Last December, I set out on my visits to Chris, Christian, Jillian, and Rami. (And remember that Christian and Jillian are guaranteed spots at Fashion Week and that Chris and Rami are competing for the position of third among them.) I encountered more progress and more sheer work than I've found in any season with the exception of Laura Bennett in Season Three. This underscores my refrain that this season's designers are the most deft and facile to date. Here's what I found ....Chris has a studio within a large professional costume workshop, so although he enjoys privacy, he has colleagues with whom he can engage. Most designers at this career level experience relative isolation, so Chris's circumstances are enviable.
Where to begin? Let me cut to the core of my issue with Chris's work: human hair. Yes, you read that correctly, human hair. The Project Runway "collection rules" forbid the use of fur, so this was Chris's alternative. (He said that he had really wanted to use monkey fur, but that's strictly illegal everywhere, thank god.) Had he chosen to use synthetic hair, I believe that it would have had the same visual effect with none of the potential gag reflexes. But he wanted real human hair. It was because I found Chris's collection to be compelling and alluring that I was disturbed by the hair. His silhouettes and proportions were sublime, his textiles luxurious, and his design concepts strong. So why potentially derail this strong work with the distraction of human hair?!?!?
Christian works in his bedroom, the minute size of which (even by NYC's vastly amended standards) prohibits a bed to coexist with his worktable. He is superbly organized, including fabric arranged by color (black, blacker, blackest). I won't mince words; I was totally wowed by his collection, which was virtually complete. In fact, he had excess pieces. The collection was pure Christian -- innovative, exuberant, and high-design -- AND it could believably navigate the real world. The collections possessed a sophistication and maturity that thrilled me beyond the adequate words.But, it was time for a "Listen, Sister! ...," big daddy talk. I placed him in the context of his competitors and reminded him of his relative youth and inexperience. In my view these very same conditions caused Daniel V. to lose to Chloe Dao in Season Two (not that Chloe didn't deserve to win, but the judges' work was made slightly easier by Daniel's circumstances). So, I implored Christian to thoughtfully consider how he will respond to the judges. I also advised him to devise a business plan, thereby allowing him to respond to that probable arena of questions.
Jillian works in a space carved out of her living room, which is bright and glistening, thanks to floor to ceiling windows that take in a view of Manhattan to beat the band. I was wowed by the amount of work and by the cohesion that she achieved through what could have potentially been disparate parts. I use the word "disparate," because each piece in the collection possesses a thought and an idea that could stand alone. When assembling a collection, it's essential that there be cohesion. Color, pattern, and print can achieve this, in theory at least, but that's never enough. Each look needs to resonate the same DNA. What I loved about Jillian's collection is that it teetered on the cusp of failing to congeal. But it did, and because it did, it thrilled me. And I could wax rhapsodic about the knits: spectacular and altogether Jillian.
One issue caused me to worry about the final success of the collection. I was blunt with Jillian: "Why are you designing a gown for the final look? It's not who you are." She responded that she thought it was necessary. An evening look is necessary, but that doesn't mean a gown. Jillian, be you!
Rami took me to his ample and beautifully organized studio in Los Angeles. For the collection, I was expecting a fever pitch assortment of Grecian-inspired draping, but instead I found a proliferation of tailored pieces. I kept my mouth shut, temporarily, while I learned about his intentions. Joan of Arc was Rami's inspiration; specifically, Joan of Arc as she appears in art. Rami had conducted impressive research into his subject and walked me through the myriad paintings and prints while pointing out the details of Joan of Arc's apparel. He sought to borrow design elements from these "ready for battle" looks and establish a tension between hard (armor or armor-like) and soft (fabric). I deduced that the tailoring represented the "hard."
The tailored pieces just didn't look like the Rami I knew from Project Runway or LA Fashion Week. His retort was expected: "The judges don't want to see too much draping from me." But is this new iteration of your work really YOU? I felt as though he had sacrificed his design core to favorably compete for the win. And if you win, Rami, then are you permanently committing to betraying, in a manner of speaking, who you are as a designer? Would you really want to win under those circumstances? So I left Rami after posing a lot of questions about his designs, his textiles, his color choices, and his intentions. Pausing at the door to his studio and looking back at his collection thus far, I said, "I can see Joan in your work, but it's Crawford, not d'Arc."
Chris or Rami? The Judges' Deliberation
Chris and Rami presented their three strongest looks to Heidi, Nina, and Michael. The judges' deliberation went on for hours. They probed and interrogated Rami and Chris until I thought both would collapse from stress and fatigue. And there was one moment -- I remember if vividly -- when I said to myself, "Chris is out." He and Rami were each asked, "Who's your customer?" Rami answered clearly, articulately, and believably. Chris responded, "I don't know." That was it for me. Over. His inability to know who his customer is underscored the fact that he's really a costume designer, not a fashion designer. Chris, we love you.
Next up: Bryant Park!