The Runway Rundown
1. This week brings a surprisingly heady jolt to the torpid Project Runway season. One contestant loses his (impeccable) muse. Another bravely reveals a decade-long secret and immediately helps de-stigmatize an immense societal taboo. We’re not even going to mock Michael Kors’ tan this week; this episode was sincere.
2. The challenge: to design a signature fabric. This is a throwback to last season, when Emilio won for a graffiti name print that shamelessly ripped off Stephen Sprouse for Louis Vuitton; this season, the designers are presented with childhood photos and urged to draw from deep personal history.
3. Some of the inspirations are intriguing; Valerie bases her navy geometrical lines on her father, a house builder, and the blueprints he used to design their family’s house. Gretchen pulls from the Southwest for a Santa Fe scheme. Mondo, fresh of two consecutive wins, draws a reliably bold series of plus signs. He faces the confessional camera and, after visibly steeling himself, reveals the inspiration for his pattern: his HIV+ status, which he has kept a secret for 10 years. It is a remarkably brave moment for reality television, a frustratingly stigmatized disease, and Project Runway itself; Jack, a contestant several seasons ago, left the competition midway because of his complications with the same disease, but it was not handled (by producers, editors, what have you) as candidly as Mondo’s steady words to the camera.
4. The contestants are shocked to receive both two days for the textile challenge and unannounced visits from their loved ones; most cry as they hug their mothers, and Michael C. weeps as he embraces his son. Christopher happily embraces his partner. Tim Gunn grandly suspends work for the afternoon and the designers stroll New York with their families; Mondo and Andy both have heart-to-hearts with their parents on the Highline, and Mondo grapples with finally revealing his HIV+ status to his mother, but finally elects not to share it and “ruin the moment.”
5. The next morning, as the designers reenter the workroom, many of them are reinvigorated. Andy, a powerhouse competitor, feels completely adrift and apathetic; his design mutates into poor hot pants and a baggy, torso-widening blouse, and his rivals muse, “It just doesn’t look like Andy.” 6. It is Valerie’s birthday; she wears a festive pin. Surely this won’t play into the episode’s narrative arc at all. Michael C is finally interacting amiably with the other contestants; that lingering friction seems to have ebbed.
7. On the runway, tortured blonde April astounds guest judge Rachel Roy with her grey double-down hearts motif, an interpretation of her parents’ messy divorce. Michael C’s strapless grey print falters with stark mustard piping and a staggered, sharp structure Michael Kors compares uncharitably to a tie and belt motif. Mondo’s high-waisted plus-inspired pants draw immediate gasps.
8. Nina Garcia, ever the fly in the punch bowl, grumbles that Valerie’s cutely shirred printed skirt is a throwback to her party store challenge frock earlier in the season. Kors bemoans the lack of commercial appeal.
9. Garcia asks for Mondo’s story, although she – and the other judges – absolutely adore his look. Mondo reveals, to the judges and his peers, the heavy secret that inspired his joyous print. Many, including Kors, have visceral, tearful reactions. Mondo’s quiet honesty is stirring, and he smiles with what seems to be a sincerely lighter heart.
10. Mondo’s bravery and graphic flair are an unbeatable combination; he wins his third consecutive challenge. Not one person seems anything less than thrilled for him (although April is seems mildly stunned by her loss). The bottom dwindles to Andy and Valerie, both strong craftsmen; Valerie, the birthday girl, is eliminated and gives heartfelt, lovely farewells to each contestant. It is as happy, and hopeful, as this memorable episode could possibly end.