It’s programmed into this show that the last episode at Parsons will be an anticlimax. The producers spend the first three-quarters of the season grinding the contestants into a daze, so by the time the judges are finally deciding who will compete at Fashion Week, everyone’s designing eye is a bit bleary. Nobody produces their best work. And like the punchline to a joke with an overly long setup, the judges inevitably ask, “What happened to you?” The contestants aren’t allowed to say, “The last 11 episodes of this godforsaken sleep-deprivation circus happened to me, you cretin”—except tonight, that’s essentially what one of them said. We’ll get to that.
The episode began at the end of last week’s proceedings, with Tim telling the designers to haul their weary carcasses back out to the runway for an Important Message from Heidi. Proving that the producers get tired, too, they tried to pass off this minor scheduling change as an edge-of-your-seat twist. As Lifetime Nation chewed its fingernails with both hands and wondered, “What will Heidi SAY?” her Klum-ness revealed that the designers would be going to “one of the most spectacular places in New York City” to “recharge.” Wotta curveball!
This supposed Shangri-La on the Hudson was the Presidential Suite of the Columbus Circle Mandarin Oriental hotel. The designers shared a drink for the first of many soggy reflect-on-the-journey sessions in this episode. “This is the champagne toast that we’ve been wanting to have since the beginning of the season,” said Michael. Nodding in agreement, I grabbed my calendar and wistfully crossed off the “Awkward Toast by Five Remaining Project Runway Contestants” that I had circled in red marker (read: lipstick).
If Michael was a bit maudlin, he wasn’t alone. Gretchen said that she had made it this far because she had “set the intention to do what I am passionate about for the rest of my life.” Mondo said that it had been “a journey to set me free.”
“That’s what it’s all about,” Gretchen replied, which is one of those remarks that you can offer in response to anything and it sounds vaguely profound, as long as you don’t think about it very hard. But in the end, isn’t that what Project Runway is all about?
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the special guest revealing the challenge. I love Bloomberg. I get a kick out of the fact that this unapologetically dumpy, soft-spoken technocrat is mayor of the fashion and culture capital of the Western world. I mean, there was Tim Gunn, wearing an impeccable checked navy suit with one of those red-and-white gingham-ish ties he’s been sporting throughout the season acting as a tastefully faint echo of the suit pattern, tied in a four-in-hand knot for just a touch of insouciance. And there was Bloomberg, in rumpled khakis that he had grabbed from his bedside that morning, deciding, “Yeah, these can make it another day.” Clothes make the man, but when you have 18 billion dollars in the bank, that also can make the man.
Bloomberg was there to express his appreciation for Project Runway, a program which had just declared that one of the most spectacular places in his city was a midtown hotel room. The mayor also introduced the challenge, which was to create a design inspired by a landmark in New York. Or perhaps I should say that Bloomberg re-introduced the challenge, since the show did this same thing as a team challenge last season. You get Hizzoner himself and the best you can do is a repeat? Come now, Project Runway.
The designers headed off to NYC locales of their choice, although their destinations had the strong scent of being selected from a pre-approved list. Michael chose the Statue of Liberty. She wears a “draped dress,” he noticed, and with that, he snapped his mental notebook shut: Inspiration complete. By the way, it’s not a dress, but a “stola”—the female version of a toga—as I learned in the New York Times crossword a few weeks ago. So there, you’ve got a fun fact to use as an icebreaker at your next high-society cocktail party. YOU’RE WELCOME.
April and Mondo went to the Brooklyn Bridge. They both observed that the bridge has lines going every which way, like the crazy madcap bridge that it is. Andy went to Central Park, where he saw water. Gretchen went to the Lower East Side and felt “under-inspired.” (So did the contestants who hit the LES last season, if I’m not mistaken.) In the parlance of Project Runway editing, “under-inspired” is the mating call of a contestant who is about to be kicked off. But that couldn’t be the case with Gretchen, could it? We hoped perchance to dream.
Gretchen’s uncertainty about her own designs did not prevent her from opining on her colleagues’ work. Noting that Michael had the temerity to design a dress—gah! can you imagine?!—she said, “Michael C. reminds me of what I was like five years ago.” As if we’re supposed to believe that Gretchen was once a doughy, insecure goober with a shaky grasp of social dynamics…wait, no, I actually find that pretty easy to believe.
Andy’s design also fell under the all-seeing, all-understanding gaze of Gretchen. She advised, “Be careful that it not go slutty, and it not look like the Real Housewives of New Jersey.” [Correction: Actually, Tim said this particular line, but Gretchen said something similar about sluts and madams and whatnot.] The critique got in his head and stuck there as he engaged in some serious self-doubt. If there’s anyone left who believes that Gretchen doesn’t do this on purpose, go to your room.
The question is why Andy fell for it. I wanted the disembodied spirit of Tim Gunn to appear in a little bubble above Andy’s head and intone, Obi-Wan Kenobi style, “I don’t know why you allowed Gretchen to manipulate, control, and bully you!”
Tim came in for the critique session. He was suspicious of the train-wreck backup dress that Michael was making. Because Michael always has to make a crapton of dresses. As much as I sympathize with the guy in terms of the social drama, I’m also pretty tired of him.
Tim wondered about Michael’s inspiration. “Do you have an image?” he asked. Michael said “Yes!” and showed Tim a picture of the Statue of Liberty. I don’t know exactly why this was hilarious, but it was.
In the ladies’ apartment, April said that it felt like an accomplishment to have made it this far, you know, being 21 and all. Did you know that April was 21? Was it possible to forget? This week, the editors made sure that it was not.
Runway time. Christian Soriano was the guest judge. Christian is one of the most talented designers to have appeared on Project Runway, but he also poisoned the pool somewhat for future contestants. Because the producers were so complicit in playing up Christian’s made-for-TV persona, we’ve had to suffer through subsequent designers who constructed characters in the interest of making themselves more essential to the show. (In fairness, this probably would have happened anyway because it’s reality TV, and it already was happening to a degree on Project Runway—it’s just that Christian brought it to a new level.) Christian was the annoying little twit that spawned an army of less talented annoying little twits.
Michael was the judges’ favorite, which I find baffling. He presented a draped black nothing, with a laughably high slit and a ham-fisted back that swooped down to a point just north of crack on his model. I have no problem with those skin-revealing touches on principle, but when they seem to be the only ideas at work, I’m not impressed. Michael Kors said, “You wanted a showstopper, you got a showstopper.” I was shocked to learn that he didn’t mean this as an insult.
That said, I’m glad that Michael is advancing another round, because the dress wasn’t a disaster, and anything that nudges Ivy Higa one step closer to a delirium of rage is fine in my book. Can’t you picture Ivy watching this episode, pursing her lips and glaring so hard that the capillaries in her face start to explode like a fireworks factory set aflame? I can, and I often did as the slobbering judges lavished praise on a beaming Michael.
Michael’s success didn’t come at the expense of Mondo, who once again had the best garment on the runway. It was an exciting and interesting mix of different gray herringbones, achieving Mondo’s trademark vibrance even without his trademark use of color.
Heidi poured some cold water on the Mondo-fest by sneering that his design felt familiar to her. There’s always one contestant at this stage in the game who gets beaten with the “You always do the same thing” stick.
This season’s victim was April, though, not Mondo. She created a black dress with touches of dark purple, adding some asymmetrical cutout details in the bodice. And indeed, I could have written that same sentence about many of April’s designs this season. The one new wrinkle this week was that the dress made her model look pregnant, but that was just a regression to the pre-natal stage—her earlier garments had a tendency to cast the wearer as a diaper-clad infant.
Andy’s sleek, wet-looking black dress did end up a bit on the slutty side, but it was the type of dress that owned its slight sluttiness, so he had no problems. Gretchen, however, ran into trouble with an outfit that Mondo accurately described as “exhausted.” The signature piece was a junky-looking jacket with a ribboned “T” across the back that evoked a clip-on tie made from tatters of the Merv Griffin Show set. It was a tacky effort from the self-imagined master of effortless refinement. So the judges had to ask—wait for it—“What happened to you?”
“I feel like I’m just tired of the challenges!” Gretchen whined, and Heidi pounced, because the first rule of Project Runway is that you do not question the game. What could Gretchen possibly mean by this preposterous “tired of the challenges” gobbledygook? Gretchen explained, “The challenges are crazy. You have to edit yourself into that cookie-cutter.”
Heidi responded with a cutting observation: “But you guys had so much freedom. You could do whatever you wanna do!” She spoke more truth than she might have intended; this challenge wasn’t a challenge at all. It was the hoary “show us who you are as a designer” routine, thinly veiled by a tribute to New York. If Andy can take the inspiration of Central Park and create a dress for an upscale Hong Kong call girl, you have to conclude that anything goes.
Because this is the last episode before the designers go off to make their big collections, Heidi put the contestants on the “Which two designers do you think should go to Fashion Week?” firing line. Everything went down pretty much as expected—Gretchen and Andy tried to pretend that Michael C. wasn’t even in the room, and that maybe if they closed their eyes hard enough, they could pretend he had never been there at all.
And then it came to Mondo, who made Michael his number-one Fashion Week candidate with a bullet. I wrote in my notes “MONDO = HERO.” (Yes, I also said that I was tired of Michael. If you’ve been watching this season, you already know why these two sentiments are not incompatible.) It got even better from there, with Mondo saying that he was torn between April and Andy for his second choice, “because they’re both artists.” Despite this insult by omission, Gretchen remained perfectly calm. She knew that back home, her mom was smashing furniture on her behalf.
Returning from yet another “what a long, strange trip it’s been” session in the backstage lounge, the designers engaged in the most uncomfortably forced group hug in television history and took their places on the runway for eliminations. It came down to April and Gretchen. Heidi turned to the latter. “Gretchen…” In or out? For the first time all season, I held my breath for an elimination moment.
But no, April got the Auf, because it wasn’t Gretchen’s turn to leave yet. Surely the fair-haired princess of taupe has one more runway meltdown left in her, and Project Runway intends to let us see it.
— “Fashion Week is the essence of why I’m a designer.”
— That tiramisu at the Mandarin Oriental looked pretty good.
— The music used during the segment where Mondo took a nap was the most dramatic nap music ever.
— “This pleating represents the base of the Statue of Liberty—like, the bricks.”
— “The brick color is in reference to the brick.”
— It was nice of them to give Peter Butler from Garnier another shot at camera time after he got steamrolled in the epic Rise And Fall Of Gretchen Jones episode. Good job, Peter. You certainly mentioned the names of many Garnier products.
— Speaking of the bit players, I enjoyed seeing Handlebar-Mustache Guy feign enthusiasm as Michael told him to create the smokiest goddamn eyes the world had ever seen. (HMG ended up interpreting this as Elvira Lite.)
— Kors, stealing the guest judge’s line: “I’m so confused!”
— I wish that Michael C.’s hilarious Kors impression had come out sooner.
— Christian was mostly fine in the judging, at times playing devil’s advocate to the regulars, which guest judges don’t do often enough. But Christ, did he ever bring the memories of his past obnoxiousness flooding back when he was talking about Mondo’s look. “The dress was pretty,” he said, “but the styling was a little…” and then he made a motion like an old-time Hollywood starlet trying to brush her hair back seductively after suffering a terrible stroke. Clearly, he’d decided he was going to work in this little bit of stagecraft into his shtick beforehand. I was delighted when it fell flat, and the other judges reacted with a general air of “Uhh, what the hell was that?”
— Gretchen: “I can’t believe that they gave me the second chance that each of you guys got.” I don’t know what she was referring to, but reality is irrelevant when it comes to Gretchen’s perpetual victimhood.
— I love Tim Gunn’s little remarks when he peeks into the workroom one last time. I will miss those. And also Swatch.