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

Project Runway All Stars: “O! Say, Can You Sew”

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Hey, folks, I’m Joshua. In recapping Project Runway All Stars, one day you’re in, and the next you’re out. Today, Genevieve is out, and I’m taking her place for this episode, but she’ll be back next week after a book of recap patterns is found hidden under my bed and I get eliminated. It’s a great time to step in on this season, which prior to last week’s episode, had left me a little cold. Part of it, as Genevieve cogently argued last week, is the challenge of fitting so many contestants we’re invested in into a cramped, hour-long show, but it’s also because the challenges just haven’t been that impressive. Most of them have been too derivative and the rest frustrating and gimmicky. I hail from the camp that found the Miss Piggy challenge maddening, and I object to the designers being asked to make a dress in six hours predicated on the fact that they are “all stars,” when said all stars once included Elisa Jimenez. “O! Say, Can You Sew” mostly worked because the challenge was not particularly high concept, but it was deceptively simple and gave the designers just enough muslin to hang themselves with.

The final six were shuffled off to the United Nations, where they were told this week’s task was to design a look based on the colors of one of six pre-selected flags and the culture of the country it represents. It seemed a little disappointing at first blush, but things got interesting once it quickly became clear how widely, and disastrously, the task could be interpreted. As Mondo acknowledged, the difficulty of this challenge lied in ensuring that the final look was inspired by the flag without being too literal. And going too literal is extremely easy to do when the challenge is to take a piece of colored fabric and use it as the inspiration for a dress made out of colored fabric. Adding the part about being inspired by the culture of the country added yet another layer of delightful ambiguity. Would designers be penalized if they captured the culture without nailing the color story? Or would it be the other way around? It was completely unclear, and while the loosey-goosiness of the challenge created issues come runway time, it left the designers to rely on their creativity and taste levels to determine which direction to take their looks.

The flag selection shook out thusly: Mondo selected Jamaica, because of the colors; Michael chose Greece, because he’s a huge Nia Vardalos fan; Jerell went with India, because India is fabulous; Austin chose The Seychelles, because it’s punny (sea shells!); and Mila and Kenley got stuck with Papua New Guinea and Chile, respectively, because that’s what was left. The workroom actually ran pretty smoothly, with the exception of Austin, who chose totally off colors to begin with, then tortured himself trying to make his chiffon gown behave. Jerell was in trouble early as well, by paying too close attention to the “culture” part and making a costume-y bustier dress that looks like it was being eaten by another green, draped dress. “She’s gonna look Indie-chic,” said Jerell, apparently not realizing that there are many, many things wrong with that statement. Joanna Coles attempted to steer him back in the right direction, telling him his dress looked like it should be on a doll in a gift shop in New Delhi.

I was slow to warm to Coles as the mentor/resident tsk-tsker of the workroom, but that’s mostly because her style of critique lacks Tim Gunn’s paternal warmth. She initially came off as though she was trying too hard to be mean and quippy, and while her criticisms never seemed off-base, it felt like her top concern was getting a sound bite in the tease for next week’s episode. Coles has grown into her role, and this episode was a good example of how she’s learned to provide pithy feedback while seeming more concerned than mean-spirited.

The workroom was a bit dull this week. One of my complaints about this season is the lack of drama, the lack of real stakes, or even much friction between the contestants. Sure, there are always going to be two-faced, super-bitchy talking heads; this is still Project Runway after all. As was the case on her season, Kenley is the target of scorn for designing dresses with the same flirty silhouette in every single challenge, but aside from that, there’s nothing approaching a genuine rivalry. The designers seem just as happy to get a little more national television exposure as they would be to win the ridiculously generous prize package, and that’s a problem.

But with less time spent sniping at each other, the designers had more time to concentrate on their looks, which resulted in a mostly impressive runway. For all the issues Austin had pulling his Seychelles-inspired gown together, it looked beautiful on the runway, even though a closer inspection revealed some wonky construction. The bigger concern, of course, was the fact that Austin’s dress barely used the colors of his flag at all. Considering how little respect the designers seem to have for Kenley, Austin was bizarrely amenable to her suggestion that the fabrics he’d chosen were just fine. If Austin had chosen colors that matched the flag, he probably would have ended up with much better feedback, but that’s because, y’know, who just knows a bunch of stuff about The Seychelles?


This is the part where the ambiguity of the challenge that was so electrifying when the designers had to adapt to it became silly as the judges had to evaluate their creations. Mila, for example, sent a severe, asymmetrical dress down the runway, one that would fit easily into a Mila Hermanovski collection, but confused and bewildered the judges. And look, that’s fine; it’s their job to determine which dresses they like and which they hate, but in this case, they had to wrap those snap judgments in vague reasoning. Isaac said he didn’t like Mila’s look because it reminded him of communist Russia, and didn’t really have Papua New Guinea written all over it, but of course refused to elaborate any further because what the hell screams Papua New Guinea? What’s the look that, when you see it, your first thought is “Wow, that look is SO Papua New Guinea?” I wasn’t crazy about Mila’s dress, but it was far more interesting than Michael’s sloppily draped gown and had Jerell’s Party City-brand Indian Lady  costume beat by miles.

Isaac couldn’t be satisfied this week, as he found significant fault with both Mondo and Kenley’s top-rated looks. His problem with Kenley’s look is everyone’s problems with Kenley’s looks—she has one idea, and will find a way to implement it every week, regardless of what the challenge is asking for. But his issues with Mondo’s winning look made no sense. It was clear why Mondo won for his sleek, modern black dress with the Cool Runnings surprise on the back. He incorporated the colors of his flag in a subtle way and made the judges say “How exactly does this say Jamaica?” before watching the model walk away and then saying “Oh, that’s how.” But Isaac thought the incorporation of the green and yellow was too literal, because it would have been a better dress inspired by the Jamaican flag if it was all black? Despite the weirdness of the judging, people mostly ended up where they should have, save for Jerell who should have absolutely gone home for that hideous costume. Good luck with that line you’re working on, Mila.


Stray observations:

  • If you want to piss off Joanna Coles, design a dress that requires a woman to go bra-less. Seriously, she will lose her shit.
  • Rami Kashou must have just died when he saw this episode. Finally, he would have had an excuse to trot out his finely honed draping technique, had he selected Greece. Then again, he probably would have avoided selecting Greece for exactly that reason.
  • Michael on Kenley’s fabric choice: “I’ve never seen a polka-dot flag before, but I guess the State of Kenley Collins has a polka-dot flag.”