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Were I presented with this week’s Project Runway challenge—take $2,000 worth of toys and transform them into couture—and set loose in FAO Schwarz, I can almost guarantee any thought of the “unconventional materials” challenge would vanish from my mind. I would waltz out of that wonderland with my Barbie Polaroid camera and my rock tumbler and a racetrack for my husband, and you would not hear from either of us for at least the ensuing 24 hours. I would neglect to procure one single scrap of fabric for the article of clothing I’ve been tasked to create. These Project Runway designers, however, managed to stitch stuffed panda bears into a stole.
As the remaining designers navigate their way around a seemingly endless supply of floor pianos at FAO Schwarz this week, Christian reminds them of the luxury houses already making toys chic: Thom Browne with teddy-bear top hats, Moschino with pool floats, even Gucci with Furbys. (Christian refers to these unironically as “gremlins,” a remark I took personally.) With their $2,000 in hand, these folks go predictably nuts: They fill shopping bags with magnets, playing cards, boomerangs, sand buckets, stuffed dinosaurs and unicorns and bears, keychains, tents, puzzles, tea cups, kites, beach chairs, wooden pepperoni slices, propeller hats, crayons, baby rattles, and about 11,000 of those floor pianos. (Seriously, why so many floor pianos? Is this all thanks to Big?)
In the workroom, they settle into something like controlled panic, which is Project Runway’s default state. The designers have two days to complete this week’s task, and Christian is already doling out some savage feedback. After he tells Fabio his playing-card minidress is boring, Fabio devotes precious confessional interview time to inform us that Christian’s critique was “maybe a little too dry for me. Could have used a little lube.” Got it, thanks for the pro tip.
Still, there’s something lovely and sweet about how well this cohort seems to get along. Episode 3 has remarkably little spice to offer; the most heated remark comes via Hester, side-eyeing Fabio and Brittany for their decision to use glue guns. (“I think a truly good unconventional look doesn’t need a glue gun.” Sure, I guess!) But apart from Viktor running around begging for extra boomerangs—and apologizing to Korto for how he treated her during season 3—the in-fighting is nonexistent. Maybe it’s the fact that my stomach knots itself into a pretzel shape anytime anyone starts yelling, but I like all this old-fashioned kindness!
My second-favorite moment of the episode (we’ll get to No. 1 in a bit) happens when Christian confronts Anna about her work in progress. Their exchange is worth reproducing here in its entirety.
“Anna, what is this?” Christian asks, eyeing what appears to be the wrinkled bedsheet thrown over Anna’s model.
Anna replies, cheerily, “This is the back from the piano, and she will have a hat, and also a baby swimming float, and a pacifier.”
Christian’s face here is priceless. I want it framed. “… What?”
“Why? She’s a baby?”
Here, Anna—bless her beautiful heart—promptly bursts into tears. “That’s my baby’s moments!” she cries. (From my understanding, it seems her design was intended to honor her infant’s biggest “moments,” thus the pacifier and pool float.) To the room, Christian proclaims, “Oh my God,” not once but thrice. After walking himself back from the edge of a mental breakdown, he pulls Anna aside and tells her she can’t send her baby’s moments down the runway. She needs to go “dark and sexy and avant garde,” to which she replies, chipper once more, “Okay. Thank you!”
My favorite moment arrives when the designers unwind at a wine bar that evening, during which Anna slips away to FaceTime her partner and her baby. After the brief chat, she returns to her fellow competitors and announces, “I called my boy, and I did not cry!” and literally the entire bar cheers. This is the kind of Bravo television I’m paying for! She then proclaims, “I’m gonna cry now, but I don’t want to cry in front of you.” A+ to the producers.
After the usual frenzied prep on runway day, the designers meet this week’s guest judge—Alice + Olivia’s founder/CEO Stacey Bendet—and the show begins. Here were my initial thoughts:
- Viktor: This is what the 2019 Met Gala theme, “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” should have gifted us. Viktor’s banana-yellow and sorbet-green coat-dress looks tremendous. I wasn’t sure about the dragon heads anointing each shoulder when he first presented the idea, but in the context of the finalized piece, they’re incredible. The boomerangs shaped into scales are impeccably placed. It’s miraculous how much the ensemble looks like a fully finished design, ready for a red carpet.
- Fabio: The silhouette of Fabio’s playing-card dress is intriguing, and I’m impressed the look made it down the runway in one piece. But the stiff construction and absence of other colors and materials makes the design feel too safe.
- Prajje: Prajje is in redemption mode! His retro-futuristic plastic jacket, pants, and bandeau combo are gorgeous. The creative flourishes of paint sprayed against overlapping textile prints, paired with the smart styling of sunglasses and a bold red lip … This feels like something a Hollywood starlet would wear to a rock concert, and take all the eyes off the band.
- Hester: The big silver boots are doing a lot of the heavy lifting in Hester’s look, but I still think the red fur stole and magnet belt make up for it. Together, the components—especially the toy cars on each shoulder—add up to a great outfit; it just doesn’t have the wow factor of some of Hester’s competitors.
- Anna: Even in her less audacious moments, Anna’s technical skill is so evident in her every design, and this one is no different. Forget baby moments (at least until her tears are dried)! The stitching precision in this ruffle-on-ruffle bronze gown is remarkable.
- Korto: Jackets are the real winner tonight. I love the textile Korto crafted from floor piano scraps for her jacket and miniskirt, and the fringe piled on each sleeve adds delicious texture. The overall idea feels moody and skater-chic, but still playful enough to fit this challenge’s “whimsical” requirement.
- Bishme: I love the sculptural shoulders and “antennae” branching off from Bishme’s top. Paired with the sci-fi goggles and the graphic corset, the whole look is vaguely steampunk meets Spy Kids meets Blade Runner at a Versace show. Is that a thing? It should be!
- Brittany: As expected, Brittany’s creativity perfectly fits the whimsical bill. The cotton-candy colors of her mosaic bodice, the stunning ruffle skirt, and the use of lace-up sandals and a bow choker as accessories … I mean, there’s a reason why Stacey gives a little smirk as the look comes down the catwalk. As Brittany herself says, “You would never know that that’s shredded tent and tea cups.”
- Kara Saun: OMG SO FUN. Kara Saun’s macaroon top is one of my favorite pieces of the night, even if it’s completely impractical because I’d want to eat it every time I tried to slip it over my big head. The manner in which her umbrella skirt connects with the batwing-like cape is, ugh, fantastic. Plus the accessories are perfect: The bucket hat, oversized sunglasses, and stuffed puppy in a crossbody bag are like TikTok come to life.
- Laurence: Oh, gosh, I wanted to like this one so much. But it’s clear Laurence spent so much time on her chain-link hood that she more or less forgot about the actual … outfit. The resulting dress feels shapeless and thoughtless, as much as I want to applaud the inventiveness of that hood.
- Rami: I like the zany textile Rami’s intertwined out of plastic pieces here, and the way he turned a kite into a dramatic asymmetrical moment is a thrill. That said, I don’t think the cocktail dress itself is particularly unique, nor does it seem well-constructed enough to avoid the judges’ ire.
- Mila: This one’s killing me. I’m in love with what Mila’s skirt could have been. The aquatic-colored puzzle pieces connected like beadwork are part of a brilliant concept; they’re immediately eye-catching as they shimmer down the runway. But the skirt is unfinished, and the stuffed-animal fur top is clearly an afterthought.
- Kayne: I’ll be honest: My first thought upon seeing Kayne’s look is, “Bibbity Bobbity Boo.” His baby-blue rain poncho situation is leaning a bit too far into Fairy-Godmother-gone-wrong. But I should know by now to trust Kayne’s instincts. In mere moments, Godmother transforms into Cruella de Vil (er, “Pandamonium”) in a smoking-hot mermaid gown. Even the bizarre panda-bear boa works. It’s a delight.
Finally, Stacey, Elaine, Nina, and Brandon pick their favorites—Prajje, Kayne, Brittany, Viktor—and their bottom three: Mila, Rami, and Laurence. Viktor takes this week’s win, and it’s Mila who’s forced to go home, a let-down I watched with no small degree of shock. That skirt had so much potential! It only needed time!
But, as we established at the beginning of this recap, I have little control over my own toy-shopping urges, not to mention the outcome of Project Runway. And I have it on good authority that this season ends with the right outcome. As Elaine teased during a pre-premiere interview with ELLE.com, “We’ve now seen 20 seasons of this show. There are some designers who are more memorable than others, and our job was to choose the number one, best of the best, the one that we will be talking about for years to come. And I think that we did that.”
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.