The season finale of ''Project Runway'' comes down to a choice between Uli's discipline and Jeffrey's creative disorder, and the most audacious designer wins

By Mark Harris
Updated October 19, 2006 at 12:00 PM EDT
Project Runway
Credit: Project Runway: Mark Abrahams

The ”Project Runway” finale: Fashion wins

Well, you knew it was coming. In an ending that reflected Project Runway‘s taste for compromise, the contestant crowned as the winner —

Oh, sorry. That was the lead I’d prepared if Uli won. Let me rephrase that.

Holy crap. They gave it to Jeffrey!

Not since Richard Hatch in the first season of Survivor has a reality-show contestant been so reviled, so often, by so many (okay, by me) and emerged victorious. Jeffrey Sebelia, creator of clothes that are fascinating and hideous, provocative and repellent, fashion-forward and taste-backward, is the winner. Out of the 15 contestants who started this season, he’s the only one who will get to follow in the footsteps of Jay McCarroll and Chloe Dao and perhaps go on to reach the height of success in the fashion industry: the chance to be a guest on future seasons of Project Runway.

At the beginning of this episode, I thought the fairest way to judge the collections would be to pretend I had never seen the show before and just look at the clothes, the clothes, the clothes. (That tedious ”he cheated/no he didn’t” nonsense isn’t going to get any more play here.) With that as the goal, it wasn’t a surprise — and it can’t have been to any of you — that Michael finished a clear fourth. Although there were some strong pieces in his collection, the gold-plated Russian-Internet-hooker bathing suit alone would have knocked him out of the winner’s circle, and besides that, it was just too much. Too much booty, too much hoochie, too many lace-up fronts and look-at-me silhouettes, and too much of a young man’s belief that sexy and in-your-face are always the same thing. Since Michael himself admitted that he was on a journey to find out who he was as a designer, one can’t blame the judges for pointing out that he still has some looking to do.

One can, however, blame the judges for their treatment of Laura. To my eyes, her lineup of sheer black lace, beads, fringe, feathers — even that Dynasty homage of a fur-shouldered gown that looked like a trophy wife had just slaughtered her prize and thrown it around her neck — was all luscious, boozy-glam fun. To quote Heidi, ”When you buy any of those dresses, you have them in your closet forever.” So what put her out of contention? The tired old ”We don’t see you growing” argument. What’s wrong with this line of thinking, aside from its slight whiff of ageism, is that Laura got to the finals by being herself and was then penalized for not turning into someone else. I thought she stretched plenty with several dresses that nobody could call old-lady clothes except in the fashion industry, where ”old” means older than Veronica Mars.

That left Uli and Jeffrey, and as clear a choice as Project Runway has ever had. Uli was shrewd enough if not to grow, then to pretend to appear to grow, which on TV is the same thing. She kept her breezy-beachy style while for the most part shelving her wild prints in favor of a more urbane, upscale tan-and-silver palette. The clothes were uniformly attractive, but nothing that would make Nina Garcia squinch up her nose and say ”adorable!” (Kudos, by the way, to Ms. Garcia, for being virtually the only person on Project Runway who never cries; she is the Clint Eastwood of Bravo.)

Jeffrey, by contrast, grew and grew and grew, in every direction at once. White polka dots on red? Check. Sexy striped halter dress? Check. Bizarre zipper-covered green-and-white frock? Check. Sexy blue minidress? Check. Body-widening practical joke of an open-fronted gown? Check.

So it was dogged, nervous Uli (”She’s a worker,” said thoughtful, temperate guest judge Fern Mallis, in praise so faint only dogs heard it) vs. Jeffrey, for whom every chance to make a dress is a trip to his own interior circus. And who deserved the win?

Jeffrey, of course. Come on. That was a great collection, maybe even because of some of its mistakes and excesses. Consistency is for the other 51 weeks of the year; Fashion Week, and fashion, is about beauty, but also about taking daring leaps, making grand gestures, creating fascinating tensions between colors and textures and fabrics and lengths, and expressing a vision, and this time, Jeffrey nailed it. While Uli stuck so closely to her script that the same brown-and-beige zebra-striped dress almost appeared to go by twice, Jeffrey’s clothes flowed intriguingly into one another, and created exciting friction. Was that an iridescent raincoat over his red and white swimsuit, followed by the same fabric hidden under a gauzy baby-doll dress? And didn’t the dots seem to morph elegantly into the series of striped dresses that followed?

Using cropped jackets, form-fitting pants, and sleek silhouettes to create a sense of continuity, and restraining his appetite for adding the one thing too many that always seemed to turn his clothes into punchlines during the season, Jeffrey managed to show off his ideas and his models. Of the four, he was the only one who seemed less interested in pleasing the judges than in being himself — and that’s as good a criterion for picking a winner as any.

Is Jeffrey a jerk, or was it all in the editing? Beats me. Happily, Project Runway is not a personality contest, no matter how much fun it is to pretend otherwise until the finish line. I look forward to reading your take on his victory below, and offer humble thanks to all of you who have posted this season. You kept me on my toes, and made sure that — to quote Heidi one last time — I was neffer bort.

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Project Runway

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