By Missy Schwartz
Updated July 30, 2010 at 05:31 AM EDT

Welcome back to fashion madness, now with 30 extra minutes! And just to stir things up around here, I’ve decided to acknowledge the new, supersized 90-minute Project Runway in inverse proportion. I’m trying to write shorter recaps than seasons past. May the pithy spirit of concision be with me!

So, onwards. In addition to the longer running time, the season 8 premiere messed with format a tad, with Heidi and Tim assessing the 17 (one more than the usual 16) contestants as they arrived via plane, boat, and train. Suitcases in tow, the designers made their way to the new home of New York Fashion Week, Lincoln Center (see ya, Bryant Park!), where Heidi and Tim told them each to choose one item from their suitcase. Why oh why did Casanova choose his $1070 Dolce & Gabbana pants? Couldn’t he see what was coming — that they’d each have to pass their chosen garment to the contestant to their right so that person could do what she pleased with it and incorporate into her own design? Apparently not. Oh, and the gang had just five hours to complete the project.

Of course, before they even got to that curveball, Heidi and Tim informed the contestants that they weren’t officially on the show yet, but rather in the final stage of the audition process. This was a big, fat untruth on the part of Frau Klum. If none of these people were on the show yet, then what were we all watching last night? I could have sworn I was watching the season 8 premiere with actual contestants. This “twist” really threw poor Nicholas (a.k.a. the new “Neek-oh-lass”) into an existential crisis. Twice he sat looking at the camera (which was on and recording) and fretted that he might not make it on the show. Nicholas, allow me to explain how this works: When the red light is on and the recorded footage then airs on national television, you’ve made it on the show.

It did come off as pretty disingenuous for Heidi to keep harping on the possibility that more than one person might go home when, in the end, just one poor soul from Utah with bountiful dreads and a penchant for side cleavage was sent packing. At least two others should have joined her. Which brings us to:

The Bottom Six

April The 21-year-old had one of the best bases to work with — Nicholas’ tuxedo jacket, which she hacked apart and barely put together again. The hem was unfinished and uneven, and Nina likened the whole look to 80s streetwalker. It was trashy, but modern enough for her to get a pass.

Nicholas There was nothing offensive about Neek-oh-lass’ shiny blue gown adorned at the neck with remnants from Christopher’s bomber jacket. It was just boring. Usually that conjures the death knell, but the judges sent him to safety. Good thing, too. Poor guy looked like he was about to burst into tears.

Jason The dude with the meant-to-be-intimidatingbowler hat (?) ogled his model’s bare chest and said he didn’t want to cross a line “like a doctor would” (ewww… and huh?). For all his talk of being a contender, he gave off an I-don’t-give-a-crap vibe, stapling together (!) his kimono/hairdressing cape and on the runway, giving a defense as limp as a wet dishrag. How did guest judge Selma Blair find the drabness interesting? Beats me.

Ivy Confession: I was surprised by the judges’ scorn for her outfit. (Small-town hick?) It was on the uninspired side, and despite her protests, it’s true that she really didn’t transform Peach’s passé pants. But still, bottom three seems excessive. Ivy exuded oodles of confidence at the top of the hour, but by the time the judges bitch-slapped her, she was singing a different song. Her newfound humility made me kind of like her.

Casanova As with all important matters in life, let us turn to Michael Kors: “She’s like a mother of the bride who’s a belly dancer. She’s a sexaholic, but she’s conservative. … She’s a pole dancer in Dubai!” Earlier, Casanova said he had taken New York “from the balls.” After witnessing his wreck of a handkerchief/bathing-suit-dress that was fit for a cheap hooker prowling for customers on the Lido Deck, I’m here to posit that it was the other way around. New York grabbed you, hermano, and I suspect you’re now running low on oxygen to the brain. And forgot what Nina said. Casanova’s design was not fascinatingly bad. It was just bad. Muy vulgar. Oh well. To quote the would-be Lothario himself, “S— happens.”

McKell Despite Tim’s early support in the workroom, McKell ended up the first bootée. Why? Because it’s a hard and fast Runway rule that the not-awful-but-kinda-meh must always get the ax over the so-bad-you-want-to-shield-your-eyes. McKell’s biggest problem wasn’t the girly blue dress itself, but her poor styling. High hair! Plus, she accessorized with a big red bag that, during the runway show, Christopher praised, but during judging, Nina lambasted. Oops. And my word, was it ever painful to watch the poor gal go back stage and deflect applause from her colleagues who’d assumed she’d made it through to week two. She even had to insist that no, she wasn’t “messing with them.” Awkward!

The Top…One

Gretchen Because Heidi was still insisting this was an audition, the judges didn’t bother naming a top three. In a unanimous decision, they just handed the win to Gretchen, the hippie chick from Oregon who made a cute little dress that looks like something you’d find in one of those hipster Lower East Side shops where they deconstruct and reconstruct vintage garb. With the glittery sleeves (incorporated from April’s blouse, which Heidi called “one of the worst materials to work with” — ouch) and fluttery opaque back, I’d say the dress deserved the win, even if no wheels were reinvented during the making of it.

As for those who glided into safety without a grilling from the judges — A.J., Andy, Valerie, Sarah, Peach, Kristin, Michael C., Mondo, Michael D., and Christopher — none of their designs really rocked my world. Mondo’s chevron dress with a bright green panel bordered on fug. On the upside, Andy whipped up cool black separates that could signal he’s a fast worker who can get that shizz done. I also liked Peach’s cute white summer frock that wrangled Michael D’s unwieldy knit scarf into shape. “Let’s hear it for the old lady,” the 50-year-old chirped when she made it backstage. I like her!

My biggest disappointment last night was that, despite the 30 extra minutes, I didn’t notice any major change in the amount of time we have to assess the garments as they come down the shiny, new black runway. How is this possible?! If the judges get new seats and there’s ample time to pimp Brother, Hewlett-Packard, L’Oréal, and the Piperlime accessories wall (can it be used as thoughtfully as the wall?), surely there’s a way for us study the clothes without hitting pause on our DVRs 100 times, right?

Other food for thought: Tim now does confessionals. Interesting. And Señora Garcia makes one hell of a translator.

Now, I’ll leave you with some questions:

What did you think of the premiere and this new 90-minute format? What’s your take on the changes? Which designers stood out for you? Did the right person go home? Should they have sent more than one person home? The show does get more interesting with fewer than a dozen personalities to juggle, right? Anyone miss Models of the Runway? (JK! Hahahahahahahahaha!)

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Project Runway

Karlie Kloss and Christian Siriano guide undiscovered designers through the harrowing rites of fashion.

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