Strange Brouhaha

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Project Runway recap

I don't know what fashion design is. Heck, I don't even know what design is--but in thinking about last night's (and last season's) Project Runway, I arrived at something that I consider a useful working definition: design combines functionality with an aesthetic sense, sort of the way that anybody can make an MP3 player but only Apple can make an iPod. In other words, it's a balance of form and function, not favoring one over the other.

(My friends who are professional designers of any stripe are free to correct me, of course, but that's the definition I'm going with. I have no idea how well or poorly it relates to fashion design, but we work with the tools we have, I guess.)

In that respect, I can understand, looking back, why Santino Rice didn't win season 2: he's not a designer. He's an artist whose medium happens to be textiles. Don't get me wrong, I loved his work. I responded positively to pretty much everything that he made, and I really liked his final collection. I was pissed that Chloe Dao's upholstery carried the day. But--Santino was all about aesthetics, and functionality came in a distant second.

Given that, Chloe was the natural choice for a winner; her clothes well-executed if ugly (at least to me and to Santino, who said "It looked like a couch coming down the runway"), and she was already a successful businesswoman with the maturity to understand the fashion world. The other competitor, Daniel Vosovic, had good-but-incomplete items, as I recall, and some questionable choices and non-cohesiveness in his collection.

Fast-forward to season 3, which concluded last night in a pretty emotional final episode. The winner, Jeffrey Sebelia, was one of my favorites this season, even though he was like an angry, charmless Santino. His designs were always interesting and you could tell that, of all of the designers, he was the one with A Vision: he never went to the same well twice (unlike most of the others) but you could tell that his work was his work. Even his bad stuff (ugh, the Madonna dress) came from a recognizable point of view.

The Internet is abuzz with horror that Jeffrey won, mostly because (or so it seems) Project Runway fans are divided into two camps: "Jeffrey is a horrible person because he made Angela's mother cry" and "Shut up, you idiots, she deserved it." You can guess which camp I fall into; there are times when you have to divorce the messenger from the message. Plus she did deserve it. The thing is, at least according to my functional definition above, there could have been no other outcome.

The final four contestants (Jeffrey, Michael Knight, Uli Herzner and Laura Bennett) were the best finalists the show has had in its three seasons. Each had their own strengths and weaknesses: Jeffrey was a great designer but a lousy person and prone to taking his aesthetic sense a bit too far; Michael had a great ability to think his designs through, but a lot of the times his thinking was just plain wrong; Uli worked extremely well with prints but her clothes had far, far too much sameness through the season; and Laura was a top-notch constructor but suffered from a dated aesthetic vision and, like Uli, a tendency to one-note.

I class Laura and Uli together: they are phenomenal makers-of-clothes. They are not designers. This is not a knock; I am quite sure that they will both have more work than they know what to do with. As Heidi Klum said, these are clothes that women will want to wear.

The problem, then, is that they both lean much more heavily towards the "functionality" part of my working definition of design. Laura's and Uli's final collections were filled with beautiful clothes (although when I saw Laura's first few items, all I could think of was "What year is this?", and Uli's first few items were all from the same dull color palette [she was telling a story with her clothes, though, so that ended up working well]). But they were clothes, and though they were very nice clothes, they were clothes first and foremost. Although Uli was, I think, trying to tell a story, there was no cohesiveness of vision in her collection or in Laura's. Yes, they made nice things--Michael Kors said that Laura's collection made $8,000 (the budget that each finalist was given for their collection) look like $30,000, and he was right--but in the end, they both made clothes, not designs.

Michael and Jeffrey were the designers in the bunch. They both had visions, and both presented designs instead of clothes. Michael, the fan favorite (I confess to not understanding why), sent some horrible crap down the runway, but you could tell that he had thought about it. His thinking was seriously, seriously flawed, but it was easy to see that he was reaching for something and that his clothes, while terrible, were wearable and were also at least trying to reach towards whatever his vision was.

Jeffrey sent out designs. Wearable, sure (maybe except for one dress), and distinct from each other, but also part of a cohesive whole that not one of the other finalists was able to match. They were functional, but function was not their primary object; they were brilliantly conceived and executed, but that was not the primary object either. Jeffrey's was the only collection that harmoniously balanced the two factions.

The final two contestants, at the judging, were well-chosen. Michael was swiftly and deservedly given the boot, as was Laura. It came down to Jeffrey and Uli.

There are people who say Uli was robbed. I can see where they're coming from, but I disagree. She concentrated on making clothes, and while her clothes did tell a story (it was neat; she started out with a fairly drab palette and segued into very nice prints, the way her life started out in East Germany and segued to Miami) they were still just clothes. Very nice clothes, but clothes. Project Runway is a design competition, and the best designer was Jeffrey. He combined wearability with design and a clear through-line.

The other thing I noticed was that they all, to a greater or lesser extent, quoted from their own work this season. Laura, in particular, seemed to have made variations of at least five of her contest challenges. Uli used the same print in her final collection that she used in one of her winning projects. Michael was clearly trying to recapture the "magic" of his Pam Grier outfit (which I didn't get; that thing never should have won). Even Jeffrey quoted his winning couture-type gown.

All in all, this has been a very interesting season. It has been the most bitter and acrimonious, but very satisfying to watch. Bring on season 4!


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