Fabio was my favorite thing on the runway
Today’s theme is: You got your commerce into my art – No, you got your art into my commerce –
I’ve long thought about the similarities between what I’ve seen on this show and what I know (at the lowest levels) of writing for publication. Probably the same goes for visual art, music, and just about every creative activity out there. People are drawn to these fields because they want to create, and have some degree of ability. They may be formally trained or largely self-taught (though there’s usually some degree of training, even if just hanging out watching an experienced practitioner). But everyone wants to do what starts out in the soul, not what some marketing director (or publisher or agent or record company or gallery owner) tells them will sell. And there’s usually a division between “popular” (or commercial, or ready-to-wear, or genre, or 1-4-5-1=chord-4/4=beat-top-40) and “artistic” (or literary, or haute, or classical, or fine art).
Some artists are lucky; they just happen to want to create what’s popular, and are good at it. Others are so talented, so visionary, they lead the critics into admiration of new ideas and the market into wanting what they come up with, leaving the old school shaking its collective head wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?” But that’s very rare, and most artists find they must compromise between making a living (if they’re lucky, by teaching or otherwise working in their field) and bringing to life their unique visions of art.
The problem is this: Just about everyone thinks he or she is the next Mozart, Van Gogh, Alexander McQueen, David Foster Wallace. And just about nobody is. Even for those that are – it’s a small marketplace. Most people want poems that rhyme, books that are fun and easy to read, music they can hum, paintings that match the living room couch – and pretty dresses that remind them of some other pretty dress they once wore.
No wonder creative sorts are so tortured.
Especially designers on Project Runway. Throw sleep deprivation and a dozen people competing for one pot of gold into the mix, and you’ve got a human pressure cooker.
This week, we begin with Dmitry ironing his nipple. Christopher is sad that Nathan’s gone, but hopes he’ll have the apartment all to himself really soon. Sonjia: “Men design clothes they want women to wear, and women design clothes they want to wear.” Alicia: “One chiffonie at a time.” Ven: “Men are usually stronger designers while woman are a little more practical.” Because maybe he didn’t alienate the entire world last week; wouldn’t want to miss anyone.
Heidi sends them to Lord & Taylor where Tim and L&T President Bonnie Brooks (is that her married name, or did her mother and father really name her that?) shows them the Project Runway Collection (thank you, TLo). Me, I’m distinctly underwhelmed. Chris, Jay, Bert (Bert? Really?), Nick, Mondo, what is wrong with you guys? On the other hand, congratulations Gordana and Korto. Seth and Uli, nice effort but not what I’d expect; more like what the L&T customer wants. This is art in the marketplace.
Here’s the metaquestion: why is the model so depressed? Is she a tortured artist too (I wanted to walk the runways of Paris in Dior and all I got was this stupid website gig for L&T)? Or is she just tired after changing into nine different dresses?
The winning look in this challenge will be added to the collection and assume its rightful place in the L&T flagship store, the online store, and the flagship window. The winning look must fit in the collection, and it must also hit a retail price of $200 to $300. There is no Mood; the fabric is supplied by the manufacturer and presumably priced so they can gauge cost, add production cost, and hit the mark. I have no idea how that’s done; does a sleeve cost X and a lined jacket Y? So much per seam? Per dart? I wish they’d explain it. I get that “simple” is cheaper, but I’d like more details.
Bonnie informs them the L&T customer is sophisticated and stylish, with good taste (do you suppose there’s a store that describes its customers as tacky and shlubby? Most litmags ask for “your best work” but there was one, I don’t remember which, that said something like, “Forget your best work; confuse us, scare us, show us something that we’ve never seen before.” That isn’t the case here. I think the designers would be happier if it were). She will be Guest Judge. I would imagine she has final say for the winner.
The designers hang around L&T and sketch, then go back to Parsons where the fabric awaits them. It’s the freakout challenge for Melissa, Sonjie, and Elena. Then again, every challenge is freakout challenge for Elena. Except last week. Maybe they should bring in a “real” woman for her to comfort, get her mind off herself. It’s hilarious when the runway show starts, and the same weepy crazy people are suddenly calm and collected in their voice-overs and love their looks. It’s as if in the ten minutes between Sonjia tearfully breaking down on Tim and her model walking down the runway, she’s had a good night’s sleep. Like, hmm, the voice-overs were filmed the next day. Or at least after the elimination was announced.
For me, one of the highlights of this season (besides Swatch sightings; no Mood, no Swatch) has become what Fabio is wearing on Runway Day. This time, it’s a floral hair wreath with pretty standard casual chic. What’s amazing to me is that he always looks so right. He’s damn interesting folk.
The Work: I should say at the start I hated a lot of the fabrics being used. Sometimes they looked like lightweight presumably fake leather; other times, like the “wet look” I so hated in the late 60s and early 70s. Or, in some extremely unfortunate cases, overpressed polyester. Doubleknit polyester. Another evil of the 60s. It might be they’re just shot through with metallic, and that’s creating the shine and stiffness. But I hated half of what walked down the runway just because of the fabric.
Melissa struggles; she chooses a brocade because no one else is using it. Tim points out her fabric will show any mistakes, so darts and seams have to be perfect; she’s kind of stuck because she needs the stiffness of the brocade to pull off the design she’s chosen, but she decides to start over again then goes back to her original. Kind of like watching a car crash, says Gunnar. But on the runway she loves it. Michael loves the bronze; the neckline is surprising “and in the evening half of the battle is from the waist up.” I love that statement. The “battle”? Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the fashion industry, designers think of getting dressed as a battle. And if half the battle is from the waist up, that means half is from the waist down, so… half the battle is half the dress? And this is worthy of note? Yeah, I know, it was an off-the-cuff remark, but it was so banal and said with such earnestness and taken so seriously, I had to pounce on it. L&T loves that it’s strapless but not the asymmetrical hem, which, as Michael says, just needs a bell on the tip. Oooh, Michael, how you talk. There’s got to be some boning to that bodice, but she says it’s the heft of the fabric making it stand up. Here’s my thing: this dress takes a lot of trust. You have to trust there will be no wind. That you won’t drop anything and have to bend over to pick it up. You have to trust some smart-ass isn’t going to say, “Wow, what’s holding your dress up?” and pull it down to find out. This is a runway dress, not a retail dress. It’s dramatic (if you ignore the side boob), but like the sugar showpieces in pastry competitions, it’s not for actual consumption. Art without commerce. I’m going to assume she’s in the top because the art is so very striking.
Christopher does the math: in the existing collection, seven cocktail dresses and two gown, so he figures a gown gives him better odds. “It’ll be the best gown ever. I don’t know, I sound like a tool.” Actually, you sound like and adorable honey-pumpkin. But I’m a softie for a kid with a dream. Except… he’s using the shredding technique again on the “ballet pink” fabric of the bodice (I never knew “ballet pink” was an official color, like “sky blue” or “emerald green”). He gets some sneers from Gunnar, Elena and Alicia for re-using the shredding thing. I would think it’s more of a cost issue than a one-way-monkey thing for this particular challenge. He describes the process, which I appreciate: two pieces of fabrics are layered and sewn, opaque on transparent, and the opaque is cut and shredded. It’s really nice, but it’s not for mass-production. He knows it’s a risk to re-use the technique for the third time, but “if I win, I want to be known for this.” He loves it coming down the runway; it’s detailed, expensive, a showstopper. I’m not sure it’s all that, but I do like it. The judges love it, too; there’s some discussion of the bodice color washing people out, but they think it’ll work. They also hint he might want to knock off this shredding thing before it’s too late. L&T likes the lightness; she admits it wouldn’t sell “hundreds” of units – wow, that’s the scale we’re talking about? Hundreds? All this fuss for a few hundred dresses? – and Nina agrees it wouldn’t work on everyone, but it does bring something different to the collection. I’m surprised this was in the top; it’s pretty, but it doesn’t seem like extraordinary art and L&T doesn’t seem to think it’s a winner commercially.
Elena thinks the world is ganging up on her: She does Romulan fencing uniforms, not simple, classic, mass-production, “this flowy shit”: That is not what she does! Don’t they understand? The judges don’t understand her, don’t recognize her talent, her aesthetic! She’s an avant garde artist, she can’t edit that down to L&T level! I understand, Elena; you want to write a backwards second-person out-of-sequence story with shifting narrators and POVs and your agent wants the five-step plot arc with a love interest that could be played by Ryan Gossling if it makes it to Hollywood. Thing is, this is a contest, and it requires doing different things; that’s why they’re called challenges. Gunnar is very encouraging to her, it’s kind of sweet. Didn’t Gunnar used to be a jerk? Elena notices the girls aren’t doing so well. But as her model walks down the runway, Elena’s pleased though she’s not sure it’s right for the challenge. I think it looks like a butcher’s apron, but that’s probably mostly due to the fabric looking like leather. The pleats and gathers look stiff; her boobs are bouncing which was a fatal flaw at one point but doesn’t seem to matter now. I have a feeling there’s some ego-salving going on here, since Elena’s been whining all episode that the judges never notice her and don’t appreciate her aesthetic. Please, Tim Gunn, don’t lie to me any more about the judges not knowing what goes on in the workroom; between last week and this week, I don’t believe it. Maybe they’re afraid of having more designers quit. And while they could help matters greatly by allowing an extra day now and then for rest, that would cost money, and they don’t care about it that much, so phony runways will have to suffice. It’s ok, I’m putting away my tin foil hat now. But this dress is ugly, and unlike some of Elena’s work, it’s just ugly, not ugly-beautiful. Elena cries when she learns she’s in the top. Heidi thinks this is sellable; the harness makes it flirty and fun. Yeah, when I think flirty and fun, I think harness. Nina loves the back where the harness is more noticeable. L&T sees it as fun and edgy, for a very specific customer but that customer exists. Singular. Michael blathers about the conflict between art and commerce and credits her with a nice but nasty look. I’ll agree with half that. Nina too gives the pep talk about balance. Nonsense. This is the ugliest thing Elena’s made, the macaroni dress included. No wonder she’s in the top. It’s pure Art and they need to give her an ego boost.
Fabio latches onto Uli’s look with the back exposed zipper – because, that’s such a rare thing he’s never seen it before, sheesh. Tim questions the cost of production, but Fabio soldiers on. Gunnar wants to make him a dress when they get home. He says that sweetly, not snidely, but can’t Fabio make his own dresses? Fabio, too, notes the boys are calmer than the girls. He sends out a perfectly nice LBD. Art be damned, this is commerce, and great commerce. The symmetrical hem is nice. I like the sheer overlay. The back has an interesting starburst quality, but it’s still your basic LBD. Heidi thinks it’s versatile. Meaning it’s so bland it can be anything, like tofu. Michael often doubts asymmetrical hems but this one works, and he likes the backwards halter. The zipper he could do without, but it’s well cut and fitted. L&T would wear it; he followed the brief perfectly. Nina likes it for work (here we go again; only a NY Fashion Magazine Editor would look at this and think: work dress) or a party; it’s got “lots of legs.”
Sonjia starts off nervous since she was in the bottom last week, and goes downhill from there. Tim tells her, “If you’re trying to channel those judges, you’re going to work yourself into a psychotic breakdown.” As Tim announces the ten-minute warning, she makes good on that; the dress is too tight on her model. I have no idea how she and Elena finally got it on the model; it wasn’t going anywhere. Tim thinks it all looks good once it’s on its way to the runway, so he doesn’t understand her distress; seems she hand-sewed the zipper and the hem isn’t done. A hand-sewn zipper? Hey, at least she knows how to sew a zipper. Tim tells her to fake it on the runway: “Channel your inner winner.” Tim should start a line of greeting cards. But she’s happy when she sees it on the runway; it’s exactly the silhouette she wanted, though she can see all the imperfections. Still, she’s worried, and so she’s delighted to find she’s safe. I’m not a fan of the contrasting peplum, but I think in a different fabric I might like this; in that wet leather crap, again it looks stiff.
Dmitry explains to us that they’re not designing for one client, but for the whole United States. That’s right, from the redwood forests to the gulfstream isl… you get the idea. He does a simple, sleek silhouette, which means it’s harder to hide mistakes. Gunnar likes it enough to worry about his competition. I like it, too. This could be the week… Or not. I love it; the fabric isn’t my favorite, though this time it looks like metal flecks instead of wet leather which is at least a step in the right direction. Still, the design is pretty; I’m particularly taken with the tiny belt in the front. I’m thinking he got caught in the teeth of production costs. Still, gotta say it: Dmitry wuz robbed. Backstage, he thinks so, too.
Ven has worked with factories one-on-one and knows all about pricing, which is why he prices himself right out of the competition with another rose motif carved into the chest of his model. Christopher thinks a thirteen-year-old might wear it for Christmas. What kind of thirteen-year-olds has Christopher been hanging out with? It’s a nice dress, completely ordinary except for the rose element, which I love (sorry, I do) but of course it can’t be mass-produced in a Chinese sweatshop. Brilliant, Ven. Sadly, Ven’s use of the leatherish fabric is the only one that works for me; he used it to carve out his rose, making good use of the stiffness, then made the skirt of the other flecked-metallic. It’s nowhere near Ven’s best work (and as much as he disgusted me last week, I still admire his clothes), but it’s not bad. I wish I could hear L&T ‘s honest reaction to it: as in, “How does he expect us to make that bodice?” And it’s the only element of interest to the dress. Mr. One-Way-Monkey. Art is not memorizing one brushstroke and putting it on every canvas. That’s Bob Ross territory. Entertaining as hell, and very sweet, but not art.
Alicia goes for a vintage Chanel look, which is interesting; a tomboy who likes Chanel? Tim thinks it’s a little Joan of Arc, a little Armor. Christian won with Joan of Arc, IIRC, and Jillian did a damn fine job with fifteenth century armor. That was then, this is now, and now is L&T and L&T don’t do Joan of Arc or armor. But Alicia loves the comparison, and doesn’t care that the judges are going to hate it; it’s better than a princess dress. Not so much, love. I think the collar would work better in a crisper fabric, maybe with interfacing or boning. It’s kind of a meh dress – the pleats don’t bother me, and yeah, I get the Chanel vibe – but the fabric turns it into a horror. Alicia’s excited about it, even with the mismatching halves in the back. She tells the judges she doesn’t do feminine or girly. Heidi thinks the dress is pretty (really? Maybe the fabric looks different in person) but doesn’t like what she just said about not doing feminine: “Don’t you guys think you can do anything and put your twist to it?” She wants the neckline dropped a little lower to give it some sexiness. L&T thinks it’s lost somewhere between the office and cocktail hour. Nina says the collar and dropped waist are too mature so it’s dowdy. Michael calls it a field hockey uniform. I see what he means, the johnny collar. A pleather uniform.
Gunnar likes this challenge; he understands L&T. Of course he does, his self-described target client is the older Southern woman. Elena’s jealous of the challenges breaking in his direction. He likes his fabric so much it hurts. Easy there, Gunnar. Tim loves the dress just walking up to the mannekin. Gunnar asks for reassurance that it’s not “an old casino dress;” I’m not sure what that is, but it seems he’s concerned about going gaudy and matador–y if he covers the whole dress in the sequined lacy fabric. Tim asks, “What does your gut say?” Oh, for heaven’s sake, Tim, what do you think his gut says? His gut says sequin the shit out of that sucker and add flashing lights and glitter pom-poms. Tim agrees. With covering the whole dress in sequin lace, not the lights and pom-poms. On the runway, he loves the chic, tasteful look; she could walk into any cocktail party. Who are these people who go to so many cocktail parties they need an endless supply of cocktail dresses made by aspiring designers? I hate the lace – too shiny – but the overall design is nice. Nina is bored with another sequined dress, even one as beautifully done as this. Michael scolds him for using the oldest trick in the evening dress book, sheer over dark. Wait – didn’t Fabio do the same thing and land in the top? L&T finds the lace stiff and lacking fluidity. Gunnar politely appreciates their feedback; backstage he admits he’s mad he’s in the bottom. See, now that’s how it should work.
Christopher wins. His gown – in polyester! – is on the L&T website. All that shredding he wants to be known for? I could be wrong (anyone in the know, please correct me) but it looks like they turned that into simple stitch-pleating. Enjoying your fame, Christopher? This is what happens when art meets commerce; commerce wins every time.
So we have Gunnar and Alicia in the bottom. You know they aren’t going to send Gunnar home, especially when a couple of judges called his dress beautiful. But… Alicia is in, and she must feel really good when she goes back to the lounge and everyone’s shocked to see she survived. Does that mean… but…wait…. remember Kooan? Aw, who could forget never-replaced Kooan. Still making his presence felt, because Gunnar is in, too. The judges felt everyone met the bar of this challenge so they are all staying in.
And, oh yeah, because next week they need three teams of three to go begging on the street for fabric, causing Dmitry to ask plaintively, “What did I ever do to deserve this?”