... A Very Good Place To Start

Tablecloths, tablecloths, tablecloths!

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Season Five is off and running! We begin with a trip down Memory Lane: This challenge is set in Gristedes, the grocery store chain where we launched season one of Project Runway. Austin Scarlett, the winner of that first challenge, presents the 16 designers with the parameters, with innovation and creativity being the key operative words. The designers have 30 minutes to shop at Gristedes with a budget of $75, and their design can be anything that they want to create. As the show's faithful viewers will know, I don't tell the designers what to do. Rather, I probe and query to hopefully trigger them to ask themselves whether their direction is appropriate and will lead to success. Therefore, it took serious discipline for me to contain myself while they were shopping, because so many of them seemed to view Gristedes as an annex of MOOD; that is, a textile store. Why were so many of the designers selecting tablecloths and shower curtains as their materials for this challenge? We went to a grocery store, because we wanted to get away from fabric and its relatives! Didn't any of the designers see Austin's cornhusk dress?!?!?

When we returned to the workroom at Parsons, the designers had until midnight to complete their look. Austin Scarlett would join us, again, the next day as our guest judge. Kelli WINS! This is, indeed, a great way to being the new season! Kelli created a short, A-line skirt out of vacuum cleaner bags that she bleached and dyed. She paired this with a corset top made out of muslin, the waistband of which was covered with gold thumbtacks and the bust was defined with burned coffee filters. Both garments were secured by using a spiral binding from a notebook as the closure, which was brilliantly executed. From a distance, there was no indicator that this look wasn't fresh from Fashion Week, which was precisely the goal of this challenge. Congratulations, Kelli!

Jerry is OUT. In my view, Jerry was too literal-minded and over-thought the challenge, because god knows he's a talented designer. His troubles began at Gristedes, where he purchased a shower curtain, a plastic tablecloth, and some first-aid gauze. He designed a dress that was enshrouded by a hooded coat. And everything was white, white, white, including white rubber boots for the runway. The only spot of color came from a pair of yellow rubber gloves. Frankly, his model looked like she was going out to dump nuclear waste. It was not a pretty sight. Bye-bye, Jerry. Blayne designed a look that was nothing if not innovative. He created a Blade Runner-esque "one-sie," I believe he creatively called it, out of drawer/shelf liner and oven mitts. He accented it with an undulating panel of woven jump ropes and shoelaces. I applauded the fact that Blayne challenged himself with untraditional materials (the point of the challenge, thank you), but the judge's were dubious about the success of his look. Walk a mile in our shoes, judges!

Daniel could have easily been the winner. He created an engineering marvel by molding blue plastic cups, only, to form a strapless cocktail dress with a sweetheart neckline. A few of his peers snickered at the simplicity of his look, but that was the point: the purity of his cups-only approach was how he was able to achieve sophistication. Bravo, Daniel!

Emily used a cheap, tired, and stale polyester lace tablecloth for a basic shift dress. I was correspondingly woeful. She assured me that her design for the neckline would eclipse the dress by becoming the single focal point. Really? The neckline was created out of pleated blue napkins and embellished with barely blown up balloons in red and green. Emily was correct that it became the focal point, but it did not mitigate the lace shirt. And when it walked the runway, the shift was belted with one of the Bluefly.com accessories. That belt did not help he look. I'm merely happy that she's still in.

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Jennifer used rolls and rolls of paper towels, the idea of which excited me (I'm a paper towel aficionado), but the palette -- white, only, and a dreary white at that -- troubled me. She had nothing in the way of color, but she considered using "something" to serve as a dye I didn't care what is was, as long as it liven up the look. When I called time and we walked to the runway, I was startled to see that "something" was scattered lip prints. All that Jennifer had to help her was her lipstick. This was a true "make it work" moment, and she did!

Jerell used, and I thought my eyes were deceiving me, the same polyester lace tablecloth as Emily! Why? How? At least it was merely a skirt (see what I'm grateful for!), but it was still a lotta look. Thankfully, his lawn chair bodice was inventive and beautiful, and the neckline of cocktail parasols was a great touch of wit. And I laughed out loud at the parasols in the model's hair. Judges, please keep your eyes above her waistline! Joe totally eluded me in the workroom. When I left the designers that night, he was going to "paint" the muslin infrastructure with tomato paste and sauce. Imagine the smell on the runway? Imagine the visual association with blood? And that's not a good metaphor. I have to say that I loved his oven mitt bodice: Elsa Schiaparelli meets Claire McCardell. But the skirt was going to matter, needless to say. The next morning, and to my great relief, the skirt had neither sauce nor paste. Instead, Joe used the labels from the cans and embellished them with fusilli pasta. Viva Italiano!

Keith and Suede chose the same navy and white checkerboard plastic tablecloth for the core of their design. In Keith's case, the silhouette and proportions were good, and, owing to wide pleating in the skirt, we could see the lighter reverse of the print. I responded well to his design, but for the tablecloth aspect. But most of the designers had this issue, so Keith would not stand alone. But he had to do something else to enhance the look. He opted to cut up an aluminum foil car shade for a wide waistband. This served him well, as it accentuated the bell silhouette of the skirt and the sleekness oif the halter top. Hopefully, the judges would respond as well as I.

Kenley embraced innovative, thankfully. She cut up a plastic ball to create a breastplate, and she used the webbing from a colorful lawn chair for an asymmetrical patchwork skirt. Her only use of the dreaded tablecloth was for a waistband, so I forgave her. The bright, effervescent dress that she created truly exuded fashion.

Korto used a yellow paper tablecloth for the entirety of her look, and that concerned me enormously. To me, the floor length kimono sleeved dress that she created was a mere derivation of the Han-Bok, the traditional costume of Korea. Even her use of the kale and tomato neck embellishment concerned me, because it was merely that, an embellishment. On Korto's behalf, I was relieved (and a little stunned) that the judges responded so positively to her design. In fact, they singled it out as one of the top three. I was puzzled, but go figure.Leanne designed a confection of a dress out of a pink plastic tablecloth (Oy! I can barely type that word anymore!) that was adorned with pink meringue cookies, pink marshmallows, and ruffled flourishes of white coffee filters. I loved the silhouette and proportions, and the exuberance of the back of the bodice was masterful. I'm eager to see more from her!

Stella. Oh, Stella. Her time in the workroom can best be summarized by the word, "stalled." She was a mass of indecision. She struggled with a red plastic tablecloth, but feared that she didn't have enough of it. Terri offered to give her some of her same red plastic, which was enormously generous, and I gave both of them permission to do this. So, what happened to the red plastic? I don't know. All that I know is that at the last minute, Stella swapped it out for those nasty, flimsy black garbage bags. The look that she created was preposterous, a deformed apron, in my opinion. My certainty that she would be a goner was underscored by my longing for the red plastic tablecloth. Now there's a statement!

Suede used a navy and white checkerboard plastic tablecloth (it screamed "picnic!") for the core of his strapless dress. And I was amused by his use of doggy clean-up bags for the ruffle embellishment at the hem and neckline. Thankfully, he broke up the expanse of the picnic tablecloth with blue transparent plastic squares, the source of which continue to elude me. What are they? In any case, he mitigated the tablecloth dilemma and passed through unscathed. Terri wowed me with the weaving and of the mop heads to form the top of her look. It was innovation, resourceful, and beautifully proportioned. Why, then, did she choose to pair it with that lackluster red plastic (tablecloth) skirt? I found the skirt to be a throwaway and I feared that it may detract from the resounding success of the top. Thankfully, she got by.

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Wesley used a yellow paper tablecloth to create a mini-dress with cut up and gradated yellow plastic cups serving as a single shoulder strap. And he cut and twisted flyswatters for embellishment. Frankly, but for the tablecloth aspect, I loved his look, especially the surprise factor of his use of the cups and flyswatters. But, oh that tablecloth ...

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Finale, Part 2

Impressive work by all but alas only one designer can win.

Well, for me, this episode was the Project Runway first among Project Runway firsts! Why? Because I served as a judge for the first time (and, hopefully, the last time) ever. Here's the back story: Bravo and the executive producers approached me before our Bryant Park show to say that there may be a problem with our guest judge and, consequently, how would I feel about filling in. At first, my response was a roll-up-your-sleeves and "make it work!" form of positive thinking, but as I contemplated the reality of it, I pushed back and refused. Consider the following: I still had another visit to the designers that night and there would be a considerable amount of time needed to support them in the morning before the show. How could I be both a mentor and a judge and service their needs appropriately and responsibly? I believed that I couldn't. So, to make a very long story a wee bit shorter, we ended Thursday night's bevy of phone calls in the following way: Bravo and the producers would ardently search for a replacement judge and I would return to my work with the designers assuming that I would not be a judge If I were to be needed in that role, then I wouldn't be informed of that need mere moments before the show. Otherwise, I could be perceived by the designers (and anyone else mind you) as being duplicitous and insincere. That would never do. Furthermore, Kenley and I were engaged in an semi-incendiary relationship, and the worst thing that could happen would be for her to lose and have me perceived as being the reason why. Oy! So, we know what happened: Our guest judge backed out at the last minute, a celebrity replacement couldn't be found on such short notice, and I filled in. With 10 minutes and counting until our show, Heidi came to me and asked, "So, you're ready to do this, no?" I replied, "To be honest, I don't know. I have an altogether different relationship with the designers than you and Nina and Michael have. I don't know." Heidi reared back and asked, "Tim Gunn, are you telling me that with all of your years of teaching you can't put your relationships aside and look at their work impartially? I thought about her wise words and responded, "Of course I can! Let's go!" We hugged and kissed and off we went.

Don't ever wish to be a guest judge on the show! To be blunt, I don't know how the judges do what they do and as well as they do: The collections pass by quickly, you have to wrap your brain around each piece of each collection immediately, and you have to come to terms with some comparative assessment right away. AND, I had the distinct advantage of intimately knowing the designers' work, yet is was still daunting. In any case, it really was very, very difficult. And there was one very important dimension to this process: seeing the clothes walk. Generally speaking, I don't see them walk. Rather, I see everything static on dress forms. Walking is an altogether different experience and it brings everything to life. So, in that sense, my experience with each designer's collection couldn't have been fresher and newer.

Here are my thoughts about the three collections: Leanne WINS, and what a win it was! We saw all of the conceptual content that really is at the core of Leanne's point of view, and we saw it tempered and orchestrated with precision. As I said to her during the home visit: "I always trust that you will present masterful technique, but can you give your work feeling, emotion?" This was her personal challenge. And she did it All of the strong architectural elements that are Leanne were clearly present, but her looks possessed a buoyancy and an ease, an effortlessness that belied each items structure. Furthermore, her collection was the result of superb editing; had she not brought her critical eye and judgment to each looks and its relationship to every other look, then there may have been a different outcome. Kenley presented a strong point of view and excellent execution, neither of which were surprises, and both of which were appropriately lauded.

I loved Kenley's textile choices and her hand-painting, which was a risky endeavor, and the silhouettes couldn't have been more her. But when the looks walked, they possessed a stiffness that I wasn't prepared to experience. Static on a dress forms, her looks beautifully captured the essence of her inspiration: "painting the roses red" from Alice in Wonderland. (When I made my home visit to her, Kenley resisted revealing her inspiration, which confounded me. When she finally relented, she gave me an epiphany. "Now I get it!" I declared.) But when the clothes walked on the runway, they retained much of their static appearance; that is, most of the looks moved like stiff pasteboard. I could see Kenley's collection emanating a major "wow!" factor in an editorial spread in Elle, but I had a hard time imagining how they would or could navigate and function in the real world. Still, I loved the fantasy aspect of the collection and its other-worldliness. Korto fully embraced her African heritage and her Americanism. Furthermore, she was successful embracing that goal, which is no small task, especially since the entire collection could have been a costume festival. Her silhouettes, alone, told her story, and when you add the colors, textures, and jewelry, her entire collection was uplifted. Color is nothing if not subjective, and I applaud her decision to step away from the expected and mix up her largely taupe palette with vibrant greens and blues. And the jewelry? Well, from my perspective it was all inextricable from the larger aspect of her point of view and, more particularly, to the individual looks themselves. I loved it. Is her collection for everyone or anyone? Of course not, but whose is?

Congratulations to all!

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