This week, dear readers, Project Runway had one of those oh-so-sublime “alternative materials” challenges. Our top ten (really, they were celebrating that? Top ten is not even making it halfway…) designers were sent to a hardware store by Princess Michael Kors and told to gather enough random objects to somehow make clothing, but then when judging came around, the judges couldn’t decide if they really wanted the designers to turn something hard into something soft or not. Some designers got chastised for it, others were applauded.

Huge, annoying judging inconsistencies aside (but not too far aside – we’ll get to them later), it was nice to see a non-fabric challenge, since those appear to be a fairly accurate bellwether of who will survive and who will eventually be auf’d. In the world of Project Runway, if you can’t make a dress out of sheet metal, you shan’t be long for this world. Likewise, it’s the Tin Man catastrophes that we all enjoy the most, and it’s not as fun when the designers are merely screwing up regular fabric. This episode was great because it separated the real contenders from the straight guys, and it was about time that that happened.

The challenge was as straightforward as it sounds: make an outfit, any outfit, out of materials from a hardware store. Designers were also supposed to make an accessory, but it didn’t seem like the judges really cared about what they made as long as one was present. With those kinds of parameters, it baffles me that so many of these fools decided it would be a good idea to make a metal dress, despite the fact that none of them have ever worked with metal. Hardware stores have lots of non-metal options: drop cloths, rope, tarp, garbage bags, electrical tape, you get the idea. Even if the designers had been set on metal, there are pliable metal options: screen and mesh, anyone?

Indeed, the top three dresses were all from designers that had forgone sheet metal for materials that weren’t quite so obvious. The judges praised Mila for her use of plastic paint tray liners in white and black, cut into small pieces to make a plastic dress that improbably had a lot of movement. I have a problem with Mila’s design sense, however, and it’s not as a result of the mod colorblocking that she uses in every outfit. On the contrary, the thing that always sticks with me is that her outfits tend to not be particularly flattering. Her model looked completely square through the waist, which I probably would have attributed to the difficult materials if the exact same thing hadn’t happened with the nude/peach jersey dress that Mila made a few weeks back.

I don’t think her model is square, so the issue appears to be with Mila herself. Even her challenge-winning track suit didn’t have a defined shape, and as much of a point of view as Mila might have, no one really wants to look like any geometric shape except an hourglass. If she can’t find a waistline eventually, I think that she might make herself vulnerable to eventual elimination. Her plastic outfit was cool on its own, but her schtick may be wearing thing, despite Nina Garcia’s apparent decision that she shall be the eventual winner.

It was a good week for people with Serious Fashion Hair, however, because Mini Mila…err, Maya…was also in the top three. She made a wire-frame jacket out of (if I remember correctly) the cording for miniblinds, and it was utterly brilliant. Put that jacket in an editorial in V Magazine, and I’m all over it. That jacket? That jacket was The Truth. Her dress, made out of metal screen, wasn’t bad either – you wouldn’t have guessed that it was metal, and the key necklace that she made as her accessory was something that I’d buy in a heartbeat. It was modern, pretty, and still a little hard – it may have been my favorite look of the challenge.

Maya didn’t win, however, because Jay managed to somehow make leather pants out of layer upon layer of bias-cut garbage bags, and really, that’s a freakin’ miracle of sewing machine ingenuity if I’ve ever seen one. Not only did he make leather pants, but he made a corset with ruffles (also made out of garbage bags, but this time with blue masking tape accents) and a woven belt that no one would have ever guessed wasn’t leather. Jay probably did the best job of utterly transforming his materials from something mundane to something spectacular, and for that, he was awarded the richly deserved win.

But that last sentence? That’s where things went a wee bit off the rails in the judging peanut gallery. Jay was rewarded for turning his garbage bags into something that did not at all resemble their original state, but for doing the same thing, Anthony was put in the bottom three. He made a soft, flowered cocktail dress out of metal mesh and some sort of pink lining, and his expertly curved metal belt was easily the best use of the solid material on this week’s runway.

The judges didn’t like it, though. It didn’t look enough like it came from a hardware store. Um, excuse me, but was that the point of the challenge? If it was, I totally missed it. Jay missed it too, but instead of nearly losing, he won. The dress wasn’t particularly innovative, but are leather leggings innovative? No. If they want innovation to be the primary judging metric, they should use it for everyone, not just people that make something pretty out of ugly materials.

In challenges where regular fabric is used, innovation is important. In a situation like this, where the innovation should be inherent in the materials used, I don’t think there’s anything to be celebrated in taking a crazy material and making something crazy out of it (Emilio, I’m looking at you). Anthony made a dress that a lot of women would love to wear, and he did it out of the same stuff that covers my screen door, and he shouldn’t have been in the bottom. I wouldn’t have necessarily put him in the top, but he should have been safe.

I can’t say the same for the two others that joined him in the bottom three. Anthony was ultimately safe (and he skittered off the runway like he was afraid that the judges would change their minds if he stood there too long), and it was only Jesse and Emilio standing there with their sad little outfits. Well, calling Emilio’s string (literally) bikini an “outfit” might be just a tad charitable.

You see, it started out as a dress and went off the rails from there, because he didn’t have enough string or washers (the string was woven with washers, I’m not making that up) to cover his model’s butt. Ironically, after he ditched all the material between her chest and pelvis, he STILL didn’t bother to give her enough of a garment to obscure her rear end from popular view. He lied on the runway and said that he had purposefully made a bikini to stand out from all the dresses, which may have been the line that saved his (partially covered) behind.

That’s right, it was Jesse’s night to leave, and not a moment too soon. He’s never come across as particularly talented or particularly interesting, and we’ve seen enough of him. He made a dress that looked like a Hershey Kiss in both shape and material, and although it may have been less terrible than Emilio’s string bikini, I think that we all know that Emilio is a more talented designer. Since we’ve seen a half dozen looks from each designer, I’m ok with the judges auf’ing people with their body of work considered – it’s only fair.

I would entertain the argument, however, that the bikini was bad enough to mitigate any pretty dress Emilio had ever made in his entire life – luckily for him, he had the presence of mind to lie. He’ll do well in the fashion industry.

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