Project Runway: a question of triage (or, How the hell do you win anyway?)

Not for the first time in the last three weeks, I struggled last night to know who should be axed from Project Runway. On contestants’ outfits, I had quite clear views (stay tuned for those); what floored me, as it did last week, was which pros and cons should take priority.

A typical Runway prizes certain qualities – it rates designs by them, and uses them to dispatch losers and choose winners. The series looks for someone with a striking point of view, whose work innovates or is interesting conceptually; for someone who can execute these concepts well, properly sewing or otherwise constructing them; it looks for someone who can edit, shows consistency in all these strengths, and whose work is versatile and varied.

Some of these points can matter more than others. Placed in the bottom two, for instance, badly made but formally ambitious work historically fares better (at least the first time round) than well-finished dullness; a talented contestant’s lead balloon receives more mercy, even when it’s slightly worse, than a third divisioner’s fourth misfire in a row; designers worthy of the final might be sent a friendly warning if they need to show more range, while diverse but less commended work can get its maker invalided home.

An All Stars season poses different questions about triage, and some of these preferences might be reversed. When all the contenders have placed high in previous series, we know each of them has vision and can sew clothes well: a poorly made ensemble might now deserve elimination more than a well made but underwhelming piece, especially when everyone‘s viewpoint is well defined. (Jeffrey Sebelia’s work these past three weeks epitomises this: there’s a strong case for automatic offing from an All Stars contest if you can’t construct things well.) Fashion on the other hand being a fast-moving industry, designers might quite fairly be expected to show evolution. If we’ve seen an entire season of your clothes a year or more ago, Melissa and Daniel, you’ve no excuse to make the same old things you’ve always made.

Observe the clash of these criteria.

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Images: Lifetime

These week’s challenge involved cocktail-inspired couture. This was Melissa‘s submission – an asymmetric dress we’ve seen from her a hundred times, with a little too much going on and some minor fit issues, but nothing heinous.

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This was Jeffrey‘s – to his credit, and for the first time in the run, a well-sewn number. Vile, though, in every other way. The fabric is putrid, the collar and chain on the bag unconscionably vulgar and the bodice ill-fitting. Horrid, horrid, horrid.

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This was Korto‘s – not the nightmare Jeffrey’s was, but certainly not good. The fabric smacks of tacky plastic tablecloth, the belt and bodice of medieval BDSM torture. Nothing between them gels, and each fails on its own terms too. The cut of the dress, as the back view shows, was also weird.

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Who went? Melissa did – despite her dress being probably the least bad of the bottom three.

Isaac Mizrahi quickly dismissed the thought of axing Korto. There’s an argument an All Stars season should be sudden death, with no consideration of past work, because the standard is so high; that said, I’d tend to share his impulse. Korto shows a definite and strange attachment to butchered fifties housewife silhouettes, put produces work that’s interesting at least. (I loved her look last week.) Of the three of them, she has the most potential down the line.

Do I agree with Melissa going home instead of Jeffrey, then? His days are obviously numbered – I wondered last week why he’s there – and were this not an All Stars run with fewer competitors than usual and a run that needs the length to a) please fans and b) make money, double elimination might well be an option.

What Jeffrey made looked like it had been salvaged from a skip, and not in a good way, but although Melissa’s work was clearly better, it was the same work she did in tasks one and two – the same work she did a year ago. When her range was clearly just as limited as Daniel’s was last week, her viewpoint obviously undeveloped, she was demonstrably unequipped to compete further. I might still, though, have erred on the side of cutting Jeffrey now and her next week. I strongly suspect he’ll be next to snuff it anyway, as she’d have been if he went.

As for the best designs…

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Viktor won this week! And flirted sweetly with the bartender serving his cocktail. And was endearing in his workroom camaraderie with Elena. (Fine, I’ll stop.)

I was a great supporter of this dress, and of its brave use of a print. Note how in this respect, Viktor did what Melissa didn’t and moved his aesthetic forward. It paid off.

The parted lower section of the dress was hazardous given its shortness, but the Union Flag cut-outs in the top quite won me over. They may even have worked better in the back:

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But the other top two (this week, my rankings matched the judges’ pretty closely) were also strong.

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Christopher‘s work here was utterly beguiling. I’m not entirely sure about the gap between the beads and hem, but the former are perfectly arranged, even if reminiscent of those covers one occasionally sees over car seats. This outfit displays its maker’s muted subtlety at its very best, and while its style is heavily familiar from season ten, he’s shown new variation already in the past three weeks. High praise for this.

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Elena: cut some of the cutouts out.

This dress was beautifully made, and as was noted at the catwalk show (and sadly isn’t as visible above), the seaming was phenomenally elegant. Why then did she have to overegg the geometric holes, destroying the piece’s understated style? One pair of cutouts would have been fine – the ones at the waist worked rather well. For my taste, there’s just too much going on here.

It’s notable, of course, that none of the top three designs could be worn by a woman keen to cover her midriff. But this is Project Runway – what did we expect?

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Elena’s piece, the least of the top three, competed once more this week with similarly-named Irina‘s. I don’t understand this season’s vogue for peplums, particularly juxtaposed as here with a sheer, slim-fitting bolero. The combination of leather, gold and lace was winning, though, a gothic biker dressing for a cocktail bar. Très bien. I’m enjoying Irina’s style.

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I’m struggling to grasp Mychael‘s point of view. Even his model looks confused. The strange penchant for leafy, tacked-on embellishments his work this week and last shows feels like a contrivance, the diving neckline and wrapping lower segment of this dress rather bizarre given its (lack of) length. Like Tom Hanks in Big, I just… don’t get it.

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Seth Aaron‘s model looks like she wore a binder for the first half of the day, then cut its middle section out to show her bust. Either (more probably) this detail or the leggings are a detail too far, but the stripe going down the latter’s rather nice, if nothing very striking. It’s a nice enough assembly, but it’s giving me no great impression.

Probably the right result this week, then – the judges were more or less on point, specific commentaries aside. But if Jeffrey doesn’t leave next week, I’ll eat Viktor’s hat.

Project Runway: how (not) to avant garde

As if to quell the steaming rage of fans over last week’s attempt at punk, Daniel Esquivel got sent home on Thursday’s Project Runway.

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Images: Lifetime

The challenge, an insect-and-arachnid-style avant garde task, prompted better designs than the prior episode’s. Daniel’s even looked quite good from the back.

Flowy chocolate brown ball gown billowing as its wearer walks? I’ll bite. But to view this from the back first illustrates its problems.

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All Daniel did was make a gown, then add a see-through petticoat and neck brace. (‘You can do anything with silk organza’, he told us last time. I should have guessed he’d try.)

Beyond being as avant garde as porridge, it’s not even that nice a dress viewed from the front. If you’re doing a mullet dress, don’t do one with a drab upholstered bodice and a neckline that spells ‘M’ for ‘misconceived’. The one insectish aspect was the styling, most credit for which goes to hair and makeup.

No quarrel at all with this being sent home, though some viewers appeared to disagree – certainly, it wasn’t the worst thing on the catwalk. That dubious honour goes to this ensemble:

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Oh Jeffrey. You know your reputation’s in decline when your model mounts the catwalk with a bag over her head.

Conceptually, I actually quite liked this: fashion that hints at bondage (as full, opaque face masks can’t fail to do) has definite appeal, and it’s inarguably avant garde. The problem’s the construction: this headpiece is baggy, lopsided spud sack, the trousers woefully lumpy in the crotch and the covered shoe a poorly realised piece of craft project design.

Nothing about those trousers is okay, one leg made out of tacky tablecloth textile, the other inexplicably bright red, in what seems like a shot at edginess that ended up resembling school play couture. (The fit problem above the knee is frightening, too.) And why a huge toilet roll tube sporting a ginger mane of pubic hair tops all of this, I can but guess.

Even that less-than-minor detail’s poorly made, as the rear view shows:

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There’s scraggly, there’s raggedy and there’s just plain bad. (And if you’re making a head-covering mask, don’t leave your model’s bloody hair cascading from it.)

It’s a shame this all obscures the eye-catching, interesting print on the gold fabric of the top – it’s the one good element, but between the textile’s absence from the trousers, the giant cardboard wrap-around and the headdress’s bagginess, there’s almost none of it on show. Look at the texture of the sleeve: a whole, well-fitted bodysuit made out of that might well have won me over.

I’m seriously doubting Jeffrey’s skill at present. Not having seen any of him before this series, I struggle to see why he’s there – this week and last, his outfits have just been so badly rendered I’d be shocked to see them half way through a normal Project Runway series, let alone winning. On the other hand, I see why he survived while Daniel left.

Daniel, like Jeffrey, was a repeat offender in this task. While Jeffrey failed to step up his construction, Daniel failed twice in a row to grasp the essence of the challenge. Asked to do punk, he made a trouser suit and added straw; asked to do avant garde, he made a gown and added organza. It’s clear Daniel lacked range and versatility, making the same outfits we know him for week in, week out. That’s not someone who’s going to last a series. (Unless Jeffrey dramatically improves his execution, on the other hand, I doubt he will. Frankly, I’d send them both home if this weren’t an All Stars season.)

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Melissa: similar diagnosis to Daniel. Last week she made something expected, this week she did a cocktail dress with added veil.

While the judges were about right with their bottom three, I’d say this is the most forgivable. It’s better put together by miles than Jeffrey’s get-up, and involves more things I like than his or Daniel’s. It’s certainly not avant garde (though it might be more so if the over-the-top hips were better realised), but the combination of white lipstick, veil and quiff is somewhat chic, the tailoring mostly accomplished and the cutout on the bodice interesting – I only wish it were created in more eye-catching textiles.

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The mossy knoll mounted for some reason astride the back is a mistake, as are the garish olive bangle and the dress’s oh-so-strappy straps. It’s a better dress than Daniel’s though, something that might another week be passable – not enough, at any rate, for a red card.

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JESUS FICTIVE CHRIST, CHRISTOPHER. The challenge was about living things. LIVING things. DO NOT MAKE YOUR MODEL LOOK DEAD with pallid makeup, then shade her neck so her whole head looks as if it’s floating morbidly. (I know it’s Hallowe’en week, but just don’t.) Also, like I said last week: edit.

This competed with Melissa’s dress for entry to my bottom three. Eventually it stayed out, at the low end of the middle, since like Jeffrey’s dress this aimed at least for avant garde, even if not perfectly realised. Where ordinarily, Melissa’s dress (and Daniel’s at an absolute stretch) might survive on being competent but dull, this is the avant garde challenge – better, I’d say, to attempt the right aesthetic and go wrong than not engage with it at all.

I don’t know what the Batman-style fins are doing everywhere. I don’t know what the see-through plastic underskirt is for. I don’t know why the model has been given actual saddlebags on her thighs, or why the middle section of the dress is shorter than the sides. The graphic on the front offers some interest though, as do the sandals, the ankle adornments and the Sharon Needles style fingernails visible here:

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If Christopher could only calm things down, he might be a contender.

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Seth Aaron… is it me, or does it seem like he and Jeffrey are here not to intensify the contest, but to prove the winners aren’t always the best?

I’m not sure what to make of this – it looks like a leather and lace petticoat with linoleum tiles set artfully around it. The latter detail is intriguing, and the former might, I guess, have worked, but I don’t see the connection. Apart from confirming numerous designer’s instinct that ‘avant garde’ means ‘whacky makeup’, there’s not much here I find remarkable.

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Mychael: nineties Zygon nun at a rave, in war paint. Seriously, were the judges smoking crack on giving this the win?

There silhouette does, granted, boast an authentic cutting edge aesthetic, but the fabric looks like cheap grey felt to me, green bits stuck on to make it interesting. This might really have worked for me in different fabric, but it just looks sad, and the colour clash combined with the textile means we’re back in school play territory.

Ever since Olivier’s furry blonde caterpillars in series nine, I’m also primed to hate eyebrow embellishments. Even with that moustache, it just looks desperate and tacky.

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More here from Irina on the theme of attempting avant garde by giving mainstream outfits space-age accessories – in her case, what seems like a giant, furry cock ring. (Notice also the return of last week’s wrist-ribbons, working admittedly somewhat better here.)

There’s a lot, in fact, that I like about this outfit: the eye makeup and nails, the boots, the bodice and the details on the skirt. In fact, if that headpiece had been lost in favour of perfecting the skirt, this might have edged into my favourite three – the stiffness with which it’s held above the model’s legs has definite avant garde potential.

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If only some form of extra architecture (wires, perhaps?) had held this skirt a few degrees higher, to just out near-horizontally – that might have worked for me.

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I should probably admit my crush on Viktor, whose brown eyes and bow ties seduce me every time, but this would have been my pick for the win. I’m not sure I’d have gone with both the yellow forehead and the yellow lips, but I adored this.

Radical, somewhat gender-bending neckline? Check. Intriguing, perfectly painted details on said neckline? Check. Actually-convincing, non-cringeworthy use of nude textile? Check.

The thin braids of the hair are one of the only features in this week’s designs which look insect-inspired, as does the outfit at large, and the draping of the white cloth is exquisite:

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At quite the other end of the aesthetic spectrum…

KORTOobverse…olé, tarantula: Korto‘s ensemble was a winning number too. Why both this and Viktor’s outfit were named safe and not placed in the top eludes me.

The trousers are the clear highlight. The way the spiralling ribbon holds the line of lemon on the seam and how it’s maintained in top half of the garment are breathtaking, and the sleeve embellishment on the model’s right wrist is equally arresting. I’m not sure I’d have kept the chunky belt, however – a simple button on the jacket would have left the other details in the spotlight.

That credit Viktor gets for using nude fabric well? Likewise, kudos to Korto for making eyebrow makeup work. The spidery hair is a sight to behold too, and I’m in love with how androgynous this looks from behind:

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There’s possibly a little too much going on in the midsection, though nothing like as much as in Christopher’s case. Still, this was a hit with me.

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Was I the only one who thought Elena styled her model after herself? This was the look, other than Mychael’s, the judges came closest to naming the winner – I’d have had no objection at all.

I might somewhat have preferred if the shoulder embellishments had been mounted on ordinary upper sleeves, rather than such bulky, tubular ones. (These bring back unpleasant memories of Elena’s outfits in her season.) The print and the construction are superb, though.