Tuesday, March 30, 2010

An outfit by Emilio Sosa using a print of his own design

At the start of last week’s Project Runway, with seven of the original 16 contestants still remaining, I told Krishna that I thought I could tell who the final four should be, but not necessarily the final three. The seventh season of PR has a strong group of designers, much more so than in the show’s rocky & unsatisfying sixth round, the lone season filmed in LA rather than Manhattan. I’m not certain that any of last season’s designers would still be around if dropped into the current pool of wannabe Alexander McQueens & Stella McCartneys. Conversely, there were at least eight designers in the current group who, had they been in the Season Six mix, should have ended up in the top three, the numbers we are told who show in Bryant Park. What we are told, because of the narrative requirements of the TV series, now in its second season on Lifetime after six on Bravo, is not what people see in the tents of Fashion Week. In order to keep from revealing who has been eliminated before it is actually shown on television, PR has had to show work from some contestants no longer in the running. Because of ragged timing created by the move from Bravo to Lifetime (and the accompanying suits between the two networks), this season’s runway show actually took place when there were still ten contestants. The buzz I had heard from the Runway fan blogs was that people in the tent had actually liked the work of Anthony Williams best. And I had him down as one of my Final Four, along with Emilio Sosa, Seth Aaron Henderson & Mila Hermanovski.

So imagine my surprise Thursday night when Anthony Williams was eliminated.

It’s a shame, not because Williams is the strongest designer in the world – he’s not – but he is great TV. In a tradition that began with Jay McCarroll, Austin Scarlett & Wendy Pepper in Runway’s first season & has continued with Santino Rice & his thermonuclear ego, Andrae Gonzalo, Chris March, & Christian Soriano in more recent years, PR has had a steady stream of personalities that just blossom in front of a camera. Williams, an African American from Birmingham, Alabama, dresses modestly but verbally is ever so flamboyant & undyingly an optimist. After he was “auf’d” by show host Heidi Klum, Anthony went around cheering up everyone else who was feeling blue about his departure. I can imagine him doing a glorious red-carpet fashion police commentary on E! some day.

Nor is Williams is the first eliminated contestant whom many commentators thought had the strongest runway show at Bryant Park. Scarlett, who finished fourth in the first season, not only got similar commentary, but has gone on to be one of Runway’s most successful alums professionally. The other really successful alum has been Kara Saun, whose client roster of A-list celebs starts with Heidi Klum.

So now the series is down to just six of the original 16 contestants, and Anthony’s departure has changed my thinking about the final three. For one thing, I don’t think it’s a contest for the final three spots. Rather, I think it’s two parallel contests, with two slots going to male designers, one going to one of the two remaining women. On a level playing field, it’s conceivable that there would be no women among the finalists, but, having moved the show from the “gay channel” to the “women’s channel,” I can’t imagine that the shows producers would be so tone deaf as to let that happen.

The two male finalists should certainly be Emilio, the Dominican-born, Harlem raised designer who has won the most challenges thus far into the season, and Seth Aaron, a San Diego native who practices his punk-flavored work from Vancouver, Washington (a suburb of Portland). It’s not that Jay Sario, the Philippine-born, San Francisco-based, or Jonathan Peters of Providence, aren’t talented. But Seth Aaron & Emilio have generally stood out all season long, tho Emilio also survived perhaps the worst single outfit any designer has ever attempted to send down the runway, a “one piece bikini” made up of washers bought in a hardware store that left his model more or less naked on the runway. Seth Aaron has only once had a piece that was in the lower scores from which the eliminations occur, and his look is consistent & has an edge that the Runway judges have tended to like a lot over the years. Right now I think Seth Aaron is a slight favorite to win the whole shebang.

But the person who I think has the best chance of sneaking in & winning it all is 22-year-old Maya Luz, the lone contestant who, to this point in Season Seven, has never once won a week’s challenge. She has also never been in the low group facing elimination. In a sense, her season has run parallel to that of Jay McCarroll, who won the first season without ever first winning a challenge for any of the weeks leading up to the finale. McCarroll’s post-Runway struggles have been documented – literally, in the superb film 11 Minutes – especially when contrasted with the success of Scarlett (who won two of the individual challenges that season) & Saun (who won four). If Maya gets all the way to the final three without winning a single challenge, this might hurt her with the judges later on.

Mila was the person I thought was most likely to win earlier in the season – her sharply tailored suits generally look terrific. But she has been among those facing elimination for three consecutive weeks & seems to have lost her way. Also, her absence among the finalists would mean that everyone in the televised portion of Bryat Park is at least 38-years old, which is probably not the age bracket that Lifetime is hoping to attract.

The one big variable I can’t foretell is the impact of the Bryant Park shows themselves. Given some time to produce an actual collection – and not being told that they have $50 and one day to produce something from materials found in a hardware store – some contestants shine whereas others have tended to stray. Kara Saun’s final collection in Season 1 proved too safe, a charge nobody has ever made about Jay McCarroll. In Season 2, Daniel Vosovic won five of the 11 weekly challenges – still the PR record (& only Kara Saun has won 4) – but lost out to the more experienced Chloe Dao who had a better sense of how best to construct an entire show. And experiece definitely helps. Of the eight original contests this season who were in their twenties, six are already gone. Of those age 30 & above, half of the original eight still remain.

At this point in Season 7, Emilio has won 3 challenges, Seth Aaron & Jay have won 2 each (a total that includes a week when Emilio & Seth both won a team challenge, the first time PR has declared co-winners), Jonathan & Mila one apiece, Maya none. That should make Emilio a slight favorite, but I don’t have as strong a sense of an overall aesthetic from him as I do from Seth Aaron, but as I say my inclinations at this moment aren’t super strong. Nobody stands out as strong as, say, Christian Soriano did in Season 4 (tho Christian won just three of the weekly challenges). Which means that we’re at the woulda, coulda, shoulda stage. There are at least four contestants remaining who would be credible winners, maybe three who conceivably could win, but nobody ultimately who flat out should.

Project Runway’s ancillary spin-off, Models of the Runway has also benefited from the move back to New York. Or, maybe, midway into the new series’ second season, the producers have finally figured out how to get into the young women & make them seem more three-dimensional. Still, it is evident that none of these women gave up a career as a surgeon to walk the runway, and it’s questionable how many of them really hear – even as Heidi Klum & some of the other famous models who turn up on this series reiterate it over & over – the lesson that the most successful models are not the most beautiful, nor the thinnest nor the tallest, but the hardest working & most prepared. Nor is the model who “wins” by being paired with the winning designer apt to be the best, either. In fact, that certainly won’t happen since Holly Ridings, easily the best of this season’s lot, was eliminated a couple of weeks back when Emilio Sosa switched to another model (Klum glowered at Sosa, dumbfounded by his decision). The remaining models knew it too. Their lot in some ways is harder even than the overworked, stressed out designers with whom they’re working, in that they can be sent more or less literally bare-assed down the runway & end up being “auf’d” because they were paired up with a clueless clothier. If the essence of Project Runway’s success is letting creative people be creative – a remarkably untested idea in the world of television – a season of Models of the Runway ought to persuade any impressionable viewer that this can be a grueling & unfair profession. I’d rather load trucks in a warehouse.