Project Runway: The True Measure of Tim Gunn's Advice

Jay and his winning design
Jay and his winning design

Michael Kors, resident crepehanger of the Project Runway judge squad, is fond of saying that there are "no rules" in fashion anymore, usually as he is trying to impose improbable new style commands in his monthly Glamour column (wear short-shorts in the dead of winter! layer scarves until you topple over from their terrifying magnitude!). But he is wrong. There are a few, finite subjects that dare not be questioned in the needle-and-thread world: was Coco Chanel really a traitorous collaboratrice horizontale during the Nazi occupation of Paris? (Yes, apparently so.) And is Tim Gunn truly a helpful, relevant part of Project Runway? The latter was finally answered last night.

Sure, Gunn is the most genial member of the daunting Runway team; quick with a smile and a hug, he mentors the contestants by evaluating their progress in the workroom and stifling their occasional meltdowns. (And I can attest personally that he's a truly humble, altruistic guy.) But he does not serve as a judge, which means his subjective encouragement of a garment is often in direct contrast with the judges' opinions; more than once last season, he enthusiastically endorsed an idea only to watch its designer be scolded and eliminated for it. (Exhibit A: the alarming deterioration of Christopher, notably in his shiny "shower curtain" shirt-dress.) However, in this week's episode, he more than proves his reason for inclusion in the Runway juggernaut: in this challenge, he is friggin' Nostradamus, and the contestants that ignore his prophecies are struck down.

We open on Jesus waxing self-pityingly about being in the bottom three last week for that poorly seamed crocodile-print gown, the one Nina Garcia compared to a "Hershey chocolate bar" (even the insults are product placement on this show!). Ever-pregnant host Heidi Klum tells the designers that they are going somewhere "out there" for this week's challenge -- Janeane, the weepy lost lamb of last week, says that this could be either "a Broadway show" or "the moon," perhaps overestimating the Lifetime Channel's budget.

The crew is whisked from Manhattan to Sarah Palin's America, a/k/a a muddy and overcast farm; there, they are greeted by their models, clad in burlap bags. The designers' challenge is to reinterpret the old adage "she's so beautiful, she could even wear a potato sack" and make one of the rough bags into a party-ready frock. Seth Aaron, hair plastered to his skull under a red bandanna in Tommy Lee homage (as compared to last week, when he emulated Johnny Marr and Brian Setzer without the orchestra), is the most enthusiastic about this task; most of the others wince as they pluck bric-a-brac embellishments from wheelbarrows.

Back at the Parsons School workspace in New York, the designers' regressive drama flourishes; Ping, again, wraps her fabric around her body in lieu of using a dressmaking form and dances for awhile. Did she not play dress-up enough as a child? Pixie-ish Anna Marie recalls third-grade craft hour and presses paint-dipped potato sponges into her fabric. Mila makes catty jabs at Anthony because her former model chose him for this challenge; fantastically flamboyant Anthony responds by crowing something childish--"Miss thang has a big ol' butt!"--in regards to the construction of Pamela's dress.

When Tim Gunn enters, he addresses what will become the grave downfalls in each of the bottom-scoring designs -- and magically, none of those contestants listen to a word he says. (So I'm not the only one who's questioned him, ha!) He is wary of Pamela's blue ombrè corset, cautioning that the one-piece construction will be needlessly complicated and unflattering. (Spoiler alert: it is.) He nervously eyes Jesus's endless strips of acidic green ribbon, which seem to conceal too much of the burlap's qualities. (It does.) He cautions Ping not to make her dress too short, as the elevated runway may expose too much of the model's rear. (It will, and how.)

On the runway, it's clear that this crop of designers ain't half bad; most of the looks are impressive, and not just because they came from potato sacks. This is clearly a more sophisticated group than last season, thank Ungaro. Anthony delivers a flirty, gauzy strapless red dress, while Mila's sheath features Max Azria-like metallic bars (though it gapes poorly in the chest). Emilio again serves strips of contrasting fabric on a plainer base (the same aesthetic that clinched his win last week) and punky alterna-Amy delivers my favorite look, a flouncy, dip-dyed dress with full skirt and cowl neck that retains and highlights the burlap's organic appeal. Jay's teal-accented bubble skirt looks as delicate as organza and is "nicely abstract," as described by guest judge Lauren Hutton ('60s supermodel and actress), but Jesus's endless layers of green ribbon pucker sickeningly against his brown palette. Pamela, after dying her burlap so carefully to look like denim, sends out something akin to a crosshatched streetwalker dress, a tacky thing of stretched seams and rawhide trim that is grossly unflattering on the model (who visibly hates it). And Ping, poor Ping, learns to rue the day she ignored Tim Gunn; her architecturally sharp skirt features a slit up the rear that, on the short length of the garment, leaves the model with her entire butt hanging out in the wind. (Also, her bottom-heavy dress looks uncannily like the comically awful "raincoat with a straw in it" one Sweet D designed in an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but that's another matter.)

The judges are surprisingly positive in this round; neither Klum, Garcia, nor Kors snap anything too tart. The strongest words come, surprisingly, from Hutton: confronted with Jesus's green-and-brown asymmetrical mess, she muses that a dress should be like a painting, and his is a "confused-assault-on-the-eye kind of painting." Woof.

It's distilled to Jay and Amy for the win, but Jay is victorious; the Runway judges, again, favor a design that inverts fabric instead of embracing it. Pamela and Jesus are mired in the bottom two and good-natured Pamela, for her "Annie Get Your Gun" vintage, is sent home.

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