Project Runway: “There IS An ‘I’ In Team”
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Project Runway: “There IS An ‘I’ In Team”

Last week I speculated that Project Runway was saving its powder, so to speak, by holding back on the evil-Gretchen footage—as if the series was getting ready to unload on its villain all at once. But I didn’t expect anything like this 90-minute character assassination, a hugely satisfying virtuoso performance of reality-TV editing.

The implicit theme of the episode was designers telling each other polite lies (and sometimes failing to maintain the façade). In her apartment, April fretted over the fact that nobody “got” her diaper design from last week. Roommate Peach volunteered, “I got the diaper!” and April bought it, which is how a white lie is supposed to work.

Heidi greeted the designers on the runway to reveal the challenge. The contestants were split into two teams, and each team had to design a six-look “collection.” Michael C. got the privilege of choosing the first member of his gang, and of course he picked Gretchen. We cut to April: “Do you want to heil Hitler? Seriously?” We were four minutes in, and Godwin’s Law was already in the rear-view mirror. So yeah, this was shaping up to be a good one.

It seemed insane that somebody with such an unstable sense of self worth as Michael C. would choose the most domineering designer in the group, but of course that lack of confidence is exactly why he did choose her.

Once the teams were selected, the editors used helpful on-screen graphics and game-show “dings” to note that the members of what would become Team Luxe—Gretchen, Michael C., Ivy, Christopher, A.J., and Andy—had four wins among them (albeit half of those from Gretchen). The other team—Valerie, Casanova, Peach, Michael D., April, and Mondo—had zero wins and a bunch of bottom-dwellers. But they had plenty of spunk! And thus Valerie referred to them as the Bad News Bears, which was cute.

The teams had to design collections that were in line with Fall 2010 fashion trends, which seemed like another “just design some nice clothes, whatever” challenge until Tim Gunn brought out his big board of words. (Also, some shill from Garnier was there, but this episode was way too busy building up its insane drama to give a shit about the hair guy. He got about a tenth of the screen time he’d get any other week.) The teams had to choose one aesthetic and one design element/“color story” from Tim’s board, which was filled with traps.

Gretchen ’n’ Friends chose “menswear” and “camel,” and the latter was one of the traps. “Camel” is a fancy word for “beige” or, at best, “tan.” As soon as Gretchen chose camel—and it was her choice, since the self-imagined Desert Fox of fashion appointed herself field marshal of the team—you could hear the chorus of “boring” coming from the judges.

Under the delusion that they were on The Apprentice, Gretchen’s team also gave themselves a name, Team Luxe, which turned out to be the funniest name they could have chosen.

The Bad News Bears chose a combination of “military” and “lace,” wisely choosing to go with a contradiction. That way, their line would seem like genius on the runway if they  managed to pull it off with any skill. Peach had a brief moment of panic, but overall, it was a pretty chill brainstorming session on the team of love and harmony and love. “I love military stuff,” said Casanova, “I love lace. So for me, I feel like I’m a fish in the water.”

Over on Team Luxe, everybody took Gretchen’s orders, and she praised them for working together so well. Indeed, what a delightful little squad they were, and Designated Gretchen Sidekick Ivy wanted to keep it that way, telling Michael, “Don’t rely on your immunity, because we are expecting stuff out of you, also.”

At that moment, a bleary-eyed story producer looked up from his workstation in the dark control room, rewound the feed to make sure he’d heard what he thought he’d heard, and made a calm but swift beeline to the red telephone on the wall, where he phoned the highest levels of command at Bunim-Murray Productions. It was a gut call, but all the warning signs told him that this was the moment he’d trained for: an epic storm of passive aggression.

The producers must have been impressed with how quickly Gretchen converted Team Luxe into her personal army of catty, awful human beings, with Michael C. as their whipping boy. Even A.J. tittered with Gretchen about the haplessness of their mutually agreed buffoon, which, come on, A.J., really? Your memory is that short?

Back in the workroom, it was Gretchen Über Alles for Team Luxe, with each designer spreading their efforts across multiple pieces. “I kind of feel like I’m in every one, even if I’m not the one sewing,” Gretchen said. Indeed, all individuality was purged. Free expression was condemned as the tool of the enemy. The People toiled only in service of their leader’s singular grand vision: TAUPE AND STUFF!

Yet Gretchen fretted. There existed the possibility that her troops weren’t worthy of participating in her brilliance. They got sidetracked by such silly things, like emotion. Take Michael C. He got upset when everyone, especially Ivy, treated him like garbage. Such a burden for the gifted leader. “Maybe we should coddle him a little bit?” she sighed.

Somehow, there was room for an entertaining B-plot (which would have been the main arc in most episodes), as Casanova threatened to quit again and almost seemed serious this time. This narrative thread was mostly an excuse for a ton of goofy  Casanova lines, my favorite of which was, “When Tim Gums comes to the workshop, I am always being scared.”

Casanova pouted in the lounge, where a parade of designers came in to tell him some more of those white lies, but their words had no effect. The resolution to this funk was a surprise: It turns out that Casanova’s model is quite eloquent and sweet. She told him that he had to follow his own vision, which is a Project Runway cliché, but damn, she really meant it. So he went back to work.

Overnight, a fitful Gretchen made a list of everything that her young charges had to accomplish in the morning. The list was about three feet long and written in lipstick, as are all great manifestos. We didn’t get to see the entire list, but I bet that the last item was “leave time to clean up your workspaces.” 

In the runway show, the Bad News Bears were the clear winners, and Casanova was the somewhat-less-clear individual winner. By opening up the back of his lace vest, Casanova solved the elderly feel that Tim Gums had criticized in an earlier draft of his design. Plus, his white pants fit perfectly on his model. If the judges were grading on a curve, which they obviously were, I can see how Casanova won.

Peach also got some suspiciously charitable kudos for her dress. Yes, it was better than usual for her, but those gold chains hanging off her model's belly looked like drawer pulls from a tacky bed-and-breakfast. Michael D.’s asymmetrical sheer top and gorgeous, gold-studded skirt should have won; he made the best use of the signature ingredient, lace. Mondo’s epaulets-and-leggings look was memorable, too—he has to win one of these weeks.

In any case, Bad News Bears had some individuality on display, which Gretchen was sure would lead to their doom. She beamed with confidence when Team Luxe trotted out its steaming pile of Banana Republic Outlet irregulars. What she termed the “true collection” was an ill-fitting mess of beige and maroon.

A.J. had created only one garment, and he contributed it to a look that I’m at a loss to describe. It was something like: a horseback-riding airline stewardess wearing a business shirt from the NBA center she slept with last night. That’s as close as I can come. It was weird.

Most of the Luxe designs weren’t utter disasters, but they were all boring, so Gretchen ‘n’ Friends lost. They awaited their fate in the back room, and Gretchen thought out loud: Do we want to go out there as a team, or do we want to, gosh, I don’t know, blame one person, such as Michael C., for everything? The other designers, starting to realize that they were keeping the company of a sociopath, said that of course they would go out as a team. Gretchen agreed—it “just wasn’t her style” to name names, guys, sheesh, perish the thought. Gretchen was not as good at the polite lies as her colleagues.

Thus began one of the greatest runway breakdowns in the show’s history. We had been set up by the back-room antics to believe that Gretchen would, to borrow Michael Kors’ favorite phrase, throw Michael C. under the bus. But as she unraveled a wandering, teary monologue about Team Luxe’s beautiful collection, praising their collaboration and one-for-all team spirit, it looked like we might be let down. She talked about team unity for what seemed like hours. How could she possibly go back?

But then Michael Kors bemoaned the “Golden Girl vest” on one model, and THAT WAS IT. Gretchen just could not keep up this ridiculous charade. She noted that the collection did “look a little bit Grandma.” Nina smelled blood and pushed Gretchen just a little, and everything went to shit.

“I felt like I had to save a crappy collection!” cried Gretchen. Throwing away her beams-o’-sunshine spiel, she pivoted to Brilliant Strategy No. 2: Take a huge dump on Michael C. The one tiny hitch in this plan, as Heidi noted, was that Gretchen had chosen to make an example of the one dude who could not be eliminated, thanks to his immunity from last week's win.

The judges sent Team Luxe away in disgust and compared notes. Nina did an impression of Gretchen. Kors engaged Gretchen in an imaginary dialogue: “Were you just bossing everyone around? Was that your job today?” Cut to a shot of sad Gretchen nodding—an incredibly mean, hilarious, awesome edit (in an episode full of them).

Back on the runway, it came down to A.J. and Gretchen, the least suspenseful moment of the episode. No way was Project Runway getting rid of its best villain in years. A.J. got the Auf, and considering the paucity of his contribution, that wasn’t so unjust.

Then came the closer that pushed this episode into the all-time Project Runway pantheon. Tim Gunn walked into the back room, his face flushed and angry. A.J. reached out for his goodbye hug, but Tim wasn’t having any of it. He had “a few words for Team Luxe.” The nut of his passionate, choked-up reprimand: “I don’t know why you allowed Gretchen to manipulate, control, and bully you.” Holy.

And so the fledgling empire crumbled before Gretchen’s eyes, with even loyal retainers like Ivy scrambling to embrace the Way Of The Gunn. In an interview, Gretchen protested: “I just wanted to help! A.J. said he wanted to make a shirt dress. It didn’t have to be a boring shirt dress.” That’s right, sweetheart, don’t you ever change. I used to wonder if Project Runway could ever return to the glory of its Bravo days, and you’ve provided the answer.

Stray Observations:

— “Leopard and cheetah brings in you.”

— “In this challenge, I’m gonna still be Casanova, but softener.”

— “Don’t go anywhere but the stairs, Michael!”

— “Everything I make is bullshit!”

— “The Golden Girl vest … it’s unfortunate. Just unfortunate.”

— “It’s the least ‘luxe’ thing I’ve ever seen.”

— “Tim is kind of right in what he says. And I don’t think he says things just to say.”

— “Bye, Swatch!”

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