not. Josh indulges in a rather justifiable fantasy where he imagines that a designer actually was kicked off in last week’s televisual atrocity. He calculates that the chances of winning would be about “33 percent each” if someone had been auf’ed, proving that he may not be much for English, but his math is solid.
At the workroom, Tim opens with, “First of all, I know it was tough on the runway last night,” which is an odd way to describe the least consequential runway show ever. But what he means is that he found the criticism overly harsh, to the point that he wanted to run out from the wings and give the judges a good old-fashioned Tim Gunn whoopin’. He dissects the judges’ comments and explains why he found them stupid, a diatribe reminiscent of those incredible, unrestrained video blogs he was posting on Facebook last year until the Lifetime thought police shut him down.
Tim concludes by reassuring Kimberly, Viktor, and Josh that they are on the right track. “And Anya, you were all over the place,” Tim says. Suddenly the black sheep, Anya needs a miracle to recover. It’s not like the show is going to give her an extra $500 and a trip to Mood with no strings att—oh, for Pete’s sake.
“You can do whatever you want with this opportunity!” Tim tells everyone. It’s a depressing admission that the producers have (not unreasonably) given up on this season’s talent. After all, isn’t the last-second twist supposed to make things harder, rather than easier? Yet these kids still need training wheels 13 weeks in.
And even the most casual viewer can’t miss the fact that this last-minute gift helps the slacker designer with huge gaps in her line far more than it helps her three compatriots, whose collections are mostly set and nearly complete. So you’ve got low standards and blatant favoritism, all in one amazing twist! Taste that season-nine justice.
Anya darts around Mood grabbing whatever prints strike her. She says that she doesn’t have time to worry about what shape the fabrics will take, as if it is a mystery. Josh purchases an ocean of neon green and falls in love with it back at the workroom. He seems to be on the verge of remaking every look in his collection with this fabric. Viktor advises him to maybe not do that.
A very “fustrated” Josh has a mini-breakdown with Anya in the sewing room, but it’s nothing special, just a rehash of the old “I want it so bad” speech with some red eyes. Anya sympathizes and extols the virtues of not giving up. Josh’s face brightens, and he agrees: “That’s not an option. And sitting here crying isn’t, either! If I’m tired, I should take a nap!” I’m sure that Becky, watching at home, is delighted that her moment of national-TV humiliation has become Josh’s adorable punchline.
Nobody wants to get hit with the Mondo hammer, so the designers all skitter around like loyal little minions to implement the judges’ advice. “My critique was that they looked way too old. My direction now is to make them look younger,” says one savvy designer in the L’Oreal Paris Makeup Room.
Tim checks in for the last time. He’s skeptical of Kimberly’s “booty skirt,” as Josh calls it. We get our closest look yet at the garment. It is hard to believe that something this shoddy is marching down the runway in a Project Runway finale. The front of the skirt looks to be inspired by a beat-up old baseball mitt. The middle panel is imprisoned on the front of the skirt by all these terrible fuchsia metal loops—here’s your “Lord of the motherfucking rings” right here, Viktor, and she is an angry god.
Like Kimberly did a couple weeks ago, Anya gives an odd, unprompted farewell speech. “I’ve had an incredibly rewarding experience… but it’s OK, and as much as I’d prefer not to be showing at such a big event with such trepidation, I’ve really let go of that.” Tim isn’t sure whether to give her a pep talk or have Johnny tell her about the lovely parting gifts she’ll receive. “It sounded a little to me like she’s preparing herself,” Viktor says. It also sounds a little like we are being set up for an Anya win.
Tim still hates that one print in Josh’s collection, the one with the playing cards and the mid-’90s Tonight Show color scheme. And Josh still keeps the print.
On the morning of the show, tensions are high. “There’s a lot of ball of emotions right now,” Viktor says, “but ultimately, happy feelings, because who gets to show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week?” Only the top three designers in Project Runway, that’s who. Well, the top four this year. Plus Anthony Ryan Auld, Bryce Black, Olivier Green, Laura Kathleen, and Bert Keeter—this year’s spoiler-preventing “decoy” designers. But that’s it!
Anya decides she wants to win after all. “It’s hard to imagine being this close and not making it,” she says, a sentiment echoed by every single person involved in the production of this program.
The four finalists hug on the final runway. I always like the drama of that big room before the seats fill in. It reinforces the feeling that however apathetic we may be, this is a huge moment for these designers.
Backstage, Kimberly can’t find her sewing kit. It’s a crisis! If we’ve learned anything this season, though, we know to be extremely dubious of any panic that’s introduced 15 seconds before a commercial break. Remember, if Bunim/Murray had more footage, they’d show more footage. True to form, when the show returns, they roll the same meager clips of Kimberly kinda freaking out, and then Anya offers to share her supplies with Kimberly, problem solved.
“Pull it…TOGETHER,” Josh says in a testimonial. It has no relevance to anything, but the producers were cleaning up the cutting-room floor, and they found these sweepings, so here you go, America!
L’Wren Scott is the guest judge for the runway show. As an established designer, she carries a little more intellectual heft than last year’s feckless guest judge, Jessica Simpson. And that is the only respect in which this finale is superior to last year’s.
Kimberly’s collection opens the show. That first look still just looks like scrubs to me. Or a hybrid of scrubs and a Bill Cosby sweater. The blue lamé blouse and miniskirt would have made a better opener, but the rest of the collection cannot live up to that ensemble’s daring pop.
Still, there are a number of appealing looks here. The blue cocktail dress has a puckish edge. The ivory pants and blouse are gorgeous, but they’re lonely. It’s hard to see where they fit into the narrative of the show. Perhaps that’s because this fantastic look is followed by two looks that miss the mark, including that wonky booty skirt. The midpoint highlight of the collection is supposed to be a voluminous print dress, but the composition is too clumsy for it have the intended “wow” effect—mainly because it is neutered by a plain fuchsia skirt that sticks out underneath. Kimberly’s final piece, the shimmering black gown we saw last week, is still beautiful but not especially memorable.
Joshua open his collection with a purple version of the dress he made for the infamous bird challenge. Seriously, it is almost the same dress. I didn’t expect the season’s biggest drama queen to open his show with a rerun. And I just can’t get on board with that print. There is no way for me to take a model seriously when she’s walking down the runway with what looks like a Soviet-bloc knockoff of Yellow Submarine playing across her torso.
Josh uses the print to poor effect, anyway. He adorns it with a sad vinyl vest in one look, and in another, he buries it under a jacket that prominently features black trucker-hat mesh in the chest. The print comes closest to success when it’s used as the top for a very cute skirt made from Josh’s beloved neon-green fabric. The split-leg shorts, in that same green, are not quite as dreamy, but holy crap, that is a great tanktop, its quasi-South American geometric design exploding with energy.
The effectiveness of Josh’s plastic pieces varies. The first look, featuring a plastic vest jacket, resembles the kind of thing that a 40-something gamer would design for his female avatar in a sci-fi MMO when he wanted to make her look “tasteful” but still catch a glimpse of her computer-generated breasts. I’m more convinced by the choker on the Grecian dress, which has been reworked to eliminate the “Eartha Kitt can’t admit she’s gained a few pounds” catsuit vibe from the back. Then the final look comes along, and suddenly, the plastic is just two pathetic triangles of stale fruitcake on top of an incredibly harsh plunging neckline.
Viktor still has that great bubble-arm jacket—which he uses in the final look of his show—and the stunning prints that he designed himself. Beyond that, though, this is a disappointing collection. The opening look is meticulous, and maybe too much so—it comes off as prim. He uses his blue beachside print on a cocktail dress and an evening gown, the latter of which is more arresting for the way the beach image undulates along the length of the model.
But elements that looked promising on first glance fall apart in the glare of the final show. On its own, the zipper skirt lacks body, and it’s put to use with a ridiculous sheer blouse and bra combo like the kind you might find at an adult-entertainment store. Not a nice one, either. The one out by the airport. All of the see-through stuff is pretty miserable, especially that floor-length gown with the straps and the granny panties and oh lord what was he thinking?
Finally, there is Anya, child of destiny. Her collection is called Tobago Love. She already has three judges and one island on her side, but what’s the harm in adding one island more? Her collection is the most beautiful of the night. People will complain that she did not exhibit much of a range, that she was coddled by the production, and that her design ideas apply to a limited subset of customers and contexts. I won’t argue with any of that.
But there is something to be said for the fact that Anya produced the most coherent collection by far, and in my opinion the nicest to look at (again by far). She is not one of the Project Runway greats—none of these folks are—but she took her modest concept of luxurious resort wear with a rural Caribbean palette and milked that idea for everything she could. That’s Anya’s story, making the most of what little she had to work with, and even if the narrative got a lot of help from the producers, there is still a core of truth to it.
There’s only one design in Anya’s lineup that isn’t a pleasure to watch, and that’s the midpoint of her show, a short dress that looks too burlap-y and whose construction missteps are hard to overlook. (There are other construction issues, like the top of the shorts look and the neckline on the teak-colored dress in the second-to-last look.) But unlike Josh, Anya opens her show with drama: a long, flowing dress whose shades of sand, coral, and ocean combine in a fluttering mirage of the islands. And she ends with a surprise: a relatively subdued gown that at first seems to depart from the color and verve of the collection, until you see it move. Anya does understand how to make kinetics work for her.
Afterward, the judges have nice things to say to everyone, but some designers get more qualified praise than others. Yes, everyone effuses over Kimberly’s collection, but Heidi tells Kimberly that she liked the “peekaboo things,” which does not sound like somebody headed for a big win.
When Viktor comes up to bat, everyone echoes Kors’ sentiment that half of Viktor’s collection was excellent while the other half—the sheer half—was not. It’s a “little bit like a runway joke,” Kors says. “You know, it’s on a 19-year-old model, and she’s a size two, and she can walk out in her underwear, and that’s great. But, you know, walking around like that?” Heidi chimes in, “To me it reads a little cheap,” and Viktor’s Project Runway journey essentially comes to an end. When Heidi offers some token compliment to conclude her critique, Viktor can barely mumble the words “thank you.” He can feel it slipping away.
Josh also receives a few criticisms, but they are mild. Josh is praised for his ability to not allow so much of himself into his clothes. Kors says, “I know it’s a battle for you. I was afraid we were going to get a blue eyebrow, or God knows.” A blue eyebrow is the craziest thing he could think of? It’s OK, Michael, I feel you. We’re all tired.
The judges’ negative impressions of Anya are all criticisms that would be devastating in any other context. The thing is, whenever Heidi, Michael, or Nina say something bad about Anya, they always say it in a tone of voice that implies an unspoken “…but who cares, because we love her anyway!” after the end of the sentence.
Heidi notes, “Out of 10 looks, eight have the same necklines,” but who cares! Nina says, “I wish I could see more pieces that could translate into an urban atmosphere,” but who cares! “You probably did sacrifice diversity in the shapes” Kors grudgingly admits, “but then you have the prints.” Yes, the prints! They make everything okay.
The pointless question comes: “Why should you win Project Runway?” Anya gives the most-improved argument. Josh talks up his willingness to edit. Viktor compares himself to Christian Siriano, since they are both great at clothes and catchphrases. Kimberly says that her point of view isn’t very well-represented in the fashion world, speaking to the whole “urban” thing that the judges, amusingly enough, have tiptoed around all night. Kimberly has a point, but she would have even more of a point if her collection were better.
All the designers leave the runway so the judges can prepare for the coronation. “Two days ago, we hated two out of the three looks,” Kors says of Anya, reminding the audience that by any standard of fairness, she would no longer be in the competition. It’s like he’s taunting us at this point. Heidi tries to point out some more shortcomings in Anya’s collection, but the time for doubt is over, so Kors interrupts her by clucking, “I get it! I get it! I get it!
The Anya discussion concludes with a perfectly emblematic moment. Nina says, “I trust…” and before she can finish the sentence, Kors interjects, “I do too.” And there you have it.
The designers come back out. “There are no losers here today. But only one of you can be the winner.” Unlike Josh, Heidi is not so good with the arithmetic.
Kimberly is the first one out. She takes it extremely well. Viktor is the next, and he puts his best face forward, too. Josh’s upper lip isn’t quite as stiff. “I come in second, and it’s a little bit of a shock value,” he says. “I wouldn’t deny that her collection was extremely beautiful. Not sewn amazingly well.” I think we can allow him that parting shot.
Anya celebrates her victory with Tim. He says, “Did you ever write this scenario? Did you? No! I know you didn’t!” Because he knows the person who did write Anya’s scenario. Nice guy, works the evening shift. A bit lacking in subtlety, but nice guy.
And so Anya is the ninth designer to be crowned Project Runway champion. She was no Mondo, but then again, she was no Gretchen either. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about her victory is that it brings the grueling test known as Runway season nine to a close. We passed, barely.
- “That black gown was killer-diller.”
- “You gotta grab the handle right now! You gotta start the motorcycle!”
- Twitter is once again filled with people declaring they are “done” with Project Runway. After this season, it’s not like I can really blame them. The question is, do you believe them this time?
- The end of the Runway season is a little melancholy for me. Allow me this moment of mushiness; I’ll try to keep it short. Your comments are consistently amusing and insightful, usually both at once. They’re why comment threads were invented. Many of you have also taken the time to express appreciation for my reviews, either in the comments or in emails and tweets. Not only am I always grateful for your kind words, but they also energize me. Your readership and conversation is a huge part of what makes this gig fun. Thank you.