‘Project Runway’ showdown: Fashion Karen showed exactly how NOT to be an ally during ‘#Streetwear’ challenge

I may be in the minority on this, but I hate drama and conflict on reality shows. Especially talent competition shows. I came here to watch you dance, hear you sing, or admire your creativity. If you’re “not here to make friends,” that’s all well and good, but why go out of your way to make enemies? The good news about the “#Streetwear” drama on “Project Runway,” though, is that it was a teachable moment for anyone who wants to know how best to support marginalized communities. During Thursday night’s show, designer Meg Ferguson demonstrated exactly what not to do.

It started when she was discussing ideas with her fellow competitor Prajje Oscar Jean-Baptiste. The Haitian-born designer wanted to create a look inspired by centuries of struggle and exploitation for the island nation, but he was the last to choose models, and he felt uncomfortable designing his Haitian-inspired outfit for the white model he was left with. Ferguson was on his side, but went on about cultural appropriation so aggressively that her support started to make him uncomfortable. Lesson number-one: if you’re talking over and past the person you’re advocating for, you’re not being an ally, you’re making it about yourself.

The real drama came later. Jean-Baptiste eventually swapped with Coral Castillo, giving him the Black model that would make his design more culturally appropriate. Castillo was reluctant, but she seemed to understand how important it was to Jean-Baptiste, and there was no drama between them (and neither of them suffered when the judges got a look at their looks in the end). Seeing this, Kenneth Barlis, who is of Filipino descent, realized he would rather design his Asian-inspired look for an Asian model, so he asked to swap with Ferguson.

And the shy Barlis was as accommodating as he could possibly have been. He assured her that she could say no if she’d rather not switch to a model with a different look and measurements so late in the challenge. No one accused her of racism. No one would have batted an eye if she told him she couldn’t make it work so late into the challenge. She could have politely declined his request and perhaps offered to make it up to him in a later challenge, or she could have just peacefully swapped models and made it work. Neither decision would have hurt her ally bona fides.

But she didn’t do either of those things. Instead, she chose violence. She insisted that the swap take place, perhaps fearing that she would be seen as a hypocrite if she refused his request. But she made sure to do it with as much open hostility and resentment as possible. “I think it’s f*cking bullsh*t that you’re doing this now,” she told Barlis — in front of the two models in question. “We don’t have to make this so awkward … We don’t have to do this,” said Barlis, trying to diffuse the tension. “Stop talking,” Ferguson snapped back.

When she was back at her work station with her new model Trevor, she complained, “Apparently, I can only design for white people.” But Trevor, also uncomfortable with the conforntation, told her, “Just don’t yell at me like that, yeah?” At that point, she suggested sexism was the reason anyone would be upset about her unprofessional behavior in front of their models and fellow designers. It was all downhill from there. Jean-Baptiste called her “fake.” Then Ferguson yelled at Barlis again for not defending her against Jean-Baptiste. That made Barlis cry. Finally, she stormed out over the fact that no one was on her side. She was thisclose to demanding to see “Project Runway‘s” manager.

The next morning the designers learned that she withdrew from the competition because of the strain on her mental health, not that she had any interest in Barlis’s mental health the previous evening. I truly hope she took time to regroup after she was done shooting the show and focus on her well-being; I can only imagine the pressure-cooker intensity of competing on “Runway.” But this was not a Simone Biles moment. This was an object lesson in how quickly a privileged ally turned into an aggrieved bully the moment she was asked to inconvenience herself (which, again, she could have politely declined without consequence). Lesson number-two: If you’re only an ally when you get your way or a pat on the back, then you’re not one.

What did you think of the Ferguson drama in “#Streetwear”? Are you hoping for a (slightly) more harmonious workroom going forward? Goodness knows there are always designers capable of drama, just hopefully no more Karen-ing.

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