What's Your Sign?

Plenty of drama behind the scenes!

Eight out of our original 16 designers remain, and Heidi presents them with a little surprise: The eight eliminated designers will return to team with them. Heidi declares that for this challenge each team will create an avant garde look. She sends the designers to meet me in the workroom where I place them in teams and explain that their design must be inspired by the zodiac sign of one of their team members.

The teams have 30 minutes to caucus, then we go shopping at MOOD where they have a budget of $150. They have two days for this challenge.

On the morning of Day Two, the designers receive an invitation from Heidi. She is hosting a party at the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the Museum of Natural History. There, the designers will present their avant garde looks to Project Runway alumni -- Daniel Vosovic, Kara Janx, Jay McCarroll, Christian Siriano, Carmen Weber, Allison Kelly, Robert Plotkin -- who in turn will determine the winner of this challenge. Two designers will be eliminated at the runway presentation at Parsons on the following day. Yes, two designers.

Francisco Costa, Women's Creative Director for Calvin Klein, is our guest judge. And I'll just add that this challenge could have been a two-hour show, because there was so much drama and intrigue demonstrated in the workroom, at the Rose Center, and on the runway. I never cease to stand in awe of the brilliance and deftness of the show's editors!

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Jerell WINS! He is teamed with Jennifer and what a dynamic duo they were with Sagittarius as their point of departure. I applaud risk-taking and this design was risky: an exaggerated brown houndstooth check high-waisted pencil skirt with a hip treatment that was like a deflated pannier, a gold chain-mail camisole, and a space-dyed shrunken jacket with a cacophony of trims. This look could have been a riotous disaster, and in less talented hands it would have been, but they made it work. Congratulations, Jerell!

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Blayne is OUT. He is teamed with Stella who couldn't have been sweeter and more supportive. Libra is the sign that they chose, but what a stretch of the imagination that was when it came to their look. And how to describe it: a nude onesy with an S&M leather harness, plus a frothy voluminous column of pink, ivory, and turquoise fabric from the shoulder to the ankle on the right side. It was an interesting concept (I think), but the execution was atrocious and, frankly, insulting to the judges. While teaching, the worst of my students' work was never quite this bad or quite this ridiculous. Blayne, what happened? Did you succumb to Stella-liciousness? We will sincerely miss you!

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Terri is OUT. She is teamed with Keith and they choose his sign, Leo, as their inspiration. From the onset matters between them were incendiary. From my observations and engagement with them, both parties were entirely too passive-aggressive in their behavior. From Keith's point of view, he had no incentive to combat Terri's dismissive attitude towards him, either. But Terri needed a partner (two heads and four hands should be better than one and two) if she was going to present a design that represented her team's best efforts. But let me talk about the design: When it was presented at the Rose Center, the gown had a faux fur stole with a high collar. The fur looked like chewed up and spat out road kill. Then, there was an unflattering bustle on the dress. (Who wants to look like they have a big fat ass?) Terri thoughtfully utilized the feedback that she received to edit her design. So, what she presented on the runway -- no fur and no bustle -- was infinitely better. Still, the judges balked. Terri, I feel sick about losing you.

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Joe is teamed with Daniel and, frankly, Daniel seemed to be in charge. With Aries as their muse, they created a fabulous tango dress in a dynamic brown and ivory print. The skirt was fitted to the hip where it cascaded out into a large volume of huge horizontal ruffles. This was paired with a well-proportioned bolero in gold. It certainly had dramatic impact and it received laudable scores from the judges.

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Kenley is teamed with Wesley (poor Wesley) and they choose Aquarius for their inspiration. I didn't understand anything about this look. It was like a cartoon: a bold plaid top with a high collar and slim fitted bodice offset by hugely exaggerated shoulders (Joan Crawford never experienced anything so huge) and skinny extra-long sleeves. This was paired with a floral diaphanous bubble-skirt. What? She shrilly defended the entire look, but it was ridiculous in my view and those of the judges, too. Can we all be wrong?

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Korto is teamed with Kelli and used Aquarius for inspiration. They designed a full-length gown in a beautiful grayish blue with a train of scalloped layers that fell from the shoulders. The design fell short of Korto's original plan, but Kelli fell ill and, consequently, poor Korto was solo for a good part of this challenge. I'm merely happy that she finished something!

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Leanne is teamed with Emily and their pairing was marvelous. Scorpio was their point of departure and Scorpio their design was, albeit subtle. Using a black felted fabric, they created a moving sculpture: a sinuous, asymmetrical cyclone that even enveloped the head. This look was not for everyone, that's for certain, but it was very Leanne and very editorial. The silhouette was arresting, the proportions were divine, and the look said nothing if not "innovation." I was certain the Leanne would win. But, she's not the showman that Jerell is, and the Project Runway alumni were making the decision.

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Suede is teamed with Jerry, and Jerry's arrogance and Suede's disdain for him were palpable throughout the challenge. Although you do not see this in the show, when I made one of my rounds, they had placed a yoke across the shoulders of their design and were going to hang fabric scales from it to represent Libra. Huh? I admit that I may have protested a bit too much (remember Carol Burnett's curtain-rod dress in the "Gone with the Wind" episode?), and then Jerry sold me out on the runway saying that he (not they) should never have listed to me. In any case, what was up with this navy palazzo pants suit? Huh? Isn't there a happy medium between a basic pajama pant and a Vegas float? Come on, guys, you couldn't figure this out?

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!