Unconventional challenges are always fan favorites. Do designers actually like them, or are they just “oh boy, here comes the fanservice” moments?
Fourteen seasons in, it’s clearly beyond cliché, but fashion truly is a “make-it-work” industry.
Materials don’t always cooperate, production doesn’t go smoothly, and yet, if you want to succeed, you absolutely have to figure it out…somehow. You have to proactively tackle the bad mix in whatever good to great you can muster and produce something that people want to buy and wear.
In season 11’s unconventional challenge, for example, Samantha Black pulled off a bit of a “hat trick” by combined hard and soft elements--contact paper, wire mesh, lilies, and leaves--to produce something striking, unusual, and effective. At JAKE, we relish in the unconventional, albeit with fabrics rather than gardening supplies. In our Vertigo collection, for example, we couldn’t find the right material for one of the jackets but we did find some shirting weight materials that were nothing short of amazing. The only problem is that they weren’t the right weight or grade. So with a little ingenuity and a mix of interfacing and canvassing materials, we and created a brand new textile perfect for the collection.
It doesn’t matter if the looks in Project Runway’s unconventional challenges are salable or even wearable beyond the runway--that’s not why fans love them so much. I think fans of the show connect with those challenges so much because it takes everyone out of their element and pushes boundaries. These challenges really are about creating functional beauty, whimsy, and surprise any way you can and in spite of anything that gets thrown at you.
You began as a menswear designer, though you have since expanded to design for everyone. Millions of men are fans of Project Runway, yet its menswear challenges are consistently train wrecks. Are men just harder to design for, or is it just that there are fewer styles of clothes that men wear, which would constrain your creativity?
Designing for men and women are just very different worlds. They converge in a number of ways--like color--and even more so in recent years as we see more and more androgynous styling, but it is still a different world.
A striking example of how everything can go so wrong was in Season 11 episode 8, when the designers had to construct performance outfits for the Adonis-bodied male strippers of “Thunder from Down Under.” Building clothing for one set of bodies when your tailor’s dummies are an entirely different shape and size leaves a lot to be desired.
Beyond having to nail the structural elements, menswear has ubiquitous detailing that’s jarring when missing: stitched cuffs, plackets down the front, a structured collar, shaped shoulders, etc. A collar seems simple enough, but it’s more than just the shirt’s fabric flipped back on itself. If you’re not used to constructing one, it’s going to be painfully obvious, especially if it’s tacked around beefcake.
Men and women vary in other ways too. When you’re designing for women, you have a greater range of creative flexibility. You still have to have taste and a point-of-view, of course, but, with men, you also have to exercise far more restraint than you might think. Coco Chanel said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” If you’ve never designed for men, look at your sketches, and then remove at least one thing.
There were some very strong designers in season 11, so a lot of this can be explained away in part by how little time they had to create their garments--coupled with the fact that even the most experienced designer probably hasn’t made too many tear-away pants.