Look, I wasn’t alone in doubting Season 8’s new, 50-percent-longer extended format. Tim Gunn, for instance, went on record saying he was against the 90-minute time slot. All indications were that the added time would hasten Project Runway’s inexorable slide into mundanity. (Judging by Noel Murray’s spot-on essay about reality TV, he thought the same thing. SO THERE.)
If I sound defensive, it’s because I was so clearly wrong. But I’m not really beating myself up over it—just enjoying the ongoing pleasant surprise that is Season 8. Against all odds, this is the best season in years. Sure, this week’s episode was not on the Smithsonian-worthy level of last week’s Rise And Fall Of Gretchen Jones epic. (How could it be?) It was still a very good episode, with few slow moments. It’s not a fluke anymore: For the time being, at least, the show has recaptured its vibrance and capacity for surprise.
There was surprisingly little aftermath of last week’s debacle. In the apartment, Gretchen didn’t want to talk about it, so Ivy was left to pop-psychoanalyze the situation with Valerie. “I think it was good for her,” mused Ivy, whose behavior in the team challenge was just as reprehensible as Gretchen’s. “It showed that it’s time to get down to reality.”
Whew. I was afraid that a sudden outbreak of self-awareness would take hold after Tim Gunn’s smackdown (which was replayed twice in tonight’s episode and is sure to be seen many times more—the editors probably created a dedicated hotkey for it in Final Cut Pro). Will Ivy, not Gretchen, end up being the least likable contestant as the competition plays out? Could be.
The challenge was to create a fashionable look from bridesmaid dresses. The show has had a bridesmaid dress challenge before—I think the idea was to create a bride and bridesmaid dress—but this one was better. Funny premise, and a good test of the designer’s skills.
And what an unsightly bunch of frocks they found—the lineup was one long nightmare in sateen, modeled by the women who had to wear them at actual, presumably terrible weddings. Mondo picked one dress for its rosy color; his model walked off the runway to reveal a white racing stripe down the back. The dress was even uglier than he realized. That’s how it went.
Michael D. picked last; he got stuck with a dress in a pink hue that my TV struggled to render, flickering between various shades of garish. Michael also had the challenge’s one “plus-size” model, a fate that he was unpleasantly eager to whine about. “When you’re designing for a woman who’s a little bit more, um, vo-lump-tuous, it has a tendency to go really, really wrong.” It sounded like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and indeed, he went on to fulfill the living daylights out of that prophecy.
April’s model had a ton of requests, which is always the dilemma in the design-for-a-regular-woman challenges. Should the designers stick with their vision or try to accommodate the amateur model? April went for the former, which was the winning move. Yes, the show will pay lip service to the desires of their queens-for-a-day, but in the final calculation, Nina Garcia and Michael Kors do not care about what Jane Totebag from Averagetown, U.S.A., thinks about fashion.
A bit of tension preceded the workroom critique, as it would be the first one-on-one confrontation between Tim and Gretchen since The Incident. Tim was the consummate pro, and he dove straight into the critique of Gretchen’s outfit. Some awkwardness remained. Gretchen was in full kiss-up mode, proclaiming that when “you guys” (?) remarked on her designs, her sky opened up in a sparkling triple-rainbow of insight from heaven. (That was the gist, at least.) Hey, if I had wandered astray of Tim Gunn, I would work pretty furiously to get back in his good graces, too. Of course, I would never cross Tim Gunn, ever.
Then came a fairly lame twist: The contestants brought their looks to a “designer showcase” in a Manhattan gallery, where a bunch of regular people dropped buttons into jars to choose their favorite designs. This had the feel of the photo shoot from earlier in the season—i.e., “let’s do this thing because it is a thing to do”—except that a weird controversy arose.
Ivy claimed that Michael C. was telling patrons not to vote for her, saying that she was the “bitch of the show.” This dubious rumor immediately became truth among the Team Luxe Veterans Association. They were so delighted to saddle up and take a few whacks at their old whipping boy again. “I feel like [Michael C.] is constantly trying to push my buttons,” Ivy said during a rare break from her sustained torment of the poor schmoe.
Was the scuttlebutt true? It’s impossible to know. There was no footage of Michael C.’s supposed bad act, but it’s conceivable, if his Stockholm Syndrome lapsed for a moment, that he might have made an offhand remark to one of the visitors at the showcase. Then again, he gave a vociferous denial in an interview, which seems like an implausibly stupid move if he actually did talk trash with all those cameras around.
Michael approached Ivy in the workroom, assiduously dodging eye contact, to deny that he ever spoke any ill words about her design. She smiled warmly, touched his hand, and expressed her hope that they could move on and become friends. Ha, no, just kidding, she was heinous and spiteful, and Michael had to flee her piercing rays of hatred. “Why did he say that in front of everybody?” Gretchen asked. It’s almost as if he was attempting to clear the air! What an asshole! And the runway show would only worsen his plight.
Mondo won the popular vote, for good reason, as his pink-and-black dress had great geometric touches on the chest and shoulder—a nice expression of his mod aesthetic.
The bottom three: Michael D., Valerie, and Peach. Valerie’s dress wasn’t so terrible as the judges (except Heidi) seemed to think. Sure, the giant Macintosh cursors pointing at her model’s nipples were unfortunate, and the dress had a bit of that Peach-y country-club-brunch vibe, but I wasn’t seeing the disaster.
Michael D., meanwhile, responded to the challenge of designing for a larger woman by making her look as huge as possible. The original horrid pink dress was now surrounded by a cloud of cheap black upholstery fabric. He managed to survive thanks to Peach, who sent her model down the catwalk with ruffled tabs sticking out from either side of her torso, looking like they could be pulled to activate a puke-green flotation device in case of emergency. She took the loss and made a joyful, stupendously gracious exit.
The top three: Mondo, Christopher, and somehow Michael C. Clearly this would be the week Mondo won. Except, no, it was Michael C. He went back to the designers’ lounge and muttered, “I won,” as if he was announcing that Nina Garcia had strangled his cat.
“Of course you did,” Ivy snapped, because Michael is always pushing her buttons. And here’s the main conflict of the episode: As icky as it is to fall in league with the Luxe Mafia, Michael’s dress was indeed awful. A lumpy, lopsided, charmless mass of semi-shimmery black satin topped off with an oppressive lace-and-velvet half-sleeve ... thing. I didn’t agree when the designers found fault with his past success, but tonight, he shouldn’t have sniffed the top three.
It was almost cruel for the judges to award Michael C. the win, because it’s clear that the cattiness and ostracization is now going to ramp up even further, with Ivy now acting as co-instigator alongside her mildly chastened comrade Gretchen. After this episode, the emotional side of the season’s narrative is in direct conflict with the meritocratic side. The exciting part is that soon, someone will have to lose.
— Tim Gunn’s video recaps on his Facebook page are essential viewing. He doesn’t pull any punches. Dig that East Asian screen in the background, too. Very Bert Cooper of him. Thanks to commenter Bondfool for making me aware of this Facebook page’s existence.
— Speaking of commenters, Brillow wrote an interesting analysis of the social dynamics in last week’s episode. I call it out because it came pretty late in the thread, and you might have missed it.
— Christopher: “I don’t know why brides always want their bridesmaids to look so bad, but they do.” Indeed, it’s one of life’s great mysteries.
— Mondo looks sort of badass with the glasses off.
— Even though I knew it could have been creative editing, it was painful to see Casanova apparently nod in agreement with one of Gretchen’s rants. Luckily a late interview showed that Fantastico remained solidly in Team Conflict-Averse.
— Gretchen sure is getting a lot of mileage out of those tan—or should I say camel—boots from the piperlime.com wall. Was this the third or fourth time she used them?
— Speaking of piperlime.com, could you feel the excitement in the room when Tim announced that the models would be receiving a Generic Jewelry Gift from the good people at Piperlime? Electric.
— Incredibly perceptive guest judge Cynthia Rowley: “It almost looks like a bridesmaid dress that’s sort of been ripped apart and reconstructed, like you repurposed it.”
— “Make it a thong! Call it a day!”