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Project Runway’s Sergio problem

Project Runway’s Sergio problem
Sergio Guadarrama during Project Runway 18's "Sheer Genius" episode. (Photo by Barbara Nitke/Bravo)

When what someone says and what they do are out of whack, reality television pounces: reality TV is made for this. Interviews conducted hours or days after something actually happens can easily be juxtaposed against evidence of the opposite of whatever someone says, and that makes for satisfying television, since the character is doing all the work for us.

Project Runway delivered a particularly stunning example of this during its remake-the-tuxedo challenge, when progressive fashion designer Sergio Guadarrama 1) nearly plagiarized his outfit, 2) insisted he knew the designer but denied known the design, 3) said it was a statement that opposing Donald Trump’s messaging, and then 4) delivered the kind of line that might end up at a Trump rally.

It’s not that making statements with design is ignoble. Fashion is art, art is political, and most everything is political even though we’re all so exhausted of politics right now even the word makes us run screaming from the room while tearing out fistfuls of hair. (My apologies. Welcome back.)

The problem—though not for Project Runway the TV show, which loves this—is that that Sergio is so inept at it.

All season long, the show has been building a case against him, highlighting this discrepancy between his words and actions over and over again, perhaps in anticipation of what happened during the “Suit Yourself” episode.

After Sergio told Christian Siriano, “I’ve always got some kind of interesting story political, just about how our society is reversing socially since the last administration,” the editing went full-on Kitchen Nightmares with its use of a bowed cymbal sound effect.

Veronica—who returned to work with Sergio but was one of the helpers sidelined by contestants who didn’t think they needed help and/or didn’t trust their helper—said in an interview, “Let’s face it: The dress idea came first. We don’t need to attach a story. But I am not going to get in the way of Sergio’s political statement.”

Of course Sergio went ahead and made that statement on the runway, telling the judges:

“I wanted to play with the concept of going backwards. The current administration uses the slogan ‘Make America Great Again.’ In my opinion, when America was great, was maybe the 1950s.

And some factual information about the 1950s: You could afford a home, a car, and have 2.5 kids with one parent working. And I want to talk about these things while making something beautiful.”

If there was ever a time for a cymbal crash on reality TV, it’s when a contestant non-ironically says that “when America was great, was maybe the 1950s.”

Thankfully, Elaine Welteroth was there to verbally cut him into tiny pieces and flick them over her shoulder:

“So, if you’re going to use fashion to make a statement about something, not only does the fashion need to be airtight, but so does the messaging. And unfortunately, the 1950s was not a great time in America for people of color and women.

Your messaging was actually offensive. Stick to the fashion.” 

“Okay,” Sergio said, his brow furrowed so much he started to resemble a Klingon.

Then Nina Garcia addressed the fashion. Earlier, Sergio said, “It’s very original and I don’t know how the judges could say anything negative about my design.” Okay, Nina, let’s do this:

“Sergio, I really liked your look, but I think that we all remember the icon red carpet look that Celine Dion wore. It was a cream tuxedo, it was backwards, it was John Galliano for Dior. I’m sure you know the look that I’m talking about.”

Sergio replied, “I mean, I like Celine Dion, but I don’t know if I saw—what year was that?”

I have no doubt that he didn’t know about the Celine Dion dress, in the same way he has no idea about America in the 1950s.

After glancing to her fellow judges with a look that said Is this actually serious or are you all pranking me?, Nina Garcia said, “Okay, well, I’m surprised that you’re in fashion and you wouldn’t know that.”

I wasn’t surprised: that’s been the pattern this season, and Sergio’s brand. “Well, John Galliano’s a genius,” Sergio added. What do you want to bet Sergio called doesn’t know much about him, like what happened to John Galliano, like this?

Sergio’s cluelessness and high regard for himself is absolutely comical, and one reason why mentor Christian Siriano seems extra exasperated this season. Part of that seems to be his increasingly comfort with just saying what he’s thinking, and he is giving excellent advice. But this group of contestants has given him a lot to be frustrated with.

If this pace keeps up, Christian will need a fainting couch, or at least padded floors to catch him when he topples over.

What’s different about Project Runway this season?

Elaine Welteroth and Nina Garcia critique designers' work during Project Runway 18's "Suit Yourself" episode
Elaine Welteroth and Nina Garcia critique designers’ work during Project Runway 18’s “Suit Yourself” episode (Photo by Barbara Nitke/Bravo)

I’ve really been enjoying Project Runway, but just can’t shake the feeling that there’s something off about it compared to last season.

It’s not the judges, who have congealed as a team even though they don’t always agree. They’re also getting sharper with their descriptions and critiques: Brandon called Delvin’s tux a “leprechaun in a corset” and Elaine said Brittany’s looked like something from a “douchey Hampton’s party.”

It’s certainly not Christian, who’s become an excellent mentor while also being terrific television. He’s also someone with a exuberant and cheerful, fiery personality whose talent backs that up.

That brings me to the contestants. We’ve had Delvin, who in early episodes whined about the challenges, acted bored, and then completed his outfits—pretty well, actually!—with hours to spare; Victoria, who’s almost mimeographing her fashion whose dismissal of other contestants’ abilities turned into tantrums when she wasn’t able to deliver; and mean kids talking shit about Nancy, as if their own work has been flawless.

Then there was Tyler’s shade, which eclipsed the entire competition when he threw a verbal dagger at Karlie Kloss from the runway about her brother-in-law. Tyler said his comment about his dress being appropriate for “dinner with the Kushners” was “entirely related to the aesthetic of the look.” That’s a reasonable and believable explanation.

It’s also what’s been happening a lot this season: actions and words aren’t aligning, and that friction is powering the season more than fashion and creativity.

Of course, personality has always been a part of Project Runway and reality TV—that’s how we first met Christian Siriano, after all—and last season’s bravura return to Bravo had plenty of strong personalities and talent. But they were moving along at the same frequency.

This season, they’re at odds with one another, and the sharper edges of people’s personalities are getting caught on the show’s fabric and tearing it.

The focus seems to be tilting toward drama even in the way the episodes are shaped. There’s no longer an extended sequence where the judges look at the work, alone, without the contestants. Now, they just occasionally approach the runway while the design and model are standing right there. That keeps us focused on the characters, not their work alone.

Project Runway season 18 hasn’t been a drag; it’s mostly been a fun, easy watch, and many of the contestants have given us some wonderful, creative looks. I still love the new aesthetic the show has adopted. I was thrilled Christian used his first-ever “Siriano Save” to keep Brittany, who just really screwed up this one challenge.

The season has delivered inventive challenges, from the unconventional materials challenge with Christmas decorations to this week’s reinvention of the tuxedo, which made its own political statement by providing models who were men, women, and nonbinary people, and thus not making the tux challenge about menswear alone.

The challenge that asked the designers to incorporate their own family histories into their looks was also strong, and an organic way of tying personality and process. Can Project Runway continue to stitch those two together, or will the Sergios keep showing us the seams?

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