“It’s anybody’s game,” said Dmitry Sholokhov at the beginning of the “Project Runway All Stars” season finale. He had won the show twice before and was going for an unprecedented three-peat, but this season of “All Stars” featured nothing but past champions, so he was up against fellow US winners Michelle Lesniak and Irina Shabayeva as well as Canadian “Runway” victor Evan Biddell. Who was named the “Runway” world champion at the end of the night?
The episode got off to an exciting start with the announcement of the final challenge. After weeks of unique, innovative and highly specific design tasks that ran the gamut from airplane materials to Willy Wonka inventions, the designers had no rules at all for their finale collections. Their mission was to take four days and a $3,000 budget to create six-look collections inspired by whatever theme they wanted. Essentially, their design objective could be summed up as “You do you.”
And boy did they ever. Michelle, Biddell and Irina’s ideas were completely on-brand. Michelle titled hers “Harvest Mood” after Neil Young‘s album “Harvest Moon”; it would be a bohemian, 1970s inspired collection with witchy vibes. Meanwhile, Biddell went conceptual: he was inspired by his feelings of paranoia and anxiety throughout the season, so his collection would be based on the conspiracy theory that Queen Elizabeth II is actually a lizard person — “regal reptilian” is what he called it, and it was instantly the collection I was looking forward to the most from hearing about it. I dig weird.
Irina designed for a strong woman and focused her collection around the kinds of architectural, geometric designs that have served her well for so much of the season (she came into this finale with more high scores from the judges than anyone else in the competition). Sholokhov’s planned collection didn’t seem to have a specific name or firm concept like his opponents’; his designs came from a more personal place that would express his growth as an artist and as a person.
And it was off to the races! The hectic first day in the workroom ended with Irina falling behind the others, whose looks were starting to take shape while she was still sewing and cutting out pieces. But day two brought a welcome relief: for the remaining three days all of the designers would have help from another “Runway” alum. Irina was assisted by “All Stars” season one winner Mondo Guerra. Dmitry’s assistant was “Runway” season 15 winner Erin Robertson.
The other two were joined by designers who were eliminated earlier this season on “All Stars.” Michelle teamed up with Sean Kelly, wile Biddell got a helping hand from fellow foreign “Runway” alum Christina Exie. So once again there were eight champions in the room working on collections for the final show.
The consultations with mentor Anne Fulenwider were illuminating. Perhaps the biggest surprise was she actually liked Michelle’s fabrics for a change — it’s a “Runway” miracle! She liked one of Michelle’s jackets so much she tried it on. But the mentor extraordinaire had a few concerns about everyone’s collections. Michelle needed to keep her designs at a high level of “elegance” given her fabric choices. Elsewhere, she thought Dmitry was lacking sex appeal and romance, Irina needed to set her looks apart more, and Biddell needed better cohesion between his individual pieces.
All the while we could feel how high the stakes were. Michelle revealed that winning the $100,000 grand prize would help her and her husband through their current financial hardships. And Irina was still reeling from her mother’s fight with breast cancer, which caused Irina to break down in tears during this high-stakes week of nonstop design and construction.
Then came the moment of truth. It was time to show host Alyssa Milano, regular judges Isaac Mizrahi and Georgina Chapman, and guest judge Andrea Riseborough the fruits of all their labors. And I’ve got to say, seeing the collections walk the runway didn’t actually give me any clearer a sense of who would win. They all had showstopping looks in their collections, and none of them had any drastic missteps. It was truly a runway of champions, so if any particular designer had finished first or fourth it wouldn’t have been a great surprise.
Isaac thought Irina did an “incredible job,” especially with her last two lacy monochromatic looks, which blended geometry with the fragility of the fabric, though there was one yellow dress in her collection that seemed out of place.
Georgina praised Biddell for his “exciting” point of view, and Isaac told him, “If we were to pick based on things we’ve never seen before, you would win.” But they wondered if his looks really hit the right mark: not adventurous enough to transport you to another world, but not wearable enough to be traditionally fashionable. But I for one thought Biddell was underrated for his stunning black body contour dress and long blue reptilian coat, which were among my favorite garments of the entire night.
The last dress in Michelle’s collection won her the most praise: Isaac said it was “divine” and Alyssa thought it was the best thing Michelle had designed for the show. The collection as a whole had “a lot of humor,” according to Georgina, and Andrea remarked, “It just makes me smile. Very sexy, but also a little demure.” But did it have enough polish?
Georgina called Dmitry’s collection “truly beautiful … so ambitious and pretty masterful.” I’ve given Dmitry a lot of flak throughout the season for repeating ideas — another black dress with cutouts? — but I’ve got to give credit where it’s due: the cutouts on his first look, two faces cut into a red jacket with the sleeves representing the hair, were among the best things I’ve ever seen on “Runway.” But Isaac thought the collection was a little “dry,” and there was one mustard-colored dress that didn’t seem to belong with the others.
Even after those critiques I couldn’t figure out who would win. I suspected Biddell’s looks would be too quirky for the judges’ tastes, and I was right: he ended up in fourth place, though he took the result in stride because he was so proud of the collection he presented — polite and gracious, like a true Canadian.
Then Irina was eliminated in third place, and that actually was a surprise. We’ve been predicting her to win the show for most of the season, especially given her strong track record of high scores. That left Michelle and Dmitry as the top two, and while I slightly preferred Dmitry’s collection as a whole, I was rooting for Michelle since I preferred her creative output throughout the season.
And indeed, that’s the result I got. Michelle Lesniak won “Project Runway All Stars” and was named the world champion. I didn’t see that coming; going into the episode I thought she would end up in fourth place since her bohemian styles have often gotten mixed reviews from the judging panel.
But I was less surprised than Dmitry clearly was. This was the first time he has ever lost a season (he previously won “Runway” season 10 and “All Stars” season 4), and he was, shall we say, less Canadian about it. He explained, “I love Michelle, but you can’t compare what Michelle put out there, not technically, not creatively. My pieces were masterpieces.” And that honestly made me even gladder than he didn’t win. His designs were gorgeous, but sore loser is an unflattering look.
For Michelle, her victory felt like redemption. She won season 11 of the original “Runway” series, but then she was eliminated right before the finale in “All Stars” season 4 (the season Dmitry won), and that loss shook her confidence. “I’m going to take away that I do still have the energy and power to create something I’m proud of, and I didn’t feel that way coming into this competition,” she said before the show came to a close.
Do you think Michelle really had the best collection? Was Dmitry right that he was robbed of the title? Or did you think Irina and Biddell’s collections were woefully underrated? Vote in our poll below to let us know.