Project Runway Season 19, Episode 8 Recap: Couch Couture

After I published last week’s recap, a Project Runway season 19 contestant—who will remain nameless to protect their privacy—reached out to me, taking issue with a criticism I’d made about one of their designs. Of course, I reserve the right to criticize as both an enthusiast and a reporter, but our ensuing conversation was enlightening for a key reason: It reminded me these designers are not reality TV stars.

Unlike in many of Bravo’s other projects (most obviously The Real Housewives franchise), most of Project Runway’s contestants don’t join the program so they can become Instagram-famous or celebrity influencers. They come because they want to make fashion, and they want the prestige and notoriety that Project Runway, supposedly, brings with it. They want what Christian Siriano achieved after his win: the chance for their brand to blossom into a bona-fide fashion house.

The problem is that Project Runway—and, by extension, the greater fashion industry—all too often falls into the trap of its own flash. It’s easy to forget the contestants are real small-business owners, struggling to get by, when the bulk of an episode focuses on their dramatic meltdowns. Remember, too, we only see a small glimpse of the fashion portfolios these competitors have spent decades curating, and if one hastily compiled look doesn’t happen to fit our taste (or, more importantly, the judges’ taste), then that shot at PR-induced success suddenly, anti-climactically dissipates.

These critiques, at this point in television history, are passé. We’re all watching a reality show. Of course it’s unrealistic. And yet I don’t think the designers themselves approach the experience that way. For them—and certainly for the designer I chatted with—this competition feels as if it’s balancing on needle-thin stakes.

And so we come to episode 8, which featured two eliminations I found absolutely heart-wrenching for the reasons I’ve outlined above. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Here’s where the whole song-and-dance went wrong.

This week, Christian introduces us to a quarantine-inspired challenge: cozy-chic. The designers will have one day to assemble an elevated loungewear look that’s comfy yet luxe. Think satin joggers and cashmere sweaters, not bedazzled sweatpants or organza hoodies. Their fabric choice will be paramount to their success, Christian points out as they descend on Mood with $400 and 30 minutes to shop.

The designers have plenty of personal experience to draw upon as they hunt for the perfect material. A behind-the-camera interviewer asks what each contestant wore during lockdown, and all have good answers, though the reigning response goes to Prajje (“I spent most of my time in my house, naked. I mean, it’s just me, what’s the point of wasting clothes?”), followed shortly by Bones (“panties and durags”). At Mood, Prajje immediately obsesses over a pattern adorned with abstract naked women, while Kristina gravitates toward a pile of gorgeous blue-hued silks. When asked if she has an unexpected element to add to her collection, she gives Christian a wry smile and reveals her smoking gun: She’s going to make a quilted coffee cup to accompany her robe-dress. In the immortal words of Christian, it’s “fabulous.”

Cyndi Lauper and Geoffrey Mac with Shantall.

Barbara Nitke/Bravo

In the workroom, season 18 winner Geoffrey Mac and icon Cyndi Lauper materialize to dole out their own advice. In general, they find the instincts in the room refreshing, but the actual execution on several looks? Incomplete, even confused. Prajje backs this up a few minutes later, when he puts forth his misgivings: “At this point, I don’t really know what page everybody is on. Some people went to weddings, some went to the strip club, somebody is going to get more liquor at the store, like…it’s a lot.” Christian, on his weekly prowl, shares the same worries. With his signature, casual ruthlessness, he labels Aaron’s cardigan “Grandma going to the beach,” while his reaction to Octavio pairing pink feather pumps with a brocade hoodie results in his face practically crumpling in on itself.

And yet, unlike last week, everyone gets along beautifully. Anna and Octavio refer to each other, adoringly, as “Mommy” and “Daddy” from across the workroom, while Kristina and Prajje share tender-hearted stories about their family back home. By the time the house lights come down for the runway, everyone seems in excellent spirits. If only such comfort could last.

Let’s assess these looks.

  • Model DD struts out in Chasity’s flawless all-white look, which pairs a trailing overcoat with a crop-top and wide-leg joggers. The choice to style such an outfit with a simple pair of white sneakers is one of Chasity’s smartest editing moves so far; the effect is pristine.
  • Thank goodness Shantall stuck around after last week’s Siriano Save. Her red, white, yellow, and blue patterned jacket and pants radiate sensibility and style, without sacrificing the effortlessness that makes them work as loungewear.
  • Coral went all-in on black and silver sequins, a curious but intriguing choice. On the runway, her fringe-festooned halter-neck top and tapered pants glitter under the spotlights, something I wouldn’t have imagined for a comfy-chic challenge. Still, it’s hard to deny her model looks fantastic.
  • Next comes Jessica, in Aaron’s mohair netted cardigan and cashmere pants. This is definitely the most classically “loungewear” look of the bunch, and arguably the only outfit that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place during lockdown. And yet, somehow, it’s still elevated enough to feel resort-ready.
  • I appreciate the boldness of Octavio’s silver brocade sweatshirt-dress, I really do. With a lacy set of lingerie underneath, it’s sexy and eye-catching, if not particularly “comfy.” But perhaps most perplexingly, the top features ultra-long sleeves that model Mimi flaps around her like sagging wings. Immediately, I know the judges will have more than a few criticisms.
  • Next is Prajje’s ensemble, which is the most luxe-pajama design of the night. (I was waiting for someone to send out some PJs!) I was skeptical about the naked-woman fabric, but the ivory and cream colors actually look enchanting on the runway. I’m not a huge fan of the snakeskin material on the back of his pajama shirt, but, in general, I believe the look should survive the night.
  • Zayden has such fabulous streetwear instincts—I would argue he’s one of the best street-inspired designers of the season—but this look is immediately compromised by its poor tailoring. He’s put model Dariana in a clunky turtleneck jumpsuit that flares where it shouldn’t, nor cinches where it should. The one redeeming factor is a pattern-lined bomber jacket, a delectable choice.
  • Bones has had some of his best looks of the season when he works with silks, so it’s no surprise that his model, Cassandra, looks gorgeous in his pale-pink silk pajama set. The look is very “Elle Woods at a sleepover,” which is as big a compliment as it sounds.
  • Anna made the risky decision to send her model out in all-gray, but shame on me for my skepticism. While her smooth, silky robe and nightdress might not be my favorite look of the bunch, it’s still elegant, cozy, and—most importantly—interesting. The lace detail is sublime.
  • Kristina’s design resembles something a rich hippie might wear to a yacht party, and I mean that in the best way possible. The checker-print bandeau, ruched transitional top and matching coffee cup are playful, creative, and absolutely comfy enough to sport while splayed out on a pool chair.
    project runway    couch couture episode 1908    pictured designed by kristina kharlashkina    photo by barbara nitkebravo

    Kristina’s blue-hued design.

    Barbara Nitke/Bravo

    We’re getting down to the cream of the crop here on season 19, and the designs reflect that. Still, the judges aren’t going to be nice just because we’ve, in Elaine’s words, “trimmed the fat.” Guest judge Maria Cornejo of the CFDA joins Elaine, Nina, and Brandon in lining up the top and bottom contenders: Shantall, Anna and Bones are all in. Chasity, Aaron, and Kristina get top scores, while Prajje, Octavio, Zayden, and Coral fall to the bottom.

    Elaine is a dissenting voice, twice, amongst her cohort: While the others love Aaron’s look, she finds it “frumpy,” and when they criticize Prajje’s “meh” pajamas, she breaks in to say she loved them. Coral is docked points for her choice of sequins, but, ultimately, the harshest words are reserved for Octavio, whose choice to pair a hoodie with pink pumps mystifies the judges. After giving Kristina the top spot, in a crushing blow, the judges eliminate both Zayden and Octavio.

    I understand a double-elimination had to take place after last week’s Shantall save, but there’s something about this week’s loss that feels unwarranted. We know Zayden’s story, the fact that he’s having a hard time paying rent at home. And we know Octavio’s creative capacity, the ground-breaking silhouettes he can deliver when he has the chance to shine. Neither feel like they’ve reached their potential on Project Runway.

    But as I write this, I realize: That’s the point, isn’t it? Project Runway might pave the way to a “career-making mentorship,” but ultimately, it’s a game. The real world is where the work happens, and it’s where these designers will make or break their own careers. Project Runway gave Christian Siriano his shot, but it didn’t solidify his aesthetic; he did, on his own terms, for years after the show. I hope, even away from the cameras, Zayden and Octavio get their own chances. I hope the designer who reached out to me does, too. They each deserve it, Project Runway or no.

    Next week, we have a PR favorite: a happy hour-inspired unconventional materials challenge. Best prep your drink menu in advance.

    << Read last week’s recap

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