Grass Is Always Greener

The model's choices really played a big role in this challenge!

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Heidi presents the challenge: Design a cocktail dress with your model as your client. This challenge highlights green textiles; that is, textiles that are environmentally responsible: no synthetics, no poisonous dyes and, when appropriate, organically-grown. I visited MOOD several weeks before this challenge to research the range of textiles available in the category. Admittedly, the range is limited, especially when it comes to color, with many of the textiles being white or ivory. Consequently, many designers dye these textiles, and that gives them infinite custom options. Regrettably, our Project Runway designers would not have time to dye, given that they had one day for this challenge. Making matters a little more complex, the designers' models would do the shopping, and without designer consultations. MOOD tagged all of the green textiles, so they could be easily identified. The models had 30 minutes to shop and a budget of $75. Given that they are not designers, I reminded them that they should purchase closures and color corresponding thread, plus any other notions that they believed would be necessary.

The divine Natalie Portman is our guest judge. Not only is she more than capable of critiquing a cocktail dress, she's an environmental activist with a vegan line of footwear, Té Casan.

Suede WINS! From the perspective of innovation and experimentation, there was no one close to Suede. Astutely, he mitigated the harsh visual impact of the silk/hemp blend textiles by cutting them into bias strips, which he overlapped in seemingly random, but harmonious, patterns. These red and white strips constituted his bodice, while a ballerina skirt in white sat suspended upon an underskirt of tulle. Suede's innovation also embraced high levels of risk-taking; that is, it could have been just as easy for the judges to have lunged and attacked. Instead, they celebrated, as do we. Congratulations, Suede! Wesley is OUT. Wesley, oh, Wesley. I felt so bad for him. Owing to his model's decision-making, he was stuck with a dreary brown silk/hemp blend that does not respond kindly to bold lighting. (It looks best with NO lighting.) But he was not alone by any means. In fact, Leanne and Joe had the exact same fabric. But Wesley tortured the textile while constructing the dress and it showed: uneven seams, an unintentionally sinuous hem and, from my viewpoint, unmatched grain lines in the fabric, which served to exacerbate the inconsistent absorption of light. The look was sloppy and the fit on the model was terrible. Had it not been so egregious, perhaps he could have rallied and defended himself. But rally he didn't. He was like Dorothy in Oz, "I'm Wesley, the meek and innocent." Sadly, Wesley, you're also out.

Blayne lucked out when his model, Polina, arrived from shopping with yards and yards of bubblegum pink, his signature color, fabric. His design -- a one-shoulder mini-dress with a draped sash across the neckline and side panels in black -- looked sexy and youthful and contemporary.

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Daniel designed an adorable mini-dress with capped sleeves and a scooped neckline using a black silk/hemp blend. I found the longer length in the back of the skirt to be a subtle nod to Audrey Hepburn's Sabrina. His design was well-presented and well-executed, but ... it almost didn't happen: Mere minutes before I called time to escort the designers to the runway, he was still sewing, and I mean SEWING!

Emily describes her designs as being "edgy and underground." I don't doubt that, but it has yet to reveal itself. Her design for this challenge was pretty enough -- a navy/midnight pleated mini with a navy and gray woven and ruched bustier -- but I'd love to see her designs demonstrate more risk-taking. Emily, show us that edge! Jennifer created the drapiest (is that a word?) design. I don't know what textile she used to achieve that buoyancy, but it had to have been a jersey of some sort. Her orange and gray palette concerned me, because the colors did not say, "cocktails," nor did the gray apron effect of the front. But perhaps her model Alex was serving cocktails. Then, it would make sense!

Jerell merely flirted with this challenge, at least in my opinion. I know that his designs can have a profound edge, but where was it? He created a halter mini-dress in light blue with a deeper aqua panel insert in the front. The thin side panel of lace eluded me, as did the anemic looking feather trim on the hem. Jerell, please step it up.

Joe designed, uh, um, what? A slip dress? What could be more basic? Did his use of diamante spaghetti straps or the circular insert under the bust assuage me? Hardly. I suppose that the judges were simply relieved that the slip was well constructed and fit his model, Topacia. But considering that he worked with the same textile as Wesley, that may have been enough of an achievement!

Keith designed a halter mini-bubble-dress using the champagne silk/hemp blend textile. You may know that I am not a fan of anything "bubble," but he made it work. His execution of the garment was excellent, the proportions were good, and his model Runa knew how to give it runway appeal. Bravo, Keith! Kelli entered this challenge with immunity from her win of the last challenge, so she knew that she could take risks and be safe. I don't know whether it was risks that she took, other than challenging the boundaries of taste. Her champagne silk skirt was uncontroversial, but that teal top with the champagne ruffles was rather over-the-top in my opinion. Then when all of the asymmetry is folded in, well, you end up with something that's either thought provoking or ... not.

Kenley was among the top three designers in this challenge. The judges responded well to her look: a simple shift in champagne organic silk with a dramatic ruff and a simple black waistband. I feared that the collar was a bit clownish, and I never know which way the judges will lean, so I merely cautioned her to be prepared to defend it. Still, that very basic silhouette needed something! Yes, the dress was basic, but it was also very well-executed.

Korto totally eluded me with her "inside-out dress," as I dubbed it. When I first approached her workspace, I was certain that I was looking at the inside of the dress, replete with darts and seams in process. But, alas, I was wrong. All of that not-very-pretty stuff was on the outside and would remain, intentionally. Egads. I didn't understand. I merely hoped that she could successfully defend her design to the judges.

Leanne overthought and overdesigned. I supported her concept, but when I saw stacks of padded ellipses, I feared that she was going entirely too far. After advising her to step back from her work and consider editing, I let it be. Edit she did not, and I was perplexed to see that all of those ellipses that she applied round and round the mini-dress lay as flat as tissue. The volume that she had aimed to achieve was nowhere in evidence. Stella, and get ready for this, was among the top three designers in this challenge. This is an amazing achievement considering her garbage bag bomb in the last challenge. Amazing! But her design process remained the same: loads of potentially derailing indecision and tons of whining about, "I don't design with stuff like this. I design with leather." Her refined, well-constructed, one-shoulder mini in champagne was an exercise in restraint -- and it worked!

Terri commanded her textile: another silk/hemp blend, but this time in navy. She knew that it was best to keep the design clean: a simple shift. But she opted for exuberance in the neckline and collar where ruffled embellishments made a bold and beautiful statement. Bravo, Terri!

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!