Tim visits the three finalists at their homes and previews their collections

By Missy Schwartz
Updated November 13, 2009 at 07:59 PM EST
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I am gonna go ahead and call it: last night’s episode was the best of the season. Not because it righted any of the wrongs that have plagued season 6 like a tenacious hairball (cough-hack-cough — shoddy judging! — hack-hack), but because instead of forcing us to watch ho-hum designs come into being, we got to spend almost a full hour with Tim Gunn. It’s a sign of how starved I’ve been for Gunn power that I beamed like an idiot at that shot of him doing a goofy booty-bump with Heidi behind the Project Runway screen. But that was a mere half-drop of serotonin compared to what came a few moments later: Mr. Gunn standing in Carol Hannah’s kitchen, wearing a flowered apron with red ties fastened about his chest (not waist) as he rolled out biscuit dough. Ah! The adorableness was just too much to bear! I rewound my DVR three times. Now I’m tempted to do a screen grab and send it in tocuteoverload.com. Argh! Adorable!

So. Ten weeks after bidding the finalists adieu in L.A., Tim embarked on his habitual tour to check in on the three ladies’ progress. First stop? Huntington, New York, which South Carolina native Carol Hannah now calls home. As she led Tim through an airy foyer and up the winding staircase to her workspace, I was taken aback by the spaciousness of her new digs.Woah, thought I. The little gal’s got some deep pockets of independent wealth if she’s moved into a house this size on a struggling designer’s budget. But then she explained that she was bunking with her friend Ellen. Ah. So perhaps not so filthy rich. Up in her studio, Carol Hannah (or CH as I’ve come to call her in my notes) explained that she’d stopped off at Duke University on her long drive to Yankee country and had been wowed by the ethereal beauty of the campus architecture lit up at night. So her collection would be heavy on the fairytale whimsy and, she promised, a showcase for greater versatility. Not just another series of evening gowns, but separates! pants! tops! Tim was digging it, except for the ”matronly” capelet that CH had paired with one of said gowns. Buh-bye. On to the reject pile with you, silky little grandma shrug. Don’t worry, you’ll soon be joined by a bizarro gold jacket in New York City.

Though it was snowing like mad, CH’s family left the warm climes of Charleston to meet Tim — would youpass up the chance? — and show him some Southern hospitality. Hence, the biscuits. Over shots of them all gathered at the dinner table (awww), CH explained that she was once an ”awkward kid” with ”long monkey arms,” braces and ”big, ugly glasses.” (Cue endearingly gangly photos. Who among us can’t relate?) She also said that she had no formal design training. Hmm… that rings a bell. Didn’t another recently auf’d contestant often use that as an explanation for his constant eff-ups? Anyway, the cozy meal gave way to CH walking Tim into the snowy yard, where they enacted a sweet goodbye that could have been a lovers’ farewell had it not been so obviously platonic. ”Love you,” Tim said, kissing her cheek. ”Love you, too,” she said, following it up with her usual nervous giggle. (Side note: Tim did not profess his love to Althea or Irina. Sneaky editing or a reflection of his real feelings?)

Next up was Irina who, it will come as a surprise to absolutely no one with a vague familiarity with the hierarchy of Manhattan neighborhoods or, you know, Gossip Girl, lives in the Upper East Side. Also not a shocker? That her itty-bitty dog is named Princess. For isn’t this season’s front-runner a bit of a princess herself? That said, the episode did reveal Irina in a more human light. She might live in a tony ‘hood now, but she was born in the former Soviet state of Georgia and grew up in Brooklyn. That borough’s most famous attraction, Coney Island, inspired her collection. We know that because she planned on using T-shirts of the iconic Cyclone ‘coaster. Or at least I think that’s why.

NEXT: Copyright issues

At the luncheon, we met Irina’s supportive, doting mother and not-so-encouraging, ”old-school” father, both of whom were subtitled, even though they spoke perfectly understandable English. The compulsive subtitling of non-native English speakers on reality shows really puzzles me, by the way. From Roberto Cavalli on Runway during season 4 to Allison Iraheta’s parents on Idol, it’s all a tad condescending. Subtitles or not, the Shabayeva message needs no extra explanation: Their daughter is living the American dream. And in her version of it, military-grade weapons are a must. ”Carol Hannah and Althea… are expecting me to take the big guns to Bryant Park,” she said. ”But I’m bringing a tank. I’ll take the whole army if I have to.”

Finally, Tim flew to Dayton, Ohio to touch base with Althea. After a jumpy ride in an old-school factory elevator that made him yelp (yes, adorably) ”Egads!”, he found her physically transformed with straightened hair. Lovely! And she has a boyfriend! Named Stuart! Althea explained that ”strong women” from sci-fi movies inspired her. Though frustratingly, we never learned which ones. Ripley? Trinity? Buffy? Pris? Huh? In any case, the poor girl barely had time to relish Tim’s words of praise for her oversized knits (foreshadowing!) before he responded to her plum-colored cloak with a look of dubiousness that we all know translates to: Althea, this concerns me. ”It looks too costume-y,” he said. ”It’s Edwardian era, but she’s visiting the Wild West! This can’t walk down the Bryant Park runway like this.” If it did, it would rip open a portal in the fashion time-space continuum, from which Ripley, Trinity, Buffy, and Pris would emerge, swathed in Old Navy clearance items and raging with fury from having been publicly exposed in such pedestrian gear. Or so the legend goes.

With just 10 days before Fashion Week, Irina weathered a drummed up moment of drama when Tim phoned her to say she couldn’t legally incorporate those touristy Brooklyn T-shirts into her collection. Bummer. But she had it all sorted it out by the time she arrived at the Grand Hyatt, where she reunited with Althea. The producers couldn’t help but remind us that the two gals could build an igloo out of all the emotional frostiness between them. ”I don’t trust Irina any farther than I can throw her,” said Althea. Just to drive home the ”it’s awkward!” point, the camera zeroed in on the two of them standing there like a pair of sworn playground enemies, while the usually jaunty soundtrack abruptly cut to silence. ”So what else is new?” said Irina. ”Um, not much,” Althea replied. Buuurrrrrr.

The only thing that could alleviate the tension was the arrival of Carol Hannah. Unfortunately, she was laid up with a nasty stomach virus that was — duhn duhn duhn! — contagious. Both Althea and Irina expressed their sympathy for their competitor… but not too much, of course. As Althea pointed out, ”To be honest, everyone kind of wants you gone. It’s a competition first and foremost.” So uh, get well soon, CH! And don’t mind us if we sit here toasting your barfing — d’oh! your recovery — with the champagne that Frau Klum sent over.

Ah, but spirited gal that she is, Carol Hannah made it to the workroom the next day, where she astutely remarked upon the ”oh…she made it” vibe of disappointment permeating the joint. Tim showed up shortly after to do his workroom check-ins. He encouraged CH to ditch the aforementioned gold silk jacket, then he sized up a gray silver coat with a pleated skirt and petal-ruffle collar: ”This is looking like maybe it’s not the same customer.” Funny that they didn’t subtitle Tim. Cause I could have sworn what he really said was: For the love of all things holy, girl! I know you’ve been sick, but ditch that hideous thing before I make like you and lose my lunch all over it!

NEXT: What was that about a sweater?

Althea didn’t fare much better with Tim. The sight of her ”matronly” sequined jacket practically made him shade his eyes in revulsion. ”Take that away!” he ordered. (Somewhere, sequin-obsessed Rachel Zoe is deeply offended.) Fwoomp. Off to the side it went. He did praise her knits and…hold on…wait a sec… I’m sure there was something else he enjoyed… Oh hell, the damn sweater was all Tim liked. He worried that the collection lacked cohesion, and just when Althea likely thought she’d provoked the last look of Gunn disgust, he cast an appalled glance on a set of staid matching separates. ”It’s borderline Hillary Clinton!” Poor Hillary. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit is not what brings down the house at Bryant Park.

By the middle of the episode, I realized we’d gone a full 10 minutes without a reminder of Sweatergate. And I started to fret. What? Had the producers forgotten about the biggest, most traumatic bit of drama ever to hit this show? (Sarcasm.) Oh no. We got this exchange:

Althea: It’s the exact same piece, my navy and your tan [sweater].

Irina: Yeah, ’cause you copied me.

Althea: Yeah…mentally? [i.e. from 600 miles away]

Irina: Althea? Seriously, what would you do without me? You have a good memory.

The silliest part about this silly retread of silly showdowns past is that it wasn’t even that bitchy. There was no fallout, no backstabbing follow-up comments, and no edited-within-an-inch-of-their-life deadly stares. So could it be that the gals were actually joking about the whole stupid thing and are just as over it as we are? Besides, both of them had much more pressing issues at hand. Althea had to lower the age of her target customer by 500 years, while Irina had T-shirts to explain (”I do like Madonna!”) as well as her freakish disdain for color. What does this woman have against hues that are not black, gray, white, or beige? ”It’s black, black, black,” Tim remarked of her collection. Not even Nina (who made a surprise appearance in the workroom with Michael to offer the finalists last-minute words of advice) could convince Irina to broaden her palette. ”Color just doesn’t really fit into what I’m doing in this collection.” What? I thought she was doing Coney Island! Did I miss the New York Times story explaining how it had become the go-to destination for reenacting mass Pilgrim funerals?

As the end of the hour neared, I kept waiting for Heidi or Tim to wander in and announce the final twist that’s become a part of every penultimate Runway episode. Well, we got it. Heidi broke the predictable news that they’d have to whip up a 13th look before D-day. But lo! They could take heart, cause they’d be getting help from their colleagues. Enter Christopher, Gordana and Logan, who paired off with, respectively, Carol Hannah, Irina, and Althea. So much for her vehement, Zippergate-inspired declaration: ”I. HATE. LOGAN.” Oh, the time. It really does heal all wounds, doesn’t it?

And so, after a trip to the original Mood (so nice to see you again! And you too, little dog named Swatch!), the episode wound down ominously, with Carol Hannah bowing to the porcelain god in her hotel bathroom. The poor gal won my full sympathy. How dreadful to be preparing for the most important moment of her professional life while feeling like death. The clips for next week suggest that she’s not fully mended by Bryant Park. If that’s the case, then her story can only end one of two ways: She’ll be brought down by her illness or she’ll bravely vanquish it to win the whole damn thing, underdog style.

Having attended the finale in February, I have my own opinion on who’s gonna get the crown, but what do you think? Is this season still Irina’s to win? Will she and her Georgian tank roll in through funereal Coney Island to crush her competition? From what we saw of the finalists’ collections, whose did you like the best? Is anyone up Chic Creek without the proverbial paddle? And should Swatch and Princess get their own show?

Dalton and I will be back following next week’s finale with three (three!) new episodes of Project RunwayTalk. In the meantime, check out a refreshingly candid Gordana (below).

[Sorry, video no longer available]

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

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