Project Runway: There is No Knock-Off for Insanity

"The key word here is derivation," cautions mentor Tim Gunn, sternly addressing his shrinking crop of fashion fledglings. "You are designers, not plagiarists." It's hardly a subtle criticism, either in this week's Project Runway or the fashion industry at large; now that photos of high-end fashion shows appear on the Internet instantly, several months before those collections hit stores, cheaper street chains such as Zara and H&M are making a killing by rushing obvious knockoffs to their shelves first. (Ask Gwen Stefani; not long ago, her Harajuku Lovers logo thermals went for pittance at Forever 21.) This, you can't even blame on a recession; it's the lack of copyright laws applicable to fashion designs.

Then again, you also can't put a trademark on crazy, but Ping comes admirably close in this week's episode, from running around Mood Fabrics screaming for her lost sketchbook to rambling in discordant adjectives like a page of sartorial Mad Libs--"Drapey! Soft! Organic! Tailored! Precise!"--as her partner, Jesse, visibly contemplates suicide.

This week, the contestants hop the 4 train to the Met, where they gather in the Charles Engelhard Court to view looks from the museum's Costume Institute. Amid some of the most iconic designs of the past century--a darkly ruffled Dior gown, a cherry Madame Gres halter dress, a salmon satin Balenciaga coat--the designers are separated into pairs and given their challenge parameters; they'll have two days and $500 to create a high-end signature look worthy of the master collection.

This standard of excellence, it seems, is not nearly as daunting to any of them as having to play nicely and work together--fauxpunk Seth Aaron sucks his teeth at that, though he lucks out with cheerful Anthony, and rigid Mila picks a dubious Jonathan. Challenge winner Jay chooses Maya, perennial bottom-scorer Jay calls Amy, lost lamb Janeane picks Ben, Emilio picks facile Anna, and Ping chooses aggro Jesse, who winces and nearly keels over at the prospect of working with the hapless but well-meaning space case.

In the workroom, the predictable bickering of team challenges arrives right on cue. This is mostly between Jesse and Ping, whose professional dynamic is charitably compared to "Lucy and Ricky" by some but really should not occur anywhere with accessible scissors. She calls him "insecure" while she erratically changes their haute design, he snaps, "I feel like I'm just trying to reign in the crazy" as he glowers at her from underneath his newsboy cap. (He also describes their dress as being "pieced together like origami," which is contradictory to the entire concept of origami, but okay.) Anthony lightens the tense workroom by surveying his yellow, red, and black palette and guffawing, "I think we are designing a gown for the Vice President of McDonald's. However, everyone needs a dress."

When Tim Gunn enters, he further prompts some heart attacks--he announces that the designers have to create an additional look, this one not high-end but for the mass-market customer, a "look for less" inspired by another team (here is his sharp "derivation" speech). It's a pretty surprising approach--and hell, downright Gonzo for the Lifetime channel--and makes the last moments in the Parsons workroom completely chaotic. (Well, for everyone except Jay, that is--the winner of the previous challenge, he has immunity this week, so he strolls around and kind-of-dickishly savors an apple. This show needs to get rid of the immunity crutch.)

On the runway, the judges and their guest panelist, smoldering psychedelic designer Matthew Williamson, are indifferent towards most of these "statement" attempts. Anthony and Seth Aaron's gown amounts to a mound of taffeta with feathers plastered to the yellow bodice--it is costume-y to the extent that Michael Kors calls it a "Cotillion party from hell." Janeane and Ben's look is a boring little sheath with a bolero jacket; Jay and Maya's $50 knock-off is far edgier, and their upscale look echoes the Dior of the Met collection, with grey fins protruding from one shoulder like the walls of the Sydney Opera House. Emilio and Anna's staid, beaded tan sheath doesn't start any fires, and Mila and Jonathan push mod dichromatic racer pants with a billowing, soft jacket. Jesus and Amy send out a patchy lace tube dress with exaggerated black fan sleeves, a lovely homage to the venomous spitting lizard from Jurassic Park.

And Ping and Jesse, after days of vicious incompatibility, produce two stupefying creations: an overanalyzed lace bodice dress with endlessly draped, unstyled layers, and a Theory-knockoff grey shift that fits horribly on the exasperated model. Jesse tells the judges, nastily, that he had to give Ping "sewing lessons" during the challenge.

Mila wins for her '60s statement separates--the judges love that she didn't design a gown--and Anthony and Ping face elimination. Poor Ping, our favorite daughter of the asylum, is sent home--the best choice designer-wise, but not so much for the dramatic energy of the show; now we only have Anthony and his quips to keep us warm this winter. "I cannot imagine that workroom without you," said Gunn kindly--and neither can we.


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