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Emilio’s winning entry, via Lifetime.
If half the Project Runway contestants designed their clothes as well as their sound bytes, this show would be a gladiator match.
But in its seventh season, and second since moving to the Lifetime channel, the show again seems to be favoring attractive, media-savvy young faces over edgier if less hi-def-ready talent. It’s mystifying — this rationale was responsible for last season, a disappointing jaunt of revolving judges, poor craftsmanship, and a lackluster villain (“Meana” Irina) who won the whole shebang with black sweaters and a screen-printed t-shirt, the sartorial equivalent of a long nap.
At least the producers cured the biggest irritation of that disastrous last cycle: they moved the show back to New York. Runway never belonged in Los Angeles, a town where wiping the Jamba Juice stains from your Uggs is a couture statement, and now that Heidi Klum and her cohorts have dashed frantically back to Manhattan, the show has regained some of its sass.
It’s deeply satisfying to see Tim Gunn and perennially pregnant Heidi Klum herd their troops around Manhattan again, and the hyper-styled contestants seem more at ease in their Garment District confines.
We quickly meet Seth Aaron, who claims to be mid-30s (dubious) and festoons himself in the raspberry velvet jacket, black faux mohawk, and skinny tie of a twee Brian Setzer, and Janeane, one of several pretty 20-something ladies in the cast but the only one who doggedly tries to push a revolving door in the wrong direction and cries twice, apropos of nothing, before the first commercial break.
Anthony is firmly established as the flamboyant comedic relief – his quip, “it is hell being black and gay in the ghetto,” was prominently featured in every trailer before the premiere – and Emilio, 43, and Pamela, 47, are the age outliers. (Project Runway is now cast by Bunim-Murray, the same folks responsible for the braying jailbait of MTV’s The Real World.)
Jesse, a 25-year-old in a porkpie hat, causes the girls in my apartment to swoon… until he removes the hat and, Samson-like, immediately loses his power (such is the value of accessorizing, as Tim Gunn would be the first to tell you).
For their first challenge, the designers have one night to create a garment that expresses who they are as a designer–standard introductory Runway fare, only this time they are using the handfuls of fabric they snatched from benches in Central Park.
Ping (left) is daintily introduced as the resident Martian, a physical therapist who wears her own bolts of fabric in a turban and shawl for entirely too long, swanning around the work space like a deranged shaman. She may give Anthony a run for the eccentric card; a physical therapist by day, she claims expertise in designing realm because she knows “how the body moves.” (Some of the best tailoring the Runway contestants ever do is relating their irrelevant day jobs to their fashion skill level — but hey, Yves Saint Laurent was in the military.)
Janeane, heretofore known as Lost Lamb, fumbles her pleated black dress and brims with tears. Tim Gunn enters and exits without much to-do, aside from some doomsday prophesizing on Emilio’s crazily pinned purple bodice — “no one has ever not finished,” he warns as Emilio’s eyes widen in terror.
Disappointingly, at the runway show, it’s revealed that socialite Nicole Ritchie is the first guest judge; she owns the House of Harlow 1960 clothing line, which cops a Venice Beach boho aesthetic completely out of line with anything Project Runway salutes. She’s a step up from last season, when Heidi Klum sat balefully alongside Lindsay Lohan, but just barely, and Ritchie adds vague, ineffective critiques to the more pointed professional observations of Klum, Michael Kors, and Nina Garcia.
But at this early stage, there isn’t much to say about the designs — it’s too early to bet on a horse, and most contestants favor fitted cocktail dresses with defiant asymmetrical accents. Anthony sends out a strappy halter dress with an enormous gathered frill on one hip — perfect for “smuggling champagne bottles,” per the reliably snappy Kors — and meek young Jay offers a pea-green skirt with enormous artichoke-like ruches that burst, Alien-like, from the stomach panel. Ping drapes her fabric in a cowl sheath and skirt that seemed scarcely sewn or altered, including an ET-worthy hood. Christianne plays with color more than most but offers a terribly sewn, psychedelic cobalt Tracy Reese knock-off, and Jesus fares similarly with a skintight, one-shouldered, crocodile-textured evening gown (a confluence that almost leaves Garcia speechless).
Seth Aaron nearly wins for his strappy, plaid, new wave dress, despite how it combines the outdated trends of bold exposed zipper and gathered hem but, ultimately, Emilio triumphs with his intricate, medallion-patterned dress (meaning, in contrast to the overall ageism the show suffers from now, the two oldest men in the cast placed first and second). Jesus winces on the chopping block, but Christianne and her messy seams are sent home.
And somewhere, wherever he landed, Gianni Versace laughed — he’s got nothing to worry about yet. But here’s hoping that this season is a better fit.