TV Article

The Judges' Day Auf

On ''Project Runway,'' rather than narrowing the contestants down to three for the Fashion Week finale episodes, the panelists give Michael another chance

Project Runway | THE CHOKE'S ON HIM In the most important challenge, Michael suffered ''brain freeze''
Image credit: Project Runway: Mark Abrahams
THE CHOKE'S ON HIM In the most important challenge, Michael suffered ''brain freeze''

''Project Runway'': A final-four elimination twist

This week's interesting, awkward, complicated semi-climax of Project Runway ended with a surprise — instead of a final elimination, all four remaining designers learned they'd be presenting collections for Fashion Week and competing for the money, the car, the magazine spread, and, most important, the chance to sew some elastic into their 15 minutes of fame. Massive cop-out? Not really. The twist made sense for a couple of reasons. First, it acknowledged that we still don't know enough about Jeffrey, Laura, Michael, and Uli to know which of the four, if any, will be able to turn from competitor into creative genius. And second — let's face it — the decision saved Michael from going home.

This episode's simple and scary hurdle was engineered to demonstrate that there's a world of difference between mastering a specific oddball requirement — a doggie dress, a garbage gown, a sartorial tribute to Pam Grier — and having the vision and instinct that make a real designer. The challenge was to be yourself, whoever you are. And the upsetting result was that Michael, by far the youngest remaining competitor, choked, exposing the one flaw that his splendid week-by-week work has concealed: We still don't know who he is yet, and neither does he.

Michael's dress was bad. It's that simple. Not Vincent or Angela bad, but a clear dud: a silky purple gown that belonged on one of Tony Orlando's backup singers in 1977. Though Michael is usually an expert at adding a flattering finishing touch or contrast, this time, all he could offer was an interwoven torso and a window-into-Hooterville ''keyhole'' top (apparently for a really big key). As Michael himself aptly put it, he had ''brain freeze'' at exactly the wrong moment: Asked to let his imagination run wild, he opened the gates...and it stayed in the backyard.

The other three contestants fared better. Laura stuck to her strengths: beads, a muted palette, a sternum-baring neckline, and a sleek silhouette. And Uli's dress, hailed as a triumph by the judges, was still very familiar: An appealingly trippy print, a summer-wind sense of flow, and smart borders. What truly distinguished it was Nazri, the stunning model Uli swiped from Michael, and an unheralded star who, frankly, seems more ready for the big leagues than any of the designers. Nazri never has that ''Oops, I forgot to eat for three days'' vacant stare; she always owns the catwalk and the clothes. With apologies to Tyra Banks, I think we've found America's next top model.

That left Jeffrey's red-white-and-blah dress, which the judges, for once, weren't buying any more than I was. Jeffrey tried to sell it as ''romantic,'' but with all that bunching and the puckered bottom hem, it looked more like something the Sun-Maid Raisin lady would wear on date night. The dress had pretty much the same flaws as Jeffrey's other clothes: It was costumey and slightly coarse, and it seemed to express irritation at the shape of a woman's body. For a straight guy, Jeffrey doesn't seem to have much use for the female form. (Remember the red box-top Madonna dress? And the pageant dress built for two?) Given the narcissism he's displayed, it's no accident that the single best outfit he designed this season was for himself.

And yet, to my utter shock, there's not a contestant in the final four whose runway show I'm more curious to see. Here's why: Of all the remaining competitors, Jeffrey has been the least comfortable fit for Project Runway. He doesn't particularly like the other designers. The challenges annoy him. He's arrogant. He chafes at restrictions. And he has absolute faith in his own talent. In other words, Jeffrey may be more suited to be an actual designer than to be a reality-show contestant. And, of the four, he's the one most likely to use the extra time and money he got to design his Fashion Week line in order to run free. Whether it'll be a jump into the stratosphere or a dive into the deep end of an empty swimming pool, I don't know. But I'm curious about where his unfettered inventiveness will take him. By contrast, for better or worse, we can probably already guess what Laura's and Uli's collections will look like. And although Michael may surprise us, his youth could mark him as this season's Daniel Vosovic — a superior designer who's still a couple of years away from being ready to go out on his own.

Of course, this is something that we can all begin to judge with a bit of Googling, since, in an odd bit of ''reality''-vs.-reality timing, the actual four-way Fashion Week runoff has already happened, and has been treated as important news by venues including The New York Times and The Washington Post. I'll hold off on commenting until the finale airs. But the newly intense coverage underscored the uneasy place in the fashion world that Project Runway now occupies. Like American Idol, it's a phenomenon that's grown so huge that the industry it celebrates can no longer deny its importance. The on-air presence of Vera Wang, Richard Tyler, Catherine Malandrino, and Zac Posen this season, like the appearance of Prince on last season's Idol finale, added up to an unmissable signal that nobody in the biz can now afford to say they're above benefiting from the show. But do they take it seriously? For that to happen, Project Runway itself needs to rise to the next level; so far, none of its contestants have become stars on their own. My gut tells me that for that to happen, we'll have to wait for season 4.

What do you think? Which eliminated contestant would you like to see get a second chance next season? Who'd make an ideal guest judge? And what's your dream challenge?

Originally posted Sep 28, 2006