A Condensed History of Project Runway
In honor of the finale of the most recent season of Project Runway, the first half of which airs tonight, I am counting down some of my favorite challenge outfits of all time. Some of these outfits were wins, some got commendations from the judges but lost to an outfit I didn’t prize as highly. The judges didn’t, at least not that I remember, trash any of them (although one was made from trash, hee hee). I won’t pretend that I haven’t occasionally loved something to which Heidi or Michael or Nina was indifferent, however.
Note: I wrote this entry a few weeks ago, and waited to post it to coincide with the finale. I had chosen my top ten and I really didn’t think that any amazing outfits were going to creep in there in the interim. I was wrong! So I am opening my top ten favorite Project Runway outfits with an honorable mention from last week.
11. (honorable mention) Emilio’s circus dress
Damn that Emilio! He has one of the biggest egos that has ever appeared on Project Runway and that is SAYING SOMETHING. He has been driving me crazy this entire season, becoming more and more inflated with self-importance with every one of his wins (and there’s been many) and in last week’s episode, he was grandstanding as much as ever. Sets my teeth on edge, that kind of behavior.
But did you see the dress he made? Holy crap.
The challenge was to make a fashion-forward outfit that was “circus-inspired.” Two designers sent ridiculous costumes down the runway, and two of them kind of boring outfits in circus-y colors. Only Emilio did exactly what was requested (and won the challenge without any hesitation on the part of the judges): he made a dress that was beautiful on its own, but which also was reminiscent of the circus (the stripes, the polka dots, the trapeze-y poof of the skirt). “It looks like the circus! And it’s BEAUTIFUL!” That’s what designing is about, isn’t it? (Now just quit giving Tim lip, Emilio! He’s there to help!)
Having dispatched of that, let’s get to my preexisting top ten!
10. Sweet P’s denim dress
This season four challenge was to create an outfit made entirely out of repurposed Levis. One of my favorite designers from that season, the strangely loveable biker chick Sweet P, started out envisioning a long, flowing denim wedding gown. But when Tim Gunn suggested it was too “hippie-dippie,” she chopped it off at the knee and made the most adorable Little Blue Dress you could imagine. Michael Kors said it had “voodoo” and Heidi chimed in, “Slimming voodoo!” She then said that any of them would be eager to wear it, though she couldn’t speak for Michael. He replied, “Well, with the right shoe…”
Why it didn’t win: Branding. The guest judge, a VP from Levi’s, complained that it wasn’t recognizable enough as Levi’s. They instead gave the win to crying Ricky, who was gone the next week.
Click ahead--unless you have dial-up, in which case don't bother, because there are pictures galore!
9. Laura’s “for nuts only” dress
The third-season challenge was one of PR’s harshest—the designers were let loose in a recycling plant to gather materials. People made dresses out of paper and plastic and canvas, struggling to properly shape those materials into something that looked like clothes. Laura Bennett, the red-headed socialite who eventually hit the top three, used a peanut sack to drape a cute little white frock, and accessorized it with black electrical tape. What the picture (which is the only one I could find online) doesn’t show is that the sack, which was stamped with the phrase “FOR PEANUTS ONLY,” had been painstakingly pleated by Laura so that the back of the dress bore the cute expression, “FOR NUTS ONLY.”
Why it didn’t win: Well, Michael Knight was on an upswing already when he made a gorgeous dress out of plastic wrap (see it on the left). For Laura’s part, she performed so consistently well that she cracked the top three on almost every challenge without winning until the 10th episode. Probably the judges knew she wasn’t going anywhere, and they’d get to reward her eventually.
8. Kara Saun’s postal worker outfit
A classic episode from the first season of PR, the five designers still standing were tasked with redesigning the uniform of the US postal service, balancing fashion with practicality. If you’re wondering how much of the outfit was “pre-existing,” as far as we were shown, the designers were only given the postal service patches, meaning in the 1-2 days of the challenge eventual second-place finisher Kara Saun whipped up two shirts, a fleece vest, a hat and a pair of pants. I believe this is the episode where eventual first-place finisher Jay teased Kara for being such a fast worker, saying something along the lines of, “Hi, I’m Kara and I just made outfits for a family of four. I also shot and edited a documentary film about it.”
Why it didn’t win: It did. The judges loved that it was practical but not masculine, and indeed it does have a slouchy charm about it. Also it’s notably the closest outfit on this list to something I would actually wear.
7. Angela’s updated Audrey Hepburn
Again from the third season, in one of my favorite challenges ever devised by the PR staff. They collected together photos of ten fashion icons (Madonna, Cher, Jackie Kennedy, etc.) and then, via a hilarious and madcap elbowing match, had the models choose which icon they wanted to be and present it to their designer. The trick was that the designers had to update the look, reenvisioning it for the present. Wackadoo Angela was very excited to get Audrey Hepburn (um, who wouldn’t be?) and made an edgy, sharp modern dress that still had the sleekness and style of the lovely Audrey. Please notice some of Angela’s legendary fleurchons around the hem of the dress.
Why it didn’t win: Probably it was too sedate. You can see the winning outfit in the picture above, an aughts-era Pam Grier look that popped in pink. A classic LBD, even with that much texture (and a significant amount of bare chest) really can’t compete. Heidi really liked it, though, and requested “one in every color.”
6. Chris and Christian’s avant-garde look
In an amazing episode from the fourth season, the designers were asked to create an avant-garde design—it didn’t need to be functional, and it didn’t need to make sense, it just needed to be eye-catching and beautiful. Oh, and it needed to match a particular hairstyle, for whatever reason.
Christian Siriano and Chris March, an adorable pair who are both still getting design work, made this dimensional concoction out of fifty yards (!) of organza and chicken wire. It’s not my favorite, because I’m contrary like that, but it looks like a work of art. It looks like Paris or Milan. It looks like it belongs in a museum. And they made it on demand, in two days!
Why it didn’t win: Oh, it did. Project Runway may have never before or since seen an outfit this spectacular.
5. Jillian and Victorya’s avant-garde look
In the same challenge, Jillian and Victorya—two seemingly uptight, straight-laced women—had to make an outfit based off a ponytail-mohawk. Victorya said she was going to make something post-apocalyptic and punk, and I laughed. And then the two of them whipped out this thing—this amazing, billowy trench—worn over a pair of riding pants and this cute blouse that, in this picture, you can’t even see. Their model stomped down the runway and ripped that jacket open, and you know what? She looked like a warrior. A pink plaid warrior.
Why it didn’t win: Well, see # 6. That’s what they were competing with. It seemed really close, though. Both teams were lavished with praise. One of the most incredible episodes in PR history, actually.
4. Epperson’s western look
This was from a weird challenge in the much-maligned sixth season. The designers were brought to a movie lot (this season was the only one set in Los Angeles) and asked to create a design based on a film genre and create a story around it. Nobody—including the judges, maybe—was sure whether they were supposed to reenvision the genre or whip up a straightforward costume for it. Epperson, a middle-aged man with dreadlocks the likes of which no one has seen since Bob Marley, drew “western” and confessed that he had literally no idea what he was going to do. And this is what he came up with. This gorgeous garment, made out of denim, cotton and leather, that is somehow both hot and homespun.
Why it didn’t win: I really don’t know. That’s why I remark that the judges didn’t seem clued into the challenge. It made the top three, but lost to Nicolas, who made a sci-fi-based white fairy. I admit, Nicolas had a great story, and the fairy thing was well-made. However, it just wasn’t as special as Epperson’s. It kind of sucks for Epperson, who made the best outfit in the worst season, and then was soon after eliminated. But I remember it! Like the Alamo.
3. Korto’s seatbelt coat
In one of the more punishing “Fabric? We don’t need fabric!” challenges in PR history, the designers were set loose on piles of car parts and asked to make fashion-forward outfits out of them. Korto, already a front-runner (she eventually came in second) took a mess of seatbelts and wove them intricately together to craft this shiny, gorgeous coat.
Why it didn’t win: Well, as impressive as it is that this coat was made from seatbelts (for real, seatbelts!), it is kind of a classic design. It lost (arguably for good reason) to Leanne’s leather little black dress, which was both flattering (you know, on a model) and strikingly different.
2. Kara Manx’s flower dress
In season two, the six designers were asked to make wearable clothes out of materials entirely procured at a garden market. (They were allowed to use one fabric element—white muslin—so long as it was entirely covered.) Kara’s halter dress is full of exquisite little details—notice the back of the bodice, which is from a wicker basket, and the braided trim. So pretty!
Why it didn’t win: The judges complained about the excessively green outfits that walked the runway during that challenge, saying they had all expected to see explosions of floral beauty. Kara nodded to that idea with the purple flowers on the bust, but eventual second-place-finisher Daniel took home this challenge by forming a bodice out of orchids (maybe?). I guess if purple = pretty, then more purple = more pretty.
1. Jillian’s Met dress
It might not look like much in a still photo, but I am in love with this outfit, and, honestly, every time I see this episode is on, I sit and watch just to get a glimpse of it. The challenge, from the fifth season, sent the designers to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they were asked to design an outfit based on a work of art. Jillian, perhaps still relishing her success with the avant-garde warrior coat (see # 6), chose to base the outfit on Scenes from the Story of the Argonauts, creating a military-style black coat.
Why do I love this? I just don’t know. I love tailored stuff, the angles, the shapes. The jacket has got amazing detailing on it—the episode pulled in for a close-up on the back of the coat where Jillian had put these miniscule little cut-outs that were just gorgeous. So gorgeous that guest judge Roberto Cavalli said he would love to hire her. I also adore the contrast of the coat—black, militaristic, masculine, heavy—and the dress—short, flirty, sparkling in gold. I remember vividly that Heidi commented that Jillian was very timid speaking to the judges, but that her designs were “ballsy.”
Why it didn’t win: Christian Siriano, that little minx! He and his ruffly, androgynous creations ultimately proved to be an unbeatable team.
Well, there they are. Not everybody's top ten, no doubt. Still, a pretty good record of seven seasons of celebrating the creative process, I think. Yay, Project Runway!