Last week “Project Runway” narrowed down season 17 to its four finalists: Bishme Cromartie, Sebastian Grey, Garo Sparo and Hester Sunshine. Those four will present their 10-look collections for a shot at the grand prize … Actually, scratch that. Only three of them will present their collections. After working for five months back home, the four returned to New York City for one final challenge to decide the top three. I, for one, am not a fan of sending only three designers to the finale at this point. It’s one thing to eliminate a designer, but it’s quite another to let them work for almost half a year on a collection and then eliminate them. Let’s consider each designer’s trials, tribulations and triumphs one by one below.
When mentor Christian Siriano visited Sebastian in Fort Lauderdale, we met Sebastian’s husband Matthew and got a look at his works in progress. His collection was full of cool textures and techniques, inspired by indigenous Colombian basket weaving. As traditional as that inspiration was, the looks felt fresh and contemporary, though Christian worried he was trying too hard.
Nina Garcia presented him with his final challenge at the offices of Elle magazine: to show two preview looks from his collection and to create an 11th look decided by Nina. In this case, she directed him to create a soft evening look to contrast with all his “strict,” structured looks. At first he seemed to chafe against that challenge, planning on a pair of pants instead of the gown Nina seemed to want. But once Christian set him straight he created a soft, flowing white dress that seemed perfectly true to Nina’s instructions and true to the other pieces in his collection.
I came into this episode worried about Sebastian. He has been a master craftsman all season but struggles to tell a coherent story with his looks. But his collection seems very cohesive, totally wearable and uniquely styled. The judges sent him through to the final three with flying colors, and I don’t know why I ever doubted him.
Speaking of worry, I thought Hester was at grave risk going into this final challenge. She’s talented and has a singular aesthetic. No one can mistake a Hester Sunshine look for anyone else’s work, which is a huge advantage for a “Runway” designer. But she also has the greatest potential to go off the rails, crossing over from fashionable whimsy to overbearing kitsch (two words: taffeta pasties).
Unsurprisingly, when Christian visited her in Santa Fe with her wife Honey, he found her living in a candyland of bright colors and designing looks with intense custom prints. But she was also taking the judges’ advice by balancing those prints with solids. However, Nina wanted even more solids. For her 11th look, Nina instructed her to make a look in a single color — no prints. But what about this print? Hester asked. Nope! But what about color blocking? she asked next. Still no.
Hester started working on a worrisome translucent white dress that made Christian cringe. But she had to scrap that look entirely when a sewing mishap sent a needle straight through her finger. I had to watch that through my fingers even though we didn’t see any graphic footage; I hate needles even when they’re supposed to go in your body. The injury irrevocably stained her white dress with blood, so she threw together a fully red look in the last three hours of the challenge (why just a drop of blood when you can go all-in on red). Nina loved it. She joined Sebastian as one of the top two safe designers going into the finale, so maybe getting impaled was an unexpected stroke of luck.
I was concerned for him too going into this challenge. Like Hester, he’s a singular designer with a clear artistic voice. But also like Hester, he has a wild style that can veer into over-the-top costumes. I actually don’t mind that aesthetic. Some of his best looks have come when the judges have allowed him to be more outlandish, like in the Elton John challenge and the recent art installation challenge, both of which he won.
Christian met him and his husband in upstate New York — the fact that he has a husband was a bit of a surprise since he hasn’t really discussed his personal life during the season. His collection was inspired by outer space and black holes — totally on brand for the man who made a literal “Rocket Man” outfit for Elton John. But Christian was worried that the different eras reflected in his work risked coming across as dated and too “try-hard.”
And boy did he ever try hard. He came back to New York City with 14 looks prepared for his 10-look collection. But it was still a struggle when Nina gave him his challenge: a tailored suit to contrast with his other cosmic couture. That was arguably the most technically challenge task given to any of the four designers, and by the end he struggled to complete his look. It was ill-fitting, and the judges thought his other looks were a little dated, as Christian first feared they would be. I thought for sure Garo was a goner at that point, but the judges decided to keep him in the competition, making him the third and last designer who would get to show ttheir collection. Which means …
Poor Bishme was the odd man out, and this is not long after I started predicting him to win. He had such a consistent season with a great design story around his Baltimore upbringing. But in this final challenge he was the victim of tragic circumstance and bad luck. During his five months away when he was working on his collection, he suffered a death in his family and his sister was diagnosed with colon cancer. So his heart and his head just weren’t in it.
He only had one or two looks made when Christian visited him two months in, and when he returned to New York City he still hadn’t finished all his designs. But Nina’s challenge for him seemed like the one that was the most in-line with his style and experience — to make an sporty outerwear look — so I thought he would sail through with flying colors.
However, he struggled all the way through. His design idea changed from a bomber jacket to a hoodie dress, but every change he made along the way seemed to make his patchwork of fabrics worse and worse. He was so upset, both by his design and by the life events that hindered it, that he asked for a moment to collect himself before the runway show started. It was heartbreaking to see him so demoralized, and his new look really was the worst thing he has sent down the runway all season, but the two other preview looks from his collection were stellar, and his failed design was so unrepresentative of the great work he’s done all season that I thought the judges would give him the benefit of the doubt and send him through to the finale runway show.
Alas, he was eliminated. It was a crushing moment, but I appreciated how gracious he was in his elimination. Part of that might have been relief that he could now direct all his focus on his family emergencies. I was also moved by how supportive his fellow designers were. While he was clearly distraught on the runway he was comforted by Garo and given a reassuring pep talk by Hester. Reality shows are known for high drama, but I much prefer to watch talented people supporting each other instead of undercutting each other, so this was one of my favorite moments of the season even though it was also one of the saddest.
Now Hester, Sebastian and Garo Sparo will duke it out for the season 17 title, which will include another perk. In addition to their prize money and mentorship with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the winner designer will have a capsule collection sold online. Who do you think will win, and who do you think should win?
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