The beginning of the eleventh season of Project Runway actually combines two shows: Road to the Runway, which introduces us to the designers and shows clips of their auditions, and the premiere proper. Road is hosted by Zanna Roberts Rossi and has Mondo Guerra (Season 8) and Laura Kathleen Planck (Season 9) serving as judges.
Zanna starts off by explaining the “twist” that everybody and their mother has probably heard about by now: The designers will be working in teams throughout the whole season. In the real world, fashion design is a collaborative process; nobody really works alone. Zanna then tells the viewers a little about the audition process, which spanned several cities. Aspiring contestants had to send videos of themselves and give interviews. They also had to bring a collection for the judges to examine.
The first group of designers seems to consist of people who have had relationship troubles of some sort. Emily Pollard, 24, hails from Falls Church, VA and is apparently hyper-competitive. She charmingly tells us that she views competitors as “enemies,” and that she’s basically destined to win. This despite the fact that she’s the second-youngest designer and has less experience than most of them. She also shows off a jacket with two collars at her audition.
Benjamin Mach, 35, was born in Sydney Australia and currently lives in London. His mother taught him to sew when he was nine. He bravely talks about having been in an abusive relationship. He likes period clothing. Michelle Lesniak Franklin, 34, lives in Portland, OR and had auditioned to be on the show the previous year. She works at home, which she says isn’t idea, because of the “distractions,” which include her pets and the mailman. She tells us she’s having affair with him– despite being married. Charming. Amanda Valentine, 31, lives in Nashville, TN, considers herself ambitious and competitive. She also prides herself on being the “black sheep” of the family and had left the Mormon Church when she was 14. She likes leather.
The next group are the unconventional designers. Patricia Michaels, 46, lives in Taos, NM– and arrives at her audition with a parasol in hand. She is inspired by Native American dress and even gave her own wedding dress a Native American flavor. She also makes her own fabrics. She’s divorced, as her husband had told her to choose him or her career– and she picked her career. Joseph Aaron Segal, 30, lives in Providence, RI. He likes knits and adores cats. He collects a lot of cat-themed knick-knacks and incorporates a lot of cat imagery in his work. Cindy Marlatt, 59, lives in Kent, WA. She grew up near Seattle in a poor family and learned to sew as a child. She used to be a funeral director and now wants to launch her own clothing line. Daniel Esquivel, 48, lives in Austin, TX. He turns up at his audition wearing shorts and patent leather shoes and shows of a voluminous black dress with polka dots. He had dropped out of school in the 9th grade and has had alcohol and drug problems. He also loves suits and hats.
Zanna describes the next group as the “pushy” designers. That probably means “obnoxious camera hogs.” Here’s hoping they’re either more tolerable than they sound or make quick exits. Kate Pankoke, 23, is the baby of the group and hails from Chicago, IL. Despite her youth, she had started her clothing line within the last year. Her specialty is bridal dresses and she has auditioned three times to be on Project Runway. She describes herself as a “psychological manipulator.” Richard Hallmarq, 39, lives in Sacramento, CA. He loves the sound of his own voice and goes on and on about something. At his audition, he shows off a garment made of lace that he’d painted gold. James Martinez, 29, lives in Dallas, TX. He talks about how he used to get bullied a lot– as did several of the other contestants. He likes suits and has given his sewing machines names. We may have found this season’s kook.
Last up are the “quiet” designers, who hopefully won’t lose all their screen time to the “pushy” folks. Layana Aquilar, 28, lives in New York City, but was born in Brazil. During her audition, she impressed Mondo by telling him that a piece he’d been admiring was made of the cheapest fabric she could buy. He responded that it didn’t look cheap at all. Tu Suthiwat Nakchat, 26, lives in Springfield, VA, but was born in Thailand. He was briefly a monk, but came to the U.S. and went to Parsons The New School for Design. Samantha Black, 28, lives in Brooklyn, NY. She likes menswear and uses it as an inspiration for women’s designs. She also likes colors, prints, and patterns. Matthew Arthur, 30, lives in New Orleans. He describes his clients as people who like to party and he incorporates drug imagery in the jewelry he makes. He knows a lot of drug users and worries about the possibility of becoming an addict himself. Last up is Stanley Hudson, 44, who lives in West Hollywood, CA. He arrives at the audition wearing a suit that he’d made. He has wanted to be a fashion designer ever since he was a child, when his grandmother gave him a copy of Vogue.
After introducing everybody, Zanna then asks the designers how they feel about working in teams. Inevitably, some people say they hate the idea. At least half the designers describe themselves as a leader. Unless the teams in questions are pairs, that’s not going to work very well. I can also guarantee that the older designers are not going to cede leadership to the younger ones. This season, only six designers are in their 20′s; the rest are at least 30.
On that note, it’s time for the actual premiere. The designers, as usual, arrive in New York City, but then they head straight for the runway. Layana from Brazil is the first to arrive and she tells us that she’s lived in New York City for the past three years. Michelle describes her style as “geek chic.” Daniel talks about how he’s had no formal training, which is often a drawback. Emily says she’s used to going without sleep and adds that the other designers may as well go home since she’s going to win. Benjamin talks about how he’d moved to London from Australia with 300 pounds in his pocket. He also likes “faded glamour.” Cindy tells us she went to design school– after having been a funeral director for 23 years.
Heidi and Tim come out on the runway and welcome everybody to the show. They then announce the twist: All the challenges will be team challenges. Cue the usual moans and groans, but some designers, like Daniel, are actually okay with team challenges. There will be two teams of eight. Daniel, Amanda, Patricia, Stanley, Kate, Layana, Joseph, and Richard form one team, while Benjamin, Cindy, Michelle, Samantha, James, Matthew, Tu, and Emily form the other team.
Heidi then describes the challenge. Each designer is to make an outfit that represents their own aesthetic– but with input from their teammates. New York City itself will serve as the designers’ inspiration. Daniel’s team will get a “far view” of the city from aboard a boat, while Benjamin’s team will get a “near view” of the city from the roof of Atlas Apartments.
Daniel’s team quickly christen themselves Team Keeping It Real. While they sketch and get to know each other over champagne, Stanley talks about how he’d been a T.V. costume designer. The team on the roof also get champagne and decide to call themselves the Dream Team.
Om the boat, Patricia talks about how she’s the first Native American to appear on Project Runway, as far as she knows. (I think she’s right.) She then startles her peers with a war whoop, prompting Layana to decide she’s “weird.” Richard admires a bridge and the Statue of Liberty.
Afterwards, the designers go to Atlas Apartments. Amanda and Michelle bond, despite being on opposing teams. Amanda describes herself as a “lone ranger,” and isn’t happy about being on a team.
The next morning, the designers head to the workroom, which has been split down the middle to give each group their own work area. Cindy and some others check out the accessory wall, which has been stocked by Lord & Taylor. Tim welcomes them, and tells them that each team will have a budget of $1200, which averages to $150 per contestant. The teams caucus, and then head to Mood, where they spend 45 minutes shopping.
Back at the workroom, the designers start work. Emily assures us that she will be in the Top 3. Somebody get this cocky idiot off my T.V. already. Patricia is dyeing and painting her fabric, which worries some of her teammates, who wonder if she’ll finish in time. Daniel notes that some of his teammates have poor construction skills and decides to help them.
Tim comes in to make his rounds. He talks to the teams, rather than individual designers as in previous designs. He also encourages the designers to critique each other. He starts with the Dream Team. Cindy had been planning to make a print dress paired with pants, and Tim and the rest of the Dream Team nix the pants. The general consensus is that Cindy should concentrate on making a dress out of her print. Emily, who has accomplished very little and is consequently starting to get nervous, has nonetheless planned to make a jacket and a dress. She’s told to concentrate on the dress, since she obviously won’t be able to make both piece in the time left. Over on Team Keeping It Real, nobody likes the sleeves on Kate’s look. She’s told to get rid of them.
When the models come in for their fitting, Cindy finds her dress is way too long. Emily has fallen very behind. Worse, to her teammates’ annoyance, she has tried to make a jacket anyway, despite being told to make a dress.
On the day of the runway show, the members of the Dream Team debate among themselves whether to help Emily or not. They don’t want to lose because of her, but they don’t want to carry a weak designer either. Cindy points out, “We do need to cull the herd.” Ironically, Cindy does help Emily, and makes a short skirt.
Tim comes in to send in the models. Before doing so, he advises the designers that styling will affect their overall score. They should therefore use the accessory wall thoughtfully. The models get dressed and go to hair and make-up.
On the runway, Heidi introduces the judges. The usual suspect Nina Garcia is back, but Michael Kors has been replaced by fashion designer Zac Posen. Michael will be back for the finals. Christian Siriano, the winner from Project Runway’s fourth season, is the guest judge.
Heidi then describes the prize package the winning designer can look forward to. These include 100 grand from L’Oreal, a 2013 Lexus, 50 grand’s worth of technology from HP and Intel, a fashion spread in Marie Claire magazine, and the chance to design and sell an exclusive collection at Lord and Taylor.
Team Keeping It Real is up first. Stanley made a sleeveless jumpsuit out a metallic dark blue fabric. Kate made a sleeveless beige dress with black trim. Richard made an asymmetrical black and gray dress. It has one long sleeve and one short sleeve. The collar and the skirt are also asymmetrical.
Patricia’s dress is deceptively simple-looking. It just looks like a sleeveless white dress with gray print– but some of the gray parts are actually square flaps. Amanda made gray pants and an asymmetrical blue top. Layana made a Little Black Dress that has lacing in the back. Joseph made a draped, sleeveless dress apparently made of swatches of yellow, beige, and gray fabric.
Daniel is the last to go, and he made a solid black outfit. It includes pants cropped at the knee and a top with mid-length sleeves that end a little past the elbow. The top also has a peplum.
The Dream Team is next. Matthew made a sleeveless ivory top and a brown print mini-skirt that flares out to the sides. Samantha made a sleeveless blue mini-dress. Tu made a mini-skirt with a matching top that has an exposed zipper down the front and a bare midriff. The ensemble is white on the front and black on the back.
James made a white tank top with a diagonal pleat on the front. He also made a color-blocked black and orange skirt. Emily made a messy-looking top out of translucent blue material. Her model also wore a very short black skirt.
Benjamin made a tan dress with a train. Cindy made a long print dress. The top part resembles a tank top. There’s also an odd, built-in sash with a red and white checkerboard pattern, that simply does not go with the brown and blue color scheme or the rounded shapes of the print. Michelle made a black dress with brown trim.
Heidi then announces that Team Keeping It Real is the winning team, while the Dream Team is the losing team. The winning designer will come from Team Keeping It Real, while somebody from the Dream Team will be sent home. The Dream Team goes backstage, while the judges talk to Team Keeping It Real.
The judges announce that Daniel, Richard, and Patricia are the top designers. They then start with Daniel, who was inspired by some of the buildings he saw. Zac likes the draped look of the outfit. Nina thinks it could work in other colors besides black.
Next up is Richard. Zac praises him for his use of asymmetry, noting that it is a difficult technique to use correctly. Asymmetrical garments can be unflattering, but Richard dodged that particular bullet.
Patricia goes on and on about how she was inspired by the windows in New York’s buildings. After (politely) telling her to shut up, Heidi praises her for her skill in manipulating leather. Zac likes the tactile effects of the design. Nina deems it a good idea to use a simple form. She also likes how the panels create movement.
The judges then turn their attention to the bottom three designers: James, Cindy, and Emily. James says he likes color-blocking and adds that his teammates had talked him out color-blocking his top. The judges all describe his look as “pedestrian,” “uninspired,” and “not special.” In other words, boring.
Emily admits that she ran out of time, but she doesn’t admit that 1) Cindy made the skirt for her and 2) the other designers all had the same amount of time as she did. The judges all hate the top, describing it as “shredded looking,” and “unfinished.”
Cindy tells the judges that she saw a checkerboard painting and had incorporated it into her look. Heidi doesn’t think it’s a good mix of prints. Nina doesn’t think the dress looks all that urban. (I agree: Checkerboard patterns, particularly red and white checkerboard patterns, look more rural to me.) Zac simply thinks the dress is boring.
The judges then have their chat. Heidi says she loves team challenges, as they force the designers to trust each other. Keeping It Real already seems to have gotten the hang of working together. As for the top designers, Patricia did a good job of manipulating fabric. Daniel accomplished a lot in one day, and the results were sculpted and detailed. Richard’s look was both urban and versatile.
As for the bottom designers, James’ look resembled something that could be found at the mall. Cindy’s dress looked like something from the 90′s. Emily’s look showed originality, but was still an ugly mess. As soon as the judges brought up Emily’s “creativity,” I started getting annoyed. Having a bunch of good ideas doesn’t matter if you don’t have the skills or knowledge to put them into practice. James and Cindy may have turned out boring looks, but they at least were able to make finished pieces within the time constraints.
The judges then announce their decision. Daniel is the winner. Richard, Patricia, and James are all safe, while Cindy and Emily are in the bottom. Cindy is in, so Emily and her cockiness are out.
Subsequent weeks: The previews show a European challenge, Heidi holding a goose, and Patricia breaking down.