Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Project Runway: “All About Nina”

Illustration for article titled Project Runway: “All About Nina”

A friend of mine remarked today that the cast of Project Runway this year is pretty blah. I told him to give this Season 9 group some time. It’s like complaining that a new season of Mad Men is starting out slow. You tend to forget that it always starts out slow. On Project Runway, when there are so many people rattling around the workroom, it’s tough for any one of them to establish a memorable identity.

That said, these people are pretty boring, aren’t they? Those few tantalizing shards of ego we saw in the early episodes of this season have melted away. Laura’s pretty-princess complex, Bert’s world-weary snobbery, Viktor’s clueless petulance—all of them have settled to barely detectable levels. Perhaps we were spoiled by last season, when even the most minor neuroses metastasized into stupendously watchable psychoses. But damn it, I don’t think a little insane psychodrama is too much to ask.

In an effort to poke this bunch of normals with the crazy stick, the producers dreamed up a diabolical challenge: Design for Nina. It’s cruel not so much because Nina is a difficult person to work with—Project Runway has given the designers pricklier clients than this—but because “Nina” is a postmodern concept that can be understood only by its ever-shifting context.

Just as we viewers have struggled for nearly a decade to ascertain the nature of Nina’s taste, now the contestants must try to divine her essence. It is the impossible task, as the meaning of the challenge cannot be apprehended in any concrete sense. Who are the designers designing for? They cannot know, and as soon as they think they do know, this is a sure sign that they are wrong.

“I wear a lot of streamlined, clean, tailored silhouettes,” Nina tells the contestants after the challenge is unveiled. She then defines herself in terms of what she is not: “I do not like voluminous clothes. I do not like lots of pleats. I do not like loud patterns or colors.” Heidi says what the designers are thinking: “What’s left?” I love when Heidi gets in a little jab.

The contestants adjourn to one-on-one Nina Garcia mindfuck sessions. Nina likes Anya’s jumpsuit design. But “you’re going to have a challenge sewing-wise,” Nina says in a nervous murmur. “You think you can make this?” Anya used to think so! Now, she’s not so confident.


To Viktor: “Just think dramatic, yet conservative.”

To Josh: “Do you have a Plan B?”

Kimberly says that she’s not going to make pants. Nina: “I love your pants.”

Danielle presents a sketch to Nina that centers on a full-bodied jacket. Nina says, “I was also thinking you could make a pant with one of your beautiful blouses.” Suddenly, Danielle—she’s just thinking out loud, just spitballin’—gets this other idea: What if she makes pants and a blouse? Nina commends Danielle’s instincts.


Before departing, Nina has her minion, Tim Gunn, deliver one last riddle to the designers. The following edict comes down from She Who Does Not Want Color: “I don’t want boring, and I don’t want a runway covered with gray garments.” Nina then returns to her home in a seventh dimension that occupies the conceptual null space both between and outside the bounds of our mortal sphere.

At Mood, the contestants have trouble choosing fabrics, naturally. “I can’t think when I have thoughts clogged in my mind,” says Cecilia, indicating that the Nina Effect is already taking hold. One fabric in the store manages to be black and white, yet also gray and not gray, with unclear boundaries between the two. Two designers—Anthony Ryan and Becky—end up picking this fabric, the “Simulacrum” print from Jean Baudrillard Textiles. I’m surprised that they’re the only two.


In the workroom, Josh says something mildly catty about Anya. He whispers it, of course, because heaven forfend any actual drama take place. As this micro-scandal goes down, we are treated to an exceedingly long close up of Julie’s black ring. I have no real observation to make here; it was just a very strange shot. I think the editor of this sequence fell asleep at his Avid workstation on account of the boringness.

Tim and Nina visit. The editor rouses himself long enough to find the “Darth Vader Theme Sound-Alike” in his music library. Nina hates Danielle’s chiffon blouse (which is indeed terrible), and as Danielle offers a litany of potential improvements, Nina responds with a curt “no” to every single one. It is pretty amusing. Nina gets a lot of mileage out of the word “no.” When she says it, it’s like each letter in the word is a baby “no” in itself, such that the utterance produces a fractal superstructure of condescending rejection as it wafts from Nina’s lips.


Julie’s coat dress also displeases the client. Nina says, “I’m just worried that the collar is a little…” and then she drifts off. It’s a test. Nina waits to see how Julie will complete the sentence. Julie fills in the blank: “Too big?” Nina nods. She also would have accepted “too small” and “too just right.” The nature of the perceived imperfection is immaterial. It is only important for Julie to recognize that she is unworthy.

Viktor is working on a simple black cocktail dress, and Nina is happy that he has solved the conundrum of the colorless non-gray garment. “It’s hard to go wrong with a little black dress!” Heidi will later exclaim, ignoring the thousands of times that contestants have been lambasted for “playing it safe” with a little black dress.


Nina does not approve of all the blue in Kimberly’s design. “But follow your instinct,” she adds. “If your gut tells you the blue, then go with the blue.” Kimberly is inclined to change course, since Nina said that she didn’t like the blue. In fact, it was just 15 seconds ago—that did happen, right? Nina responds, “I’m fine with the blue! I think the blue is going to be fine!” Kimberly lets out a strained grunt, the kind of noise a man makes when the doctor pinpoints the exact location of his hernia. Nina smiles and walks away. She has played enough Jedi mind tricks for one afternoon.

Afterward, Kimberly reflects on the experience. “Yeah, I don’t think that was—I don’t know. I—I don’t know. But I’m still alive…” She doesn’t sound sure of that last part. We get some details about Kimberly’s difficult past, indicating that she will either win this challenge (in which case the backstory will make her fate more “poignant”) or she will be sent home (ditto).


As she departs the workroom, Nina tells the designers that there’s an added prize for the winner: “The winning look will be featured in a Marie Claire editorial.” At this, America sits bolt upright in its collective La-Z-Boy and shouts, “WOW!!!!!” It’s almost as exciting as the time the Shear Genius runner-up got a half-page profile in Redbook.

In an Entirely Unprompted Computing Moment Brought To You By Hewlett-Packard, Anthony Ryan makes a spontaneous video-chat call to Matthew, his fiancé. Matthew, who appears to have just gotten back from the rope climb in gym class, also gets a hello from Anya. “Don’t tell anyone, but Anthony’s my favorite!” she says. Matthew: “OK.”


Shortly after HP board members view that scene, this happens.

The next morning, the designers troop out of Atlas for final preparations. A chalkboard in one of the apartments depicts a little man hanging himself. The text below reads, “THE NINA GARCIA CHALLENGE.” Seems about right.


A bunch of the designers yammer on about time limits and pressure and whatnot—the show’s equivalent of white noise. We get it, Project Runway. It is stressful to participate in you.

We also get that sometimes you rue the day you extended yourself to 90 minutes. This is one of those times, when there is practically no interpersonal conflict to be had, so you have to pad your running time with contestants complaining about the difficulties of time management, ironically enough. But you made your bed, Bunim-Murray, so sleep in it. Or better yet, give us extended judging instead of this stale “I don’t know if I’m going to make it!” business.


Julie and Anya are this week’s Not-Gonna-Make-Its, and they both enlist aid from other designers. I like to see the designers helping each other out—it gives the show a welcome sense of community.

That said, I also like it when a smacked ass like Viktor gets peevish about people being nice to each other: “When you help someone do a garment when you’re not supposed to, I think that’s almost like cheating.” Yes! Faster, pussycat! Kill! Kill! You should definitely air your idiotic cheating accusations to everyone, preferably with Tim Gunn in the room. No, wait, you should tell Tim Gunn in private, so that he has to tell the designers to “gather round” because “a very serious accusation has been made.” Please do this.


Runway show. Marie Claire editor Joanna Coles is the guest judge. Possessing twice the chilliness and none of the wit of the regular judging panel, Coles is brought on whenever the producers want to make Nina Garcia seem more appealing. Nina may be an obstinate, self-contradicting, fickle egotist, but compared to the ceaselessly unpleasant Coles, Nina seems like the All-American girl you just wanna take home to Mom.

Actress Kerry Washington is the second guest judge. Nobody knows why she is there. She probably showed up on the wrong day, but nobody realized the mistake until it was too awkward to say anything. So, sure, two guest judges this week.


There is a lot of gray. It seems that Joshua started to make an orange dress before losing his nerve and adding a gray panel down the front of his garment. Olivier goes for a gray skirt, paired with a gray top that features jumbo gray maxi-pad wings coming over his model’s belly.

In the grayish-print showdown between Becky and Anthony Ryan, I have to give the nod to Becky. She creates a smart spiral-patterned gown that’s accented by a touch of bright yellow piping, threading the “colorful but not too colorful” needle. Anthony Ryan’s sleeveless top is sleek and modern, but some strange construction choices on the skirt make it pucker in an ugly way. It looks floppy and tired, like his model is a kangaroo whose joey just left the pouch, and the pouch skin hasn’t snapped back yet.


Laura trots out a shiny green dress seemingly inspired by The Jetsons’ Christmas tree, with wide ribbons on the sleeves and two bizarre windows around her model’s thighs, which act as a mobile peep show, for your genitalia-almost-viewing convenience. How this design avoided the bottom three is beyond me.

The “safe” contestants are sent off the runway. Backstage, they speculate as to who has the winning garment. “I have a sneaking suspicion Olivier has a good chance,” Bert says. Someone tells Bert that Olivier is sitting right next to him. Bert pats Olivier’s knee and says, “Oh, well, I guess you’re not gonna get it, huh?” Ha-ha, Bert sure didn’t notice that Olivier was there! How about those hijinks. Christ, these people are dull.


The bottom three are Julie, Cecilia, and Danielle. The judges despise Julie’s coat dress, with its orange panels on the sleeves and wide-open collar. This may put me in the minority, but I liked it. I thought the form was elegant, the lines on the front were bold, and the orange patches added a touch of sportiness without looking cheap. It’s probably just a matter of taste, although given Julie’s suspect construction skills, I’m also willing to concede that the garment may have looked worse in person than on TV (much as Michael Costello’s designs last year always looked worse on TV than they supposedly looked in person).

In any case, the judges hate it. Kerry Washington says, “I don’t understand it.” She wonders aloud: “Is it a coat? Is it a dress? Is it a coat dress?” It’s a coat dress. The third thing you said. You can stop guessing now.


Cecilia’s dress is a muted gray number with salmon/orange accents, the kind of thing an extra on Star Trek: The Next Generation might wear. Coles says to Nina, “I can’t imagine what the fashion department would say if you came in dressed in that.” She then indulges in this weirdly detailed fantasy where all of Nina’s coworkers secretly convene to say terrible things about her.

By and large, Coles uses her guest appearance to daydream about awful things that—hypothetically, of course!—she sees happening to Nina. At various points, Coles constructs scenarios in which Nina is fired, ostracized, physically and/or mentally ill, and an intolerable embarrassment to the Marie Claire brand. “I couldn’t let you be in the office in that dress,” she says during the judges’ deliberations. “It wouldn’t be fair to you, and it wouldn’t be fair to us.” At a certain moment during the taping, Coles’ intention crossed over from “judging a fashion competition” to “exorcising a deep hatred for Nina Garcia,” and that moment was as soon as she walked in the door.


Danielle finds herself standing next to an ugly green chiffon blouse with the bulky droopiness of wet construction paper. “That makes me think your model’s depressed. It makes me think you’re depressed,” Coles says, projecting all over the place.

Nina loves Viktor’s simple black dress, of course. It’s certainly a well-made garment. The shoulders have a flattering boxy shape that complements the roundness of the skirt. “I really paid attention and listened to you because it’s for you,” says kiss-ass Viktor, endeavoring to convince Nina that she herself designed the dress.


Anya’s jumpsuit comes out far better than she could have hoped. Nina is “amazed at the transformation,” and she’s not the only one. After dying her garish mustard-yellow fabric, turning it into an attractive deep bronze, Anya ends up with a cute jumpsuit that is youthful without straying into “kiddie” territory.

Kimberly’s design is the stunner. The navy-blue pants are expertly tailored, but the focus is the top, a golden work of geometric art that looks practically sculpted on the model. Everyone gushes over it. Coles says, “You could come in and do your expense forms in that, and you’d feel like you’re living a million-dollar lifestyle,” an unsubtle reference to Nina’s continued abuses of the Marie Claire corporate account.


Backstage, Viktor stews over the judges’ praise for Anya but decides that he will not say anything on the runway about the help she received, as such an act could be construed as entertaining to the home viewer.

Kimberly wins. Poignant!

Julie loses. It didn’t seem like the worst design, but not the biggest loss to the talent pool, either.


Kimberly goes to Marie Claire headquarters to look at Nina wearing her clothes. When she’s finished, Kimberly heads downstairs to find a taxi with her ad on it. Given that taxicab advertising is the pinnacle of fashion glory (nothing says style like road grit), Kimberly is beside herself with excitement. Except it’s clearly not an actual ad—they had a PA plaster a vinyl mockup of the ad over the usual top-of-cab promotional space for the benefit of the TV cameras. In other words, it’s an ad that’s not really an ad but in a way, still is an ad. A fitting end to the most ineffable challenge ever.

Stray Observations:

  • Looks like people literally fall down on their faces next week. You know what? I’ll take it.
  • I’m ready for Cecilia to go, if only because it makes me sleepy to look at her.
  • Kors: “Unless you are going to a Joan Crawford St. Patty’s Day party, who would wear this dress?” Michael Kors accidentally invented the best party ever.
  • “Is that glue? Yikes.”
  • Tim to Julie: “I leave you feeling confident. And then I see it on the runway and I think, ‘Oh, my God!’” Tim has kind of abandoned the “moral support” element of his mentor role this season.
  • Nina Garcia doesn’t wear a bra. The more you know.
  • “When Nina walks out, I immediately think, ‘Oh, shit.’”