The top 18 finalists must go one-on-three with the judges to become contestants.

Project Runway Recap
Credit: Barbara Nitke/Lifetime

All Stars and Under the Gunn were nice placeholders, but let’s be honest: A year is too long to wait for Heidi and Co. Although it didn’t see the return of King Kors, this season has some big stakes: It is “lucky season 13” as Tim Gunn says with a very weak fist pump. The winning designer’s prizes include an opportunity to design a fashion accessory for Red Robin servers (probably along the lines of this) and international hotel accommodations from Best Western. With all that on the line, it’s no wonder that Korina and Mitchell already have their claws out.

Returning to a season 9 scheme, 18 designers were brought to NYC to show their fashion lines to the judges; only 15 continued to become official contestants. Like a lightning round, we met all 18 before the commercial break:

•Korina Emmerich, 28, Brooklyn, NY; inspired by her American-Indian roots

•Sandhya Garg, 28, Birgmingham, AL; uses the middle finger in her prints

•Jefferson Musanda, 25, Brooklyn, NY; integrates his hip-hop background into fabric movement

•Emily Payne, 40, San Francisco, CA; is a mom and has her own children’s line

•Sean Kelly, 25, Brooklyn, NY; has a “sophisticated eye,” so speaketh Nina

•Emmanuel Tobias, 29, Dallas, TX; “I design for girls like Kylie and Kendall Jenner”

•Char Glover, 37, Detroit, MI; single and ready to mingle

•Kristine Guico, 26, Brooklyn, NY; has a “secure” rack, according to Zac

•Alexander Knox, 22, Chicago, IL; avant-garde

•Mitchell Perry, 25, Fort Lauderdale, FL; “the shorter the shorts, the closer to God”

•Nzinga Knight, 33, Brooklyn, NY; “one note”

•Tim Navarro, 32, Minneapolis, MN; muse is a middle-age lesbian

•Carrie Sleutskaya, 24, Los Angeles, CA; futuristic copycat

•Hernan Lander, 33, New York, NY; was forced to show looks that weren’t on loan to J-Lo (read: he’s a name-dropper)

•Samantha Plasencia, 27, San Antonio, TX; “urban-y” as the people in Texas say

•Kini Zamora, 30, Kapolei, HI; a denim man

•Fäde Zu Grau, 45, Coral Gables, FL; likes to club like Janet Jackson

•Angela Sum, 32, Los Angeles, CA; the definition of Plain Jane

Out before it even begins: Tim, Nzinga, Emmanuel

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The following day, the 15 contestants gather in the Parsons workroom, where they are given the product placement tour: an Aldo accessory wall—is this a step up or down from Belk?—a Brother sewing room™, and the fully stocked “food showcase refrigerator” by Samsung. But the designers are more concerned with who the Runway Redemption winner will be; cue Amanda Valentine, whom Sandhya voted for only because her brother is Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine.

Tim Gunn gives them their first task: to design one look from a spring/summer collection with five pre-selected fabrics—but they can beg/borrow/or steal, minus the steal. After 24 hours of everyone stressing—except Korina because she lives for it, Mitchell because he’s too hot to care, and Amanda because she has a new outlook on Project Runway life—the designers have to get their models to the Mary Kay makeup room and the Philip B. hair salon. Surprisingly, aside from Angela having to iron the top while her model is in it, there aren’t any major time-constraint catastrophes.

Heidi introduces guest star Julie Bowen—who is oddly a wise yet harsh critic—and also informs the contestants that the Tim Gunn Save is back in action. Last season, Tim enacted his save in only episode 6, but Justin LeBlanc ended up being third overall. As the one person in the trenches with the designers for the past 10 years, it feels right that he’s finally getting a voice; hopefully his pick this year will again make it all the way to Fashion Week, proving what we all know: Tim is the wisest critic of them all.

The middle ground was a grab bag of dresses, pant suits, geometric shapes, and floral prints, the highlight being Carrie’s realization that her dress was futuristic as it was going down the runway. Good designers don’t always share the exact same qualities, but being able to identify elements in your own design is probably a good skill everyone should have.

The top and bottom designs were not as high and low as we usually see from the season premiere. Yes, Mitchell’s shorts were something any high school home ec student could make, and yes, Jefferson’s way-off-proportions got him a “WTF” from Nina (deservedly so, since his initial description was akin to a reverse mullet: “open in the front, closed in the back”), but this show has seen some outstandingly bad designs (see: here, here, and here). And, on the other hand, nothing was as notable as the cream of the crop we’ve seen out of the gate in seasons past.

Char and Amanda crack the top three, but Sandhya comes out on top. She’s not hard to root for; her win might be controversial with her fellow contestants, but she is a graceful winner.

Angela’s “instead of calling them slits, I’m going to call them sluts” pants land her in the bottom three, but she continues on. In the battle between terrible shorts, Jefferson is the loser, which means we get to see more of Mitchell’s Technicolor South Florida-wear next week.

Best contestant line: “I want them to be blown away by my body of work, not my body… it is rocking.”—Mitchell

Best Tim Gunn line: “You might need to give your model a grooming assignment.”

Best Julie Bowen line: “As a human who’s had children, the crop top still makes my mind explode… with fear.”

Follow me on Twitter: @realdalener.

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