Bright Lights, Big City

Some got it, others missed the point of the challenge!

It was a muggy and rainy night ... and I meet the designers at the Atlas apartment. Yes, we're taking a field trip! It's a city-wide tour on the open deck of a tour bus. We have four stops planned. At each, a group of designers will alight, have an hour to take photos of whatever inspires them, and then return to the Atlas. They will each select one of their photos to serve as the inspiration for a design of their choice for a night out on the town.

This is the first challenge in which the designers have complete control; that is, they shop for whatever they want and they have creative freedom and latitude. They have a budget of $100 and one day to complete the challenge. And since we took our tour at night, that one day would not be eaten up by our tour.

The fabulous Sandra Bernhard is our guest judge. While I certainly associate her with personifying a night out on the town, I did not know that she is a true fashion insider. She is, and her knowledge and perceptions totally WOWed me!

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Kenley WINS! I'm happy for her, but I'm still scratching my head over her design. The judges described her look as "Ungaro meets Lacroix" and they were right, but is that a good thing? The silhouette channeled Ungaro, while the textiles -- a riotous green print and strawberry-to-grape ombred tulle -- evoked Lacroix. I thought it looked very costumey, too costumey, and even Sandra Bernhard stated, "I have difficulties with this look. I don't get it." Admittedly, this look isn't for everyone! Kenley, congratulations on your win and on your immunity for the next challenge.

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Emily is OUT. I was concerned about her look from the moment of my first visit to her workspace. The black sheath was constructed with some problematic darts at the hips, and the multicolored flounces of ruffled fabric were awkwardly placed and looked like a stuck on afterthought. She was confident that her design was strong enough to survive the possibility of a runway pummeling. Regrettably, the design didn't. Bon chance, Emily!

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Blayne designed an exaggerated handkerchief hem dress in black with neon-colored fabric wrapped and draped in billowing layers. The look possessed an elegance and sophistication, whereas it could have gone wacky and costumey. Were there similarities to Emily's design? Indeed, but in Blayne's case, it was impossible to extract the neon fabric without diminishing the integrity of his work. And his design certainly corresponded with his Times Square inspiration.

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Daniel, ever sophisticated, designed a greenish gray (chic color) charmeuse one-shoulder cocktail dress with accordion pleats in the bust and an artfully draped and voluminous faux sash at the waist. He struggled to finish the hem and sewed and sewed and sewed up until my last call of "Time!" Surprisingly, and thankfully for him, the judges didn't mention the hem's state of disrepair and, more specifically, its unevenness. Nina, are you paying attention?

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Jennifer was inspired by a clock and regrettably took her inspiration a little too literally. She created a multi-tiered dress in alternating bands of midnight and white charmeuse and a white empire waistband. Frankly, the silhouette and volume of the dress gave it a dowdiness that would not work in her favor. And her allusion to the clock on the sleeves was a literal minded stretch. Schiaparelli, where are you?

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Jerell was inspired by the fountains at Columbus Circle. He created a moss green strapless dress with an exuberant, multi-tiered "tango" skirt. His look was beautifully-constructed, well-proportioned, and had strong impact on the runway. Accordingly, I was surprised that it wasn't one of the "top three" looks for the judges' deliberation. Joe designed a painfully basic cocktail dress: a simple black skirt and a gold bustier with strips of black, thereby mimicking the windowpane effect of the light fixture that inspired him. He believed that the "surprise" effect of the skirt's black tulle train would save him from humdrum-itis, but the train looked lackluster and arbitrary. Sorry, Joe. Humdrum.

Keith created a collage-like dress that was inspired by a magazine remnant he found on the street. As the judges' remarked, it was true that the volume of the layers and layers of small pieces of fabric obfuscated his model's shape, but this dress was more about being a cocoon than a form-fitting silhouette. Furthermore, since Keith's had to replace his model at the last minute (Runa bailed, so we brought back Allysa from the last challenge), a sleek fit could have derailed him.

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Kelli was inspired by a black fireplug -- go figure. The impact was all in the top: a black novelty fabric for the shoulder and neckline area and a silvery-metallic textile for the multi-tiered bodice that flared to the hip. This was over a basic black quasi-mini. I thought the look was over-designed and entirely too busy, especially given her inspiration.

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Korto designed a black halter jumpsuit with a wide leg. The halter treatment was bold and graphic and very '60s. I thought it was elegant, but I didn't see anything new or innovative in her design. Yes, the construction was good, but so it should be. And where was the association with her inspiration? Huh? I didn't get it.

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Leanne was inspired by a tree grate. These grates proliferate in New York, but are especially graphic and compelling in and around Columbus Circle. She created an elaborately detailed high-waisted skirt consisting of cascading horizontal pleats, offset by a very basic sleeveless blouse. Her look was innovative and stunning and superbly wearable. Thankfully, this design was a significant bounce back from last week and succeeded in redeeming her with the judges.

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Stella was inspired by a horse's blinder, "because it's leatha." Really. She filled the workroom with a mind-splitting pounding as she hammered grommets into her pleather (not leather) pants and vest. She has succeeded is branding herself as a designer on the show, because she's been wearing her same designs over and over and, now, she's recreated them for the runway. It's all too expected. For this challenge, she designed a tight-fitting vest with lacing in the back and tight leather pants that lace in the front. The construction was good, but the fit was a bit too tight in my opinion. Stella, what's new? What's innovative? What?

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Suede was inspired by the lights of moving traffic, so why did he present a steel gray sleeveless A-line shirt dress? The dress had an exaggerated collar and metallic embellishments in the bodice, but it was still so very basic. Coming out of his innovative design and win of the last challenge, I expected more. But in his own words, "Suede thinks it rocks!"

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Terri operated with a self-described "tough and dirty," the grittier side of New York as her inspiration. Her look was, indeed, street: a bold street-inspired fabric for a backless dress over black satin pants. Frankly, I thought that the dress was enough, and the ruffled sleeves made more sense without the pant. Still, her look made a strong impact on the runway and the judges loved it. But would one really wear those items that way. Thus sprach fuddy-duddy!

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!