'Project Runway' finale recap: 'It’s a fashion show, not a circus.' [Updated]
Most seasons of "Project Runway" glide into the finale with a pack of evenly stacked front-runners; we watch curiously, not at all sure whose collection will take the lead. But this year seemed to tip severely in one direction: All signs pointed to Mondo.
Mondo started out the competition as a freaky loner. A tiny Latino dandy, his aesthetic was strong -- almost unbearably so, with his endless displays of mismatched patterns and wild, clashing color schemes. But he earned the respect of his fellow designers, not to mention the judges, who admired his clothes for being well-made and standing out amid the slightly disappointing selection this season.
And he had a deeply emotional story line, revealing in one episode that he'd kept a secret from his family for a decade: He's HIV-positive. "I feel free," he'd said after sharing this information with the judges -- and the world.
Mondo's only real competition was Gretchen, the boho-chic designer from the southwest who now lives in Portland. [Updated at 12:30p.m. This post originally failed to say that Gretchen now lives in Portland.] After winning the first few challenges, Gretchen fell into the role of villain -- an overconfident mean girl who manipulated her fellow designers. She squeaked through to the finale, but by the end she seemed like a burned-out shadow of her trendy earlier self. When Tim Gunn came to visit her at home to see her final collection, Gretchen revealed that she was not only broke but that she had split with her partner and now had no place to live. And though her looks were fine, they seemed so subdued they almost vanished into the woodwork.
The third finalist, Andy, had started out as a long-shot -- his clothing was willfully avant-garde without being all that surprising. And though he had gradually proved himself to be capable of making some lovely black-and-gray garments and taking some risks, his work was never quite as startling or playful as Mondo's.
The finale was Mondo's to lose. Right? Right?
Just as this season of “Project Runway” was different from previous seasons (longer episodes, more emphasis on emotion), this finale also had a very different feel. A mini-reunion with eliminated designers was incorporated here, instead of letting them battle it out on a separate episode. (Maybe the producers were worried there would be too much sobbing; has there ever been a bigger bunch of criers on any reality show?) The highlights of the season were kept to a minimum -- though who could forget Tim telling Andy during one challenge, "Jackie O would not have a cameltoe!" And the deliberation between the judges was shown at great length.
Who knew how tense a "Project Runway" judging session could be?
Tim, of course, had gone in and counseled all the designers to be their best selves. He told Mondo not to play it safe with a black ballgown but to choose the more Mondo-esque polka-dot long dress. He warned Andy off a "disturbing" bathing suit with brown strands of fabric emerging from bikini bottom. ("Tim thinks it looks like hair growing out of her crotch, but I just don't see it," Andy told the camera.) Tim's main advice to Gretchen was that she needed to make her models look less ordinary: to "pump up the drama."
And she did -- her "Running through Thunder" collection exuded a genuine aesthetic. Everything was muted and mellow, earthy and distressed like the colors on an old geological map. There was a vibe of '70s ease, with floaty blouses, knit shorts and loose pants, and big sunglasses and brimmed hats to ward off desert heat.
Andy's models came out out clad in delicate but distracting silver headpieces; almost every look was some variation on silvery silk, with a few shots of lime green mixed in. It was chic enough but not at all Andy's original, edgy style -- more Eileen Fisher than Yohji Yamamoto.
Mondo was last, explaining that his inspiration was his Mexican heritage, apparent in a Day of the Dead-style skull T-shirt embroidered with bright beads and a fuchsia-and-blue aztec-patterned tunic. As usual, his looks were a riot of clashing patterns -- an alpine shirt matched with gold leather shorts, a plaid bubble party dress -- that seemed just the right side of crazy.
As soon as the judges began to speak, it was clear that they weren't overly impressed by Andy. Heidi Klum called some of his work "sassy and a little more plugged in," but Nina Garcia worried that "you lost Andy somewhere in here." And guest judge Jessica Simpson told him that his pieces looked too safe. If Jessica Simpson thinks you look too safe, that's probably not good.
And it wasn't -- Andy was bumped from the running as soon as the serious deliberation began.
Which left Mondo and Gretchen. Nina expressed concern about Gretchen's monotone color scheme, but it quickly became clear that she was excited by Gretchen's clothes. "They're on trend," she insisted. "She's in tune with what is happening now." Michael Kors agreed. "It's not so easy to look that relaxed and easy."
Mondo, on the other hand, was not so relaxed and easy. "He wows me," Heidi insisted. But Nina found some of the looks costumey and young: "The skeletons and the leggings and the color ... it becomes too teenager." Backing Nina, Michael expressed concern that Mondo doesn't know how to edit a collection of wearable clothes.
"A black dress could have been his best friend," he sniped. (You mean the one Tim advised him not to show?)
Deadlock set in, with Heidi and Jessica up against Nina and Michael. Never has such an intense judging session been shown on camera. Was it genuinely tougher than usual, or were they just trying to fill two hours? Either way, the discussion got snippy. Nina sniffed, "It's a fashion show, not a circus!"
When Michael argued that Gretchen's looks were more cutting-edge, Jessica replied, "But everything is loose!" To which Michael trilled, "Hell-lo! Read a magazine!"
I guess you're better off with Michael Kors on your side than Jessica Simpson, because Gretchen prevailed. As Heidi went to hug the winner, she said, "It was a battle, and you won!" Did I sense a hint of irritation in her voice?
But it didn’t matter, because Gretchen had won $100,000 and got to do the "I won $100,000 dance." No longer the villain but the humbled impoverished designer made good, Gretchen said, "I have no idea where I'm going, but I at least have the ability to go."
-- Joy Press
Upper photo: Jessica Simpson, Nina Garcia, Michael Kors and Heidi Klum on the runway. Credit: Barbara Nitke / Lifetime
Middle left photo: Gretchen's design. Credit: Barbara Nitke / Lifetime
Middle right photo: Andy's design. Credit: Barbara Nitke / Lifetime
Lower photo: Mondo's design. Credit: Barbara Nitke / Lifetime