Welcome back to the new and improved Project Runway, season 11. (Eleven seasons! We’re so old!) I’m already excited by the major conceit of this season, which is—in case you didn’t hear Heidi carefully enunciate it six to ten times on the show—that every single challenge will be a team challenge, and the winner and loser will be chosen from the respective winning and losing teams. So to start, the contestants are “randomly” separated into two teams of eight, and name themselves “The Dream Team” and “Team Keeping It Real,” respectively. There’s a potential numbers problem at some point, where one team could dwindle down to five people facing a fully staffed eight-person team, but I’m pretty sure that these initial team assignations are going to come apart pretty soon. (Heidi in particular looks like she’s ready to tear apart the contestants’ hopes and dreams at any moment, and then feed them to Nina, who will chew them slowly, savoring the sound of broken hearts.)
I’m sure some of you will remember Bravo’s Fashion House: The Ultimate Collection—in particular, “Here go hell come.” That show had a similar premise, based on the idea that professional designers work in teams, often even very large teams. I’m not sure if it matters that the team scenario is more realistic—but it’s certainly a situation that can produce some fantastic drama. And it’s more than just the average reality-show competitive sniping, because they get to collaborate about the couture. I’ve noticed in past seasons (and particularly, in my last review of Project Runway) that some basic fashion methods and definitions get glossed over when the producers are editing tape for the final cut. This will give the contestants the opportunity to discuss some of the clothing we’ll see on screen, rather than just hear the judges’ typically mean-spirited definition of fashion.
Plus, the team members and Tim get together during their workday to critique each other’s work and offer suggestions, which makes for engaging viewing. Of course, sometimes the other team members have no idea what they’re talking about. Patricia gets a lot of flak from everyone for her “arts-and-crafts” textile project before narrowly losing the win in the judging round. But if anything, that’s going to become an increasingly contentious conversation week-to-week: “I think you should get rid of the sleeves.” “Well, Heidi likes my sleeves and she hates your peplum!” “I still think you should get rid of those hideous, sweater-dress sleeves.” “Well, I think you should get rid of your face!” (Or something. See, this is why I don’t write for reality TV.)
The other fun addition to this season—Zac Posen! I like Zac Posen in a general sense, as one has to love a well-dressed and trim male fashion designer, but Posen is going to be a wonderful, sorely needed addition to the judges’ bench. Michael Kors’ enormous disgust for everything that wasn’t himself had gotten infuriating, and Heidi and Nina are funny and bitchy as hell but not great and handing out constructive criticism. Posen, meanwhile, is softspoken and tactful—not so tactful that he can’t drop a zinger or two, but he seems to care about the designers as creative professionals, and is interested in getting into their process a little with them, and talking them through the mistakes they made. He adds a touch of class to the proceedings, and I think his knowledge of couture and the business is going to be a very nice counterpoint to our resident divas.
This week, the team aspect adds spice to an otherwise stale challenge. The challenge this week is New York City—only the most designed-for place on the entire planet! The two teams are sent to two different venues to get two different “perspectives” on the city—the Dream Team is sent to the roof of the Atlas, and Team Keeping It Real is sent on a private cruise up the Hudson. (Seems to me like the Dream Team gets a raw deal.) The team members do not have long to get to know each other at all before they’re sent packing to their workstations to plan, sketch, and make shopping lists. Given how short their time is together, the teams get on admirably—and even start to have fun, which is heartwarming. It’s interesting, watching how and when the designers choose to help each other out.
The main action centers around the colossal failure of Emily, a 24-year-old designer from Falls Church, Va. Of course the cutaways make sure to feature her prominently saying ridiculous, rote things like “I’m going to win this competition,” “I don’t care about anyone else,” “I’m going all the way.” Poor Emily chokes under the pressure of trying to create her vision in eight hours—which, fine. The first episode of the season is a great opportunity for the horrendous pressures of a reality competition to come into view. And, I mean, as far as failures go, hers is really quite spectacular. Emily’s a member of Dream Team, the aerial-view crowd, and she had some idea to create a tailored, structured jacket with a dress underneath in a contrasting fabric. Right from the start, her teammates urge her to stop nitpicking with the jacket and focus instead on creating a anything the model can wear. But she’s unable to, and by the end of the first day, when the other designers are walking out having fitted their models with near-complete outfits, Emily’s got essentially the beginnings of a shape for a jacket, and that is it. She only manages to make it to runway with the help of a glue gun and the altruism of teammate Cindy, who makes the skirt for her the morning of the competition. It’s, I mean, it has potential, but it’s not clothes, it’s like, tattered, unfinished rags. Contrasting hers to the winning outfit, Daniel’s incredible, tailored peplum suit, is just embarrassing for her (and she cries a little, so it is upsetting all around).
With all of this drama, the judging is a foregone conclusion—everyone is as scathing as they want to be to the other members of the bottom three, Cindy and James, but ultimately, even a very ugly dress is not going to compete with an unfinished one. Season-four winner Christian Siriano is the guest-judge, and he’s rather wonderful, even dropping a “hot mess” in to make it official. Another interesting component to the team competition is that the judges ask after how the designers work together, especially about outfits that they do not agree with or are particularly impressed with. So when Richard tells the judges that his teammates convinced him to move away from a certain side detail, Zac Posen smiles magnanimously and says, “Your team members led you in the right direction.” (And the gates of heaven open, and angels sing, because Zac Posen is pleased, so everything is right with the world.) Similarly, when Cindy’s fabric choice offends Queen Heidi and Other Queen Nina, Posen asks the rest of the Dream Team what they thought of it. Of course, they all generally liked it (or if they disliked it, said nothing to Cindy about it). Zac Posen nods sagaciously and points this out to his fellow judges, and the gates of heaven open, and angels sing, because Zac Posen is very wise and learned. Of course, two-thirds of his fellow judges could care less. Poor Zac Posen!
As far as the designers go—there are so many of them, and so much to explore, that for now I’ll say that generally I liked everyone, but my personal, irrational favorite was Amanda Valentine, who is not even the best designer, but has a funny, cagey thing going on already. Second favorite has to be Samantha, who I think is one of the unsung heroes of her team this week. I hope to see your favorites in the comments. What with Daniel’s hilarious mustache and Stanley’s entirely unremarked-upon couture onesie, I can tell that wonderful things are going to happen this season.
- Every time I watch this show I’m blown away by just how generally talented the designers are—even Emily, this week, had her moments. The 90-minute Lifetime episode slot is a little too unwieldy, but at least it gives us the opportunity to hear Michelle say words like “serge” and “piping” and “backstitch,” real tailoring words that indicate her true skill.
- Incidentally, what is "serge"? I tried googling it, but it’s also a name, so… I learned about some guy named Serge.
- Did you guys notice that Heidi just repeats what Zac Posen says, with slightly different phrasing? Oh, Heidi.
- Eleven seasons in, these product placements are getting more and more awkward. The tablets seem a little over-the-top, but Tim Gunn says they’ll help the designers’ creativity, so they have to be okay, right?
- Cindy and Patricia already got the middle-aged-woman ice-out from the rest of the contestants. Curious to see how that will develop moving forward.