Project Runway: "My Pet Project"
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Project Runway: "My Pet Project"

Deep emotion can be hard to come by in these first few episodes of the season. The editors hunt it out wherever they can find it. And the contestants do their part, too. In one of the men’s apartments, Rafael’s former roommates try to muster up some sadness at the departure of this guy who slept in an adjacent bed for half a night. Josh M. says, “It was different to not have Rafael this morning.” A technically true statement. But can you be more specific, Josh? What exactly do you miss about Rafael? “I miss him and his hair.”

Even though not every moment is charged with intrigue yet, part of the fun is to spot the future drama that’s starting to brew. For instance, is likable Bert actually a smug jerk? We’re teased with choppy footage of Bert kinda strutting around the apartment. It’s all awfully thin—some business about how Bert can’t help being fabulous, and a shot of his roommates looking askance at him… sort of? But see, the show is softening us up here. It’s not so much that Bert is being evil in the early scenes of this episode. The important takeaway from this unkind cut is that the producers are telling us, “We are going to give Bert the ‘prick edit’ now, and you’ll see why in a little bit.”

It doesn’t take long. The contestants meet Tim Gunn at Petland Discounts, and therefore they will have to make outfits out of crap they buy in the pet store. “It’s the unconventional challenge!” says Tim. A graphic slides onto the screen to emphasize the point: “UNCONVENTIONAL CHALLENGE.”

This is the difference between the Bravo era and the Lifetime era. In the Bravo days, the show assumed that viewers were aware—or could at least figure out—that traditional fashion design does not entail a former Miss Trinidad heaving a 20-pound bag of dog kibble into a basket full of aquarium tubes.

Project Runway on Lifetime has no such trust in its audience. “Don’t you see?” it pleads. “Shopping at a pet store, what a stupendous flouting of convention! Why, it’s just not done!” We all nod our heads: Yes, we understand that placing unusual limits on creativity is the entire premise of this eight-year-old television program. And then Project Runway doesn’t really believe us, so it makes everybody say the word “unconventional” a couple thousand more times.

Bert thanks God that he has immunity for this challenge, because he is so done with this impossibly trite competition. “I don’t get into that sort of costume-y thing. It’s not my strength—or not ‘my strength,’ I just don’t want to do it.” Bert figures that sure, he’s been out of the business for almost 20 years, but last week he made a nice dress. So he’s gonna coast off of that for another decade, give or take. Well, Bert had better be careful. Last year, the winner of the first challenge got pretty pleased with herself, too, and we all remember how that turned out! Aw, crap, I just remembered how that turned out.

Back in the workroom, Olivier frets. “I’m the extreme opposite of craft things,” he says. His “Welshman with a head injury” accent has somehow gotten worse since last week, to the degree that the editors often have to spell out what he’s saying at the bottom of the screen. This makes him the first Project Runway contestant from freaking Ohio who has required the subtitle treatment.

Another first: Ignoring the current challenge, Bert instead fiddles with his winning dress from LAST week. Apparently, the show’s troglodytic crew failed to comprehend the high-order aesthetic principles on display in Bert’s frock made partly from dirty boxer shorts. “Whoever put this on the mannequin must have been a straight man,” he mutters to the camera. (Nobody else is listening.)

I guess Bert says this because it sounds like something that a silly Project Runway contestant would say, and indeed, I could see an Austin Scarlett type pulling off this casual heterophobia with élan. But Bert, you must fill up your tank of lovable moments before there’s enough goodwill to make your bitchiness seem adorable. There were only a few drops in your tank! And now there are none.

Irritating verbal tics abound in this episode. Bryce says, “I want to giggle every time I say ‘wee-wee pad.’” I feel pretty much the same way, except with murdering instead of giggling. There’s also the debate over which one is better: less (which is more) or more (ditto)? On the one hand, you’ve got Josh M.: “A lot of people’s motto is ‘less is more,’ but mine is, ‘more is better’!” Olivier offers this rebuttal: “Josh M., he doesn’t think less is more. He thinks more is more, and that can be detrimental.” That noise you hear is the sound of a thousand semiotics professors sobbing, or maybe clapping with glee, I’m not sure.

Tim visits. He talks with Viktor, the contestant who portrays himself as a hardened badass in every testimonial interview. The most gangsta thing we’ve seen him do in the workroom is declining to share his aquarium-tubing couplers. Is that more of a Blood or a Crip move? Tough to say. Viktor is working on an attractive cotton-candy-ish outfit, and Tim is impressed. “It’s like a Depends dress! You never have to get up from your barstool,” Tim says. Viktor replies, “And it absorbs well,” which, y’know, was the entire point of Tim’s joke.

Bert works so hard to avoid making a “costume” that he fails to consider the option of designing clothes that look nice. Apparently that, too, is beneath his purview. So when Tim visits, Bert’s design is all, “Yeah, I’m a soggy black towel with some dog collars and shit, what are you gonna do about it?” And Tim, well, he’s speechless. He looks at Bert’s phoned-in pile of crap and takes a long, deep breath. His crestfallen sigh speaks to the heartbreak of a nation—a nation that was looking forward to liking Bert, and is now getting really annoyed with his self-satisfied, sandbagging ass.

Josh M. shares his sketches with Tim. “It’s kind of along the lines of this ’50s feel, but very updated because of what I have to work with,” he explains, and Tim nods as if this makes sense. I guess they didn’t have garish aquarium rocks in the 1950s. Sometimes you forget how lucky we are to live in these modern times.

The models arrive for fittings. Laura has been crafting a skirt from transparent dog cones—those lampshade collars you put on dogs after they have surgery so that you can laugh at the dog and take your mind off his pain. It turns out that a model’s butt is considerably larger than a dog’s head, so Laura’s model has trouble concealing her derriere under the dog-cone contraption. Lifetime digitally blurs the model’s naughty bits, but I bet the guy who tacked up Bert’s dress has the uncensored footage on his personal hard drive.

Olivier and Bert share a moment as Bert compliments Olivier on his design. Olivier can barely muster the energy to mumble a response. He’s like Daria from that MTV cartoon series, if there was an episode where Daria had mono.

Meanwhile, Julie embarks on a journey of gross self-discovery, musing, “I’m up shit creek, but maybe I like that?”

In the morning, the designers survey each other’s work. Bryce’s pee-pad puff skirt is the prime target of derision. “Oh, my Lord Of The Rings,” says Viktor, apropos of nothing, aside from the fact that he came up with that line last night and liked the sound of it. It’s crisp, it’s timely—gonna put a star next to that one in the ol’ catchphrase notebook, yessir.

Runway show. This week’s guest judge is Stacey Bendet, designer of the Alice + Olivia collection, according to Heidi (or in all honesty, according to the Google search I just did). Designers always make better guest judges than celebrities—although they are not as amusing—because they know the lingo and have the confidence to disagree with Michael Kors and Nina Garcia.

Anya’s rope-toy blouse, intricately woven and tied twice across the back, is gorgeous. The form of the top is awfully similar to last week’s effort, though, which may contribute to her missing the top three.

Weaving has its perils, too. Julie’s woven dog-food-bag dress practically clatters down the runway. The form is so unforgivingly rigid that as the model moves, it looks like there’s an angry cat trapped underneath the gown’s boxy structure, and kitty wants out.

After Tim’s consultation, Bert reinvents his shapeless black tube of despair by tacking on some half-assed lacy crap at the top, turning his model’s chest into the prettiest little ballerina the second grade ever did see. Bert avoids the bottom three, but he gets a rare non-bottom-three scolding from Heidi! “Bert, you are so lucky this week that you have immunity. What do you have to say?” Bert: “I agree.” Hmmm, seems humble. Maybe this incident took Bert back down a notch? (Judging by the previews of next week’s episode: No.)

The bottom three are Bryce, Josh C., and Fallene. Bryce’s skirt appears to be inspired by the bedside wastebasket of an old woman who has the flu; even a glance at it induces the urge to blow one’s nose. Kors and Heidi point out that this layered-tissue thing might be the most overused designs in the history of the show. But we should not allow the skirt to distract from the singular terribleness of the top, a clumsy, papier-mâché-looking sports bra that could have come from a cut-rate Barbarella knockoff.

About the worst thing that can be said about Fallene’s design (made from dog-bed fabric and orange aquarium seaweed) is that it’s dull, and somewhat dated. The color scheme is lifted from a Thanksgiving cover of Martha Stewart Living circa 1995. Fallene makes matters worse by strapping a huge belt around her model’s belly, throwing off the balance of the look and making everything seem like it’s hiked up uncomfortably high. It made me squirm in my seat a little. That belt just isn’t right.

The judges tell Fallene that her design stinks, and she agrees with them, which they always hate, so they puff their feathers and scratch at the ground in exasperation. Guest judge Bendet suggests to Fallene, “You could have done something more interesting, like a ball gown covered in little kitten toys.” Fallene mulls this awful suggestion for a moment and replies with 100-percent correctness, “I feel like that could have easily gotten me eliminated, though.” Kors snaps at her, as such honesty on the runway is frowned upon. (He certainly wasn’t trying to defend Bendet’s honor—he’s more than happy to sell out a guest judge for the sake of a good zinger, and I would never change this about him.)

Josh C.’s design is fine, and about as forgettable as they come. He has essentially peeled the fabric off a doggie umbrella, dyed it purple, and pulled it down on either side of his model’s neck, so she has gloomy ghost puppies peeking out from each breast. Then there is a plain skirt made from reptile-cage webbing or some such. “The word for today is ‘unconventional,’” Kors says, not knowing how right he is. And Josh C. is too normal. Nina sums it up: “It’s not terrible. It’s just not ‘wow.’”

The top three are Josh M., Anthony Ryan, and Olivier. I get the verve and craftsmanship behind Josh M.’s design, but I have no enthusiasm for his look. The blouse resembles a bottle of colored sand art from the state-fair arts-and-crafts booth—the kind of thing a bored stepfather would make with the kids while waiting for his wife to get back with that damned funnel cake already. The weight of the rocks on the top causes it to pucker in an unflattering way. And while Josh M.’s reptile-netting skirt boasts better construction and more appealing proportions than Josh C.’s, it is only slightly less boring.

It’s easier for me to buy Olivier’s look as a top contender, although I still don’t love it. Olivier earns plaudits from the judges for his use of the sheepskin dog bed, which is certainly an Unconventional™ choice. It’s not a flattering one, though. The heavy synthetic wool droops, forming a flabby shelf around the model’s bust and another one at her midriff. It looks like a fuzzy marshmallow being melted in the microwave. Olivier mixes two varieties of hamster bedding to create a two-tone pattern on the skirt (and, regrettably, on his model’s eyebrows). While I certainly heard the word “ombré” more tonight than I ever imagined I would, I have to agree that the effect is quite beautiful.

It’s not stunning, though, and Anthony Ryan’s design is stunning. He makes birdseed look unbelievably good. The tiny seeds give texture and a touch of color to the garment. The arrangement of the larger sunflower seeds—creating a fountain of bluejay food that climbs right up the neck of Anthony Ryan’s model—is an inspired touch. This is the kind of result you want to see out of a wacky challenge.

Heidi backs Anthony Ryan for the winner’s podium, but Nina raises a stink. Apparently her predilection with beige is still going strong. Olivier’s dress combines ecru, taupe, AND beige—a veritable conflagration of drab! So of course Nina can’t resist.

Heidi asks Nina if she likes Olivier’s outfit more than Anthony Ryan’s. Nina groans, “Ohhhh, yes,” as if burdened by the effort of educating this lost child who somehow wandered out of her playpen. It’s an eerie reprisal of the Season 8 finale, a fact that isn’t lost on Kors. “Here it goes again!” he squawks. “It’s getting hot. I’m goin’ through man-opause here!”

Nina gets her way and Olivier wins, which is stupid, but the ordeal was probably worth it for that “man-opause” line. Overjoyed at being named the winner, Olivier moves his lips and produces sound. “I will only work harder,” the subtitles say. 

Josh C. is out. Bryce had the worst design, but it’s confusing to have two Joshes around, so go away, you. I’m tired of typing that extra initial all the time.

For the back-room consolation moment, Tim is already in mid-season form. He chokes up and tells Josh C., “You should feel extremely proud about what you have achieved. EXTREMELY proud!” It’s sweet and all, but the guy finished next-to-last in the first challenge and then dead last in the second. Perhaps a moderate level of pride is sufficient in this instance.

Finally, it’s time for the defiant parting words, yet Josh doesn’t have much defiance in him. “I think you’ll definitely see me in the future. I don’t know when. But it won’t be that far off.” Oh, Josh C. I miss him already. And his hair.

Stray Observations

  • Hey, Michael and Nina are in the opening sequence now! And they won’t shut up. The designers can’t get a word in edgewise.
  • Laura on her childhood: “I was able to have brands and access to a lot of fashion. I’ve been shopping at Neiman’s since I was in single digits.” So, I don’t understand. Is this some sort of reality-show rope-a-dope strategy where Laura provokes us with irritating sayings until we are so exhausted by annoyance that we give in and like her? Because I think I can go the full 15 rounds.
  • “My brain’s starting to bleed just looking at this.”
  • “If you can pull this off, it’s going to have a fabulosity.”
  • “She’s incognito in napkins?”

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