"Project Runway": The rundown

Did Rami, Christian or Jillian carry the day? Join Salon staff as we discuss the "Project Runway" season finale.

By Salon Staff
Published March 6, 2008 1:00PM (EST)

Yes, we're as into Bravo's "Project Runway" as you are. So we've gathered a group of Salon staffers to weigh in on Wednesday night's season finale immediately following the show: Whose Fashion Week collection blew our minds? Whose just blew? And did the best designer win? We'll have our say, and then we hope you'll have yours in our letters thread. We'll spotlight the most interesting reader responses throughout the day on Thursday.

Salon contributors include Joy Press, culture editor; Amy Reiter, deputy editor, A&E; James Hannaham, staff writer; Caitlin Shamberg, multimedia editor; Mark Schone, news editor; Sarah Hepola, Life deputy editor; and Heather Havrilesky, TV critic.

BEWARE: Spoilers ahead!

Press: I've been in the Christian-loving camp all season, a sucker for the impish, self-invented 21-year-old Anglophile with a goth streak and a whiplash tongue. But when the judges announced the winner, I found myself in a state of shock: Christian won! Christian won?

The fact is that I just didn't love his runway collection. And I had steeled myself for the worst when, at the start of this finale episode, Christian (without a shred of his usual cockiness) told Tim Gunn, "I'm not saying they're all wearable ..." Even worse, he had ignored Gunn's earlier advice to pare down some of the ornamentation. I mean, after four seasons, everyone knows that the Golden Rule of "Project Runway" is Listen to Tim. Christian's collection was nothing if not funereal froufrou, a little too ruffled to be fierce. It was as if his models had walked out of a parallel universe in which Victorian dominatrixes swanned around in spaceships.

Jillian, on the other hand, who earlier in the competition had seemed too safe and conservative and, well, Ralph Lauren-ish, came into her own in this final collection: She had sharp, wearable shapes, a perfect diagonal between cute and edgy. Whereas Christian located the edge and toppled over it. But in a way, I'm glad -- Christian is a winner in the ambitious, visionary lineage of O.D. (original designa) Jay McCaroll and I'd much rather see "Project Runway" err on the side of messy drama than elegant perfection.

Reiter: I'm with you, Joy. Ultimately, I'm glad Christian won. All night, all I kept thinking was: He did it all in a closet! Seriously, would $100,000 mean as much to any of the other contestants? (But the car? Is he even old enough to drive yet?) Christian may be only 21, but he really does seem to have suffered enough for his art already.

Unlike you, though, I wasn't always solidly in his camp. I flip-flopped between Christian and Jillian like, well, like Jillian flip-flopping on which models to use. And I really felt bad for her tonight. I mean, there's no question that she had the most accessible collection. I would wear almost all of her clothes -- that is, I would wear them if I were shaped like one of her models -- and between her startlingly humble Long Island roots (how big a surprise was it to get a gander at the knickknacky, mirroriffic home she grew up in after looking at her sophisticated designs week after week?), the whole destined-for-greatness trip her mother laid on her growing up, and her bouts of indecision and flashes of self-doubt, she really had me rooting for her going into the Fashion Week showdown. I have a soft spot for neuroses, what can I say?

And Rami, I loved that he finally really showed the judges -- and us -- a little range. And yes, yes, the workmanship was incredible: the antique lace, the woven bodices. Also, his tribute to women when he stepped out onto the stage to introduce his collection was touching, particularly after watching Christian bark at his ultraskinny models and warning them not to eat. But though a few of Rami's pieces looked "effortless" -- to use one of the judges' words out of context -- a few others just looked downright peculiar. The gold lamé number had a funny bulge somewhere along one of the thighs, as if the model were carrying an apple with her in case she needed a mid-catwalk snack. And although I wouldn't call that strange blue and red he used in his collection "Brady Bunch" colors, as Michael Kors did, I wouldn't call them remotely appealing, either.

But Christian, well, yeah, I guess he kind of deserved to win. No surprise, really, that he was the judges' favorite in addition to the fans'. His designs had a certain power -- OK, maybe we should call it a "fierceness" -- that sort of bowled you over as the models marched down the runway (those poor models in those challenging shoes; no wonder they looked so angry as they walked). And if Victoria Beckham was sold -- and, excuse me, was she moved to tears? -- who are we to question a little overworked "funereal froufrou," as you so aptly put it? Their lovefest? That was major!

Hannaham: It wasn't really a surprise that Christian won, least of all to the imp himself, as he characteristically quipped at the end. But the editors certainly deserve a Saturn and 100K for making it seem as if there might have been some doubt. This was the first episode where Miss Thing seemed at all unsure of himself, though this time he didn't have to work the sewing machine like a paddleboat, whereas Jillian spent the entire season shouting "I'll be there in a minute!" And while his conquistador chic didn't impress Joy, and to me some of the pieces felt too similar (though none as stewardessy as Rami's first two), you could tell exactly how it would go down judging by the adjectives the judges used to describe each of the finalists. Rami was "cerebral" -- a no-no in fashion; Jillian got "feminine," which translates to "commercial, but didn't wow us." But they couldn't stop using the word "drama" to describe what Christian served up. That feathered gown was jaw-dropping, the neck ruff and the hat ensemble very playful and over the top, ditto that shorter skirt that made the model look a little bit like she'd been stuffed inside a Philly cheese steak. Contrary to Joy, I think Christian was right to go against Tim's wishes for the finale, because his audience included the entire fashion world, including, perhaps, some of his Euro mentors. Nina, Michael and even Heidi seemed so much smaller in importance when stuffed into the context of the larger fashion world. They began to seem vestigial, especially with Victoria Beckham weeping her eyes out over Christian's work. That queeny little pixie always had his sights over the judges' heads, and he knew that above and beyond putting together fierce clothing, he also had to keep the viewers in stitches.

Watch: "Project Runway" at Fashion Week

Shamberg: How much do you think personality played in picking a winner? Joy, maybe Jillian overcame her Ralph Lauren bent, but she's just so whiny! And I'm just not so sure that that Christian deserved to win. I do think he's the most talented -- a brilliant, young, formidable, Posh Spice-approved genius. But he didn't need the win, even if he was living out of a closet in a tiny New York City apartment and could use $100,000. He's only 21 and he knows he will be a designer. He's plucky and confident. I like him, but he is at the very beginning of his career. The kid has time to grow a label (and to learn how to drive a Saturn Astra).

Out of all the contestants this season, giddy Chris was the only one I'd invite to my birthday party, even if he came dressed in human hair. Christian would hog the iPod and complain when I didn't have "Escapade" on my playlist. Jillian would dig around in my medicine cabinet for Advil, and Rami would bum smokes off the cool kids. He totally smokes. Fire up your TiVo, watch the penultimate episode -- there's a cigarette and lighter clutched between his fingers while the four of them are hanging out on the sofa.

But I dug the smoker! Why did he have to lose? He had those dimples and his humility (he "celebrates women")! He has that cute giggle, and felt it was his calling at age 5 to be a designer! At age 5! (Even Obama didn't know he wanted to be president in kindergarten, or did he?) Rami rocks. His clothes are classy and tailored. He has exquisite taste and meticulous craftsmanship. So what if he chose "Brady Bunch" colors. His gowns were pure magic and he was robbed!

Jillian needed this the most. Her designs are "marketable" and kind of ugly. Although she grew more confident as the show progressed and made some pretty coats, she also crafted that hideous gray sweater with the oval cutouts -- so very Nordstrom.

James, you're right. The editors did a brilliant job, cutting, trimming and fitting the show. I witnessed the uncut "Runway" show at Fashion Week back in February. In order to maintain the suspense of the last two episodes, five designers were there -- the three finalists, plus Sweet P and Chris. For the sake of television, I think that's OK. Everybody knows reality television isn't real anymore. It's still awesome. The real-life experience was much more lo-fi than the Bravo production, but the crowd's joy was palpable.

Schone: Caitlin, Rami does not "rock." He has never "rocked." That would be too spontaneous. Nothing he does is spontaneous. Everything he designs makes me think of Vanna White in that Greek goddess movie. And Jillian is not whiny. She is vulnerable, and adorable. And they just edited the show to make it look like she was always late. Over and over. Every week. I think.

At my house, the weekly viewing party includes a "Project Runway" reject, a talented would-be designer who failed her audition and got yelled at (!) by Saint Tim Gunn for not wanting it badly enough, but still feels blessed just to have been in the Presence. As soon as Christian's first model tottered through Posh Spice's glassy gaze our house reject called the match in Christian's favor. "Posh is going to love it," she said. "It's so her." She meant theatrical, costume-y, otherworldly, cut for an alien with no waist and Barbie tits. Not so many minutes later, Posh told Christian, "Because it was so me, I loved every minute of it!"

We were, I confess, a Jillian-positive crew here in Brooklyn, especially after the exposure of her echt Lawn Guyland roots last week. She was more self-invented, and thus more laudably driven, than I would have supposed. But we had to admit her collection was scattershot, a wan departure from her own '70s meets '40s, narrow-waisted aesthetic. Rami, meanwhile, was as dull and colorblind (if precise and cohesive) as ever. In truth, calling it for Christian was easy. He was always that kind of hinterland phenom that the show loves, a born oddball who fled to the nonjudgmental safety of the local hairdresser, the Bubbles salon, at age 13. I wasn't rooting for him, thinking of him as a Supercuts refugee with a limited vocabulary, but he got to me when the producers edited some self-doubt into his shtick in the opening minutes of the episode, and then, at the end, when he dissolved in a puddle of tears. I was reminded he's just a kid. And though the women in the house agreed they'd be most likely to wear Jillian's clothes, Christian's clothes were art, even if the art looked like it tortured the wearer. With his talent and his persona he has a shot at becoming an instant, recognizable brand. Or at becoming Jay McCarroll. But either way, he'll be fine.

Havrilesky: It's true, sister Christian was made to rule "Project Runway" with a wink and flirtatious pout. I always sort of wanted him to win, too, even though I couldn't tolerate those awful '80s ruffled, cropped jackets he kept churning out in the first few weeks and I found his sniping a little tiresome. I really admired his low-key, make-it-work efficiency most of all, particularly when Jillian was mincing and moaning and just generally being a great, big, wishy-washy bore.

But I loved poor, anemic Jillian's clothes! The odd shapes were interesting and fun, the palette was a million times more sophisticated than either Christian's black and brown parade or Rami's queasy, shiny mess, and there were so many little well-crafted touches that caught my eye and made me think, "That's odd, but I would wear it in a heartbeat."

Whereas only Posh Spice would dare to wear Christian's fierceness. "You really made me smile," she told Christian, "and I'm not easy to make smile." Did she mean that it's physically impossible for her to smile? Because all I've ever seen is that same expressionless mannequin face that Katie Holmes is starting to imitate so well. Of course this odd bird in her signal-orange poncho-dress adores Christian's ruffled, witchy-poo designs!

And I don't understand why anyone liked Rami. I thought he was the Chloe Dao of Season 4, with his terrible mall fashions. When all of his teal and raspberry satin-clad models crowded onto the runway at once, I felt like I was 15 again, drank a bad Orange Julius and wandered into the Merry-Go-Round by accident.

Ultimately, I agree that it boiled down to personality. Who wants no-nonsense Rami or drippy, dreary, destined-for-greatness Jillian when we can have saucy, demented Christian instead? Take his departing words: "I'm, like, really excited, but let me tell you, I am taking, like, a vacay. I need a breaky break!" We might need a little breaky break, too, before we get more of the so-called fierceness, but it's clear that sound-bite-friendly, overconfident whippersnappers are the winning predators of the reality ecosystem.

Hepola: You know how I knew Christian was going to win? Because I hated his collection. And because every damn season, when I watch the runway show, I say to myself with a smug confidence, "Wow, so-and-so kinda blew it, and this other person kicked ass!" And I'm always wrong. I'm like an Opposite Day predictor.

I find this weirdly comforting about "Project Runway." Not that it reminds me I know little about fashion -- because no one who wears so many hoodies needs to be reminded of that -- but how it reminds me of the subjectivity of art and taste, because one man's jaw-dropping feather gown is this woman's weird chicken costume. For the record: I thought Jillian's collection was a mishmash and a snooze. The only clothes I really responded to were Rami's intricate, woven gowns. As I read through these posts, there was part of me saying, "No, no, that's wrong!" And yet, there was a part of each item that made me recalibrate my own judgment, made me see each collection in a new light. Truth is, I'm never much into the finales anyway; I like "Project Runway" better when they make dresses out of tissue paper and licorice. I'm in this for the razzle-dazzle. On second thought, bring on the chicken costumes!

We all understand why Christian won. Even though I preferred Rami's collection, I also thought, "Oh, but he can't win. He's so boring!" Christian owned the season. He's a classic "Project Runway" character; somewhere, Santino is twiddling his handlebar mustache in envy. I've always liked Christian -- because throughout the season, I found his clothing, and his banter, the most interesting -- but like Mark, I also appreciated that underneath all the bluster and the brattiness there was a little boy wanting to be liked sooo bad. And dang, he won that fan-favorite prize money, too, huh? Well, somebody's got to pay for all those flat irons.

Salon Staff

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