Project Runway Six - Pre-Season Rankings

>> Monday, July 13, 2009

If we can reach enlightenment only by first admitting that we know nothing, Project Runway Season Six is as good a place to start as any. Oh, we know plenty about the sixteen designers who have waited so long for their fifteen minutes of fame since the show was filmed more than a year ago. In fact, Lifetime Network, Project Runway's new home, has posted more pre-show information about the designers than we can ever remember seeing before. But just because we know what the designers' bathrooms look like and what embarrassing clothes they have in their closets doesn't mean we know how they'll perform on the show. We must, therefore, admit that all pretense of knowledge is illusory; that absolute certainty is impossible.

Not that we won't give it a shot.

For the past two seasons we've ranked the designers like teams are ranked in pre-season sports magazines: on their strength coming in. What we've rarely taken into consideration is personality, which, we've learned, can make you or break you on Project Runway just as much as your design talents can. In season four, using only fashion education and experience as indicators served us pretty well in our predictions. Last season, it clearly did not. (Ouch.) So this year we're going to try to take both into consideration. Who among the designers has what the Japanese call "fighting spirit"? Which of the less-talented designers will hang around, under the radar, until they are, surprisingly, among the top five or six? And which of the designers will be drummed out, talent be damned, for not defending their work or letting the hectic schedule wear them down?

Personality-wise, the plethora of preview videos on the Lifetime site is telling. (Or appears to be--remembering that all pretense of knowledge is illusory.) When will personality outweigh talent, and vice versa? And who among the designers is that magic Christian Siriano combination of both? Here's what we think:

The Favorites

01) Gordana Gehlhausen - "Goga," as she's known to her friends and fans, hails from all over. Born in the former Yugoslavia, she grew up in Bosnia, went to college in Germany (Linguistics), moved to Atlanta, GA, then to Charleston, SC--and has now relocated to San Diego. While her work prior to the show isn't extensive, it's her work after the show that's intriguing: using $80,000 "of her own money," Gordana opened a new high-end boutique in downtown San Diego that fashionistas are already raving about. Is she independently wealthy, or did that $80,000 (and change) fall from the Project Runway tree? In her videos, Gordana gives off a mature, confident, Uli Herzner vibe, which we think will put her head and shoulders above some of the young whippersnappers on the show. Tim's Take: Expect a lot of "textile development. It wouldn't be a case of going shopping and using the fabric she brought back. She'd do things to it."

02) Althea Harper - One of those young whippersnappers is 25-year-old Althea, a recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati's College of Design. And while UC isn't exactly FIT or Parson's, she's put in time interning with some serious fashion powerhouses, including Anna Sui, Zac Posen, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Victoria’s Secret, and Garden Inc. But did she do more than fetch coffee? We think something must have rubbed off, because one of those three anonymous runway shows presented by Project Runway at Olympus Fashion Week last February looks an awful lot like her earlier work. Added reality show bonus: she's perky and pretty. Tim's Take: "Everyone [thinks] she's only on the show because she's a tall blond beauty, but she's extremely talented. She's going to blow people away." Tim hath spoken.

03) Irina Shabayeva - Another twenty-something, and another European import, but this one's all New Yorker. A graduate of Parson's, her tiny New York apartment is crammed full of fashion fuel: sewing machines, design boards, books about art and fashion. She's also into leather--but not in a Stella way. Irina's interested in handbags and accessories, and sells her work online. Call this one our first left-field guess of the day--we think she's got the perfect storm of talent, drive, and personality to make it to the finals. Also: she's easy on the eyes. Tim's take is telling too: "Her models look as if they've been in for a dozen fittings, and they haven't."

04) Nicolas Putvinski - Word on the interweb has it that Nicolas is pretty bitter about his Project Runway experience. That could mean many things, but an early-early out or a late-late out would be particularly hard to swallow. Given his pedigree, we're going with late. Another European-born contestant (born in Russia, moved to San Diego as a young boy), Nicolas is a graduate of FIT and received further training at Izquierdo Studio in New York. Particularly well-known for his work with feathers, Nicolas has done commissioned works for W Magazine and Vogue, and was the lead assistant to the costumer responsible for Victoria's Secret's famous angel wings. Comes off as a bit of an odd duck in his videos, but if he can turn that quirkiness into couture and his rebelliousness into determination, he could be a Santino-like competitor. Tim's Take: "If you have such a bad taste in your mouth about American fashion, why are you here?" Hrm.

05) Rodney Epperson - It's hard not to like Epperson, (which is what he likes to be called) right out of the gates. This season's senior contestant, Epperson's been in the fashion business for a long time, but has never been a star. Now he thinks it's his time to shine. (He's kind of like Season Three's Vincent Libretti, only, you know, talented and sane.) At his live audition, Epperson was an automatic "yes" from the Tim Gunn, Laura Bennett, Emmett McCarthy panel, and his work made Laura hop up to have a closer look. Born in Harlem, Epperson went to FIT without graduating and worked as a window-dresser for Charivari in the 80s and 90s. The father of four is now a visual retailer for H&M, and has a mellow vibe that may help him through the ups and downs of the show. But is he too mellow to win? Tim's Take: "He is the most senior in terms of design career and reputation. He has a distinguished career. He's elder-statesmanlike."

The Contenders

06) Carol Hannah Whitfield - Perhaps the first Project Runway contestant to be living out of her car at the start of filming, Carol has an easy-going attitude that could take her far. What she doesn't have is a lot of academic or professional fashion experience. A recent business school graduate, Carol Hannah taught herself pattern-making and draping from library books. From some of the preview videos, it looks as though she likes color, which is good--but the judges are going to want to see something different in her silhouettes. Tim's Take: "She's young, just out of school, but people will be disarmed by what they see her achieve."

07) Johnny Sakalis - Johnny didn't wow Santino Rice at his live audition, but Tim Gunn saw something he liked and pushed for the young designer, who's a graduate of The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Johnny's fashion career has only been on the retail end until now, but he's looking to Project Runway to help him break out. As Tim might say, "We're dubious." But weighing personality into the mix this year, we have to think that Johnny's got some cahones and will conflict with contestants and judges. That usually keeps you around for a while--at least until everybody else stops making mistakes. Tim's Take: "Johnny will be polarizing. People will love him, or hate him." Yeah--he'll be around for a while.

08) Louise Black - The first of two Texans in the cast this season, Louise is the only one bringing a bit of Goth sensibility. Originally a pharmacist and lab tech, she moved into fashion design after making her own wedding dress, and found a market for her faux-Victorian corsets and clothes online. Now back in school to study fashion, Louise feels like a real outsider with a unique point of view. Unfortunately, we don't see this point of view going deep too often on Project Runway, where the judges seem to respond better to modern than vintage. Still, we're excited to see what Louise brings to the runway. Tim's Take: "Thoughtful, contemplative, and never a hair out of place." Hey, that's the definition of Goth, isn't it?

09) Shirin Askari - One of the show's two 24-year-olds (and its other Texan), Shirin comes off in her videos as much younger. Maybe it's that she just graduated from college and is back home living with her parents. Or perhaps it's the moment in one of her preview videos when she shows off a dress made from Mardi Gras beads without using glue and chides former Project Runway contestants for such sins, and promises she'll never do the same. Uh-huh. Just wait, girl. And in what has quickly become a tired refrain from a number of former Project Runway designers, she's inspired by...wait for it...30s, 40s, and 50s glamour. Oy. She'll have to discover a unique voice and style as a designer to make it much deeper into the season, and that's a tall order at 24. Tim's Take: "She's young, she's pretty, she's articulate. I'm not sure what is distinctive about her, other than the fact that she's good." Yeah.

10) Ra'mon-Lawrence Coleman - We're reminded of a great line from Bull Durham: "Honey, you need a nickname." Ra-Law (we're just trying it out) was a young med school prodigy when he discovered fashion design by accident in one of those pesky electives. After studying fashion design in Chicago and Denmark, he went on to work for Linda Campisano, PriceWalton Couture, and the International Fur Trade Federation. He now designs for Target's Massimo Black line while putting together his own line. Ra-Law's home seems almost totally given over to his work, with clothing racks in the living room and a beading table in the breakfast nook, but it's his closet that stuns: Ra'mon-Lawrence owns more than 450 pairs of jeans, as well as a "mint condition" Members Only jacket from 1982. We have to admit, we like this guy from his videos, but Tim's Take makes us wary: "He's someone who in my view thinks entirely too much. I was constantly surprised in the workroom--suddenly, there's a new design." Never a sustainable strategy...

The Long Shots

11) Mitchell Hall - Another Southerner, Mitchell's a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, which is where he first learned to sew. Now the creative director for three contemporary women’s boutiques, including a Vera Wang Bridal Salon, Mitchell just bought a big new house in a fancy part of Savannah that has a 16-fox fur rug, but not much evidence of an aspiring fashion designer besides a small trunk of fabrics he's collected. Is Mitchell more personality than talent? Tim's Take: "Mitchell looks like he just stepped out of Gossip Girl, and I think that's who he'd like to design for." And seriously, a 16-fox fur rug? Ew.

12) Christopher Straub - Like Ra'mon-Lawrence, Christopher hails from the upper midwest, with the accent to match. Being Southerners, we certainly won't hold that against him--but let's hope that's not all that sets him apart. Christopher is self-taught, likes volume in clothes, and finds inspiration in dollar-a-yard Wal-Mart fabrics. Again, living in the boonies as we do, we don't judge. Oddest thing about him from his home visit video: a flat screen TV mounted in the corner of his "Old World decor" dining room. Really? Coolest thing about his home video visit: he owns a Project Runway Nick Verreos-designed MyScene Barbie in the box! Definite points for that. Christopher seems like a likeable enough guy, but we're skeptical about the design chops. He also may be a victim of the Project Runway pressure cooker. Says Tim, "Christopher is very emotional. He wears his emotions on his sleeve." That and 24/7 cameras: not always a great combination.

13) Ari Fish - Ari might just be the longest shot of them all, but like kooky Elisa before her, she may stick around a few episodes for the entertainment factor. Where do we begin? Ari is an art school student who transfered from painting to ceramics to textile design. Her influences are "geometry, ergonomics, American Indian ritual wear, nomadic tribe wear and athletic apparel," and in a video she tells us she's into leopard print, track suits, muumuus, tight pants, and Mickey Mouse sweatshirts. Our favorite moment: when she shows us the reversible, waterproof, jacket she's making for a friend, and tells us its sleeveless because "he's going to be in the desert." Which of course begs the question: then why does it have to be waterproof? All Tim says of Ari is that she's "deeply conceptual." She'll be around only as long as other people make mistakes.

14) Malvin Vien - Malvin's style icon? "The rural farmers of China." Malvin's favorite designer? "Himself." Well, the boy's confident if he isn't humble. But humility doesn't win reality shows, does it? But neither does Malvin's brand of design, which is inspired by vagabonds, beatniks, his travels in rural China, Japanese ghost stories, and insect anatomy. Before studying at Parson's, Malvin earned a degree from the University of Redlands in Social Medicine and Creative Solipsism, which by definition, we guess, has to pretty much be the ultimate independent study course. Malvin also sports a novel "double-mullet," that's a party in the back and the front. Tim's Take: "When you see this guy, you won't believe he's from Colorado." We're not sure we believe he's from planet Earth.

15) Qristyl Frazier - Are we selling Qristyl too far short? Perhaps. She already has a successful career in fashion, designing for the likes of Queen Latifah, Angie Stone, and Wendy Williams. But while Qristyl's quest to turn "plus" into "plus sexy" is admirable, we're not convinced it'll play out well on Project Runway, where the only curves some of the models have is where you can see their ribs. If Qristyl can translate "plus sexy" to "zero sexy," she could go much farther. But as Tim is wont to say, "we're skeptical." What he actually has to say about her: "Qristyl is a hoot. She likes a lot of color, and print. She's entertaining to watch."

16) Logan Neitzel - It's tempting to call Logan "Blayne Walsh all over again" just because he's a good-looking guy from the Pacific Northwest, but that certainly wouldn't be fair to either of them. Logan seems far more mellow anyway--in his audition video, he comes off like he's in a constant state of melancholy, sometimes clicking the camera on at odd hours of the night to hazily report that he's still awake and designing. And what's he designing? "Street wear and edgy rocker looks," two things which never go over too well with the Project Runway judges. A nationally ranked snowboarder and self-described "guys-guy" (sic), Logan likes to think that if he weren't a fashion designer, he'd be a stuntman or a race car driver. What, did he grow out of wanting to be a fireman or an astronaut? Tim's Take: "Logan's from Seattle, and you get a crunch-granola feeling in what he does." We get a feeling he's going to be the first designer aufed.

Do we know anything? Can we know anything? Perhaps we need a degree in creative solipsism t0 answer that question. Or, we could just watch the new season of Project Runway, which premieres August 20th on Lifetime.

In the meantime, as an exercise in both randomization and humility, we offer a second set of rankings--this done by rolling a 20-sided die with the numbers 1-16 assigned to an alphabetical list of the designers, and discarding any rolls of 17-20. Which list will be a more accurate prediction of who wins and who loses? We're afraid to really know the answer to that question--but luckily all pretense of knowledge is illusory.

Project Runway Season 6 Order of Finish, as determined by dice roll:

01) Mitchell Hall
02) Malvin Vien
03) Irina Shabayeva
04) Louise Black
05) Shirin Askari
06) Qristyl Frazier
07) Ra'mon-Lawrence Coleman
08) Althea Harper
09) Logan Neitzel
10) Carol Hannah Whitfield
11) Nicolas Putvinski
12) Johnny Sakalis
13) Christopher Straub
14) Rodney Epperson
15) Ari Fish
16) Gordana Gelhausen

See you in a few weeks for our first episode preview!


Laura K July 13, 2009 at 4:19 PM  

Awesome! Thanks for your valiant effort, oh wise Swami.

JJ,  July 14, 2009 at 2:17 PM  

Always enjoy reading your comments about PR. I more or less agree about the long shots. (I'm betting either Mitchell or Logan will get auf'd first.) And all of your top 5 would be in my top 7 (I'd add Louise and Johnny). What puzzles me though is why you have Carol ranked in 6th place? There is nothing in her videos, her portfolio, her audition tape that strikes me as out of the ordinary. (Indeed, I'm more struck by Shirin than Carol.) I'm also wondering what the scuttlebutt is about Nicolas? Has he been talking trash? Tim certainly doesn't seem to have any kind words for him.

TropicalChrome July 14, 2009 at 3:14 PM  

I always love reading your predictions because right or wrong, they're always well thought out and wittily written :).

Alan July 14, 2009 at 3:23 PM  

@ JJ -

Hey, thanks for reading--and posting!

I have to confess, I don't know what to do with Carol Hannah. I'm with you--there's not a lot of prior evidence for such a high ranking. I put her that high for a couple of reasons. First, some other fans I trust like her and think she may even end up higher than that. Again, I'm not totally convinced, but I gave her a nod for that.

Second, I'm sort of hedging my bets. When I compared the three runway shows the anonymous finalists ran out there with the former work of the contestants, I saw a similarity between a dress Carol Hannah wears in many of her publicity shots (which she made herself) with the last look in one of the finalist runway shows. It was just enough to make me think she was MAYBE a finalist--or perhaps an assistant to one, ala Nick, Andre, and Diana in Season Two?

Or perhaps there's NO connection. I do think she belongs in that middle group, but whether she's at the top of the group or the bottom of it is, I admit, a complete mystery.

As for Shirin, I'm...I don't know. She's talented, but seems strongly opinionated. That can work for her (see Kenley, Santino, etc.) or against her (see Daniel Feld). Just call it a hunch.

AS for Nicolas, I wish I had the link. All I was told was "his bitterness may be the result of what he perceives to be an unfair aufing. Maybe even the one that Tim predicts we will be incredulous over." Juicy stuff! And no, Tim doesn't have many kind words for him, which is never a good sign.

Alan July 14, 2009 at 3:24 PM  

@ TropicalChrome: Thanks!

JJ,  July 15, 2009 at 5:32 PM  

Thanks for the reply. A follow-up question: now that I've looked at the portfolios again I'm thinking that maybe it's a mistake to be placing Logan at the bottom of the pack. Someone elsewhere has predicted, based on the photos, that he is one of the finalists and now that I've take a second look I think this may be right. The first collection at Bryant Park has a certain "rocker" feel to it. This had led me to place Johnny higher up in the rankings but now I think that this collection may be Logan's. Just a wild speculation! (I agree w/ you though that, based on Tim's comments about Johnny being a polarizing contestant, that he will be around for a while.) Look forward to reading more of your insights/analysis.

Alan July 15, 2009 at 7:37 PM  

@ JJ - I'll confess, I saw a still shot from a preview video with only fifteen designers in it, and though it was hard to tell from the small, blurry image exactly who was who, it looked to me like Logan was the odd man out. I may be wrong about that though, which is why I didn't cite that in my rankings.

I agree that Logan has a rocker look that someone has used in one of the final collections, but I thought his work was a bit unrefined in his audition video (the one he submitted, not the one where he came before a panel) and I have a hard time seeing him make it all the way through.

Then again, all knowledge is illusory...

JJ,  July 17, 2009 at 3:57 PM  

I agree that the clothes Logan brought to the judging panel were completely underwhelming. I was somewhat more impressed by the clothes in his portfolio. I was also struck by his comments, in his audition tape, that his background is working with leather, rivets and very structured material. These comments + the rocker vibe make him, for me, one of the potential candidates for collection one. I also find his laid back, non-camp way of presenting himself very appealing, so I'm hoping he will be around for a while. But we shall see.

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