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Hooray for Hollywood, barely, on ‘Runway’

Quick: How many times have the "Project Runway" judges dismissed a design for being too ''costume-y'' over the years? Too many to count, right? Yet the fanciful frou-frou-ery of costume was all over last night's episode. I'd argue it even helped one designer win. As Tim explained, this week's Hollywood-inspired challenge was to create a look based on one of five film genres: action-adventure, science fiction, period piece, Western, and film noir (which Louise adorably kept pronouncing as ''film nu-ah''). Now, I interpreted those guidelines as: make a fashion-forward garment that pays homage to the various types of movies for which Hollywood is known. I did not take them to mean that the designers had carte blanche to play Edith Head for a day. But by the end of the episode, I was as confused as my cats are when I suddenly make the red laser pen disappear under the floorboards. Perplexed.

In any case, film genres. You'd think that all 11 artistes had spent their childhoods locked in a dank, windowless room watching an endless loop of Ronald Reagan's worst B-movies, given how they all recoiled from the Western category. No fans of Johns Wayne or Ford? Come on — Clint Eastwood? After everyone else snatched up the ''cool'' categories, the last two designers, Shirin and Epperson, had no choice but to make it work with Western. (What do the fates have against poor Epperson, by the way? He's been selected last far too many times to chalk it up to mere coincidence.) Neither designer was happy, but they proved themselves to be good sports. Shirin decided on a saloon girl look — one that ended up looking like it came straight outta Joannie Stubb's Chez Ami on "Deadwood." And soon enough, Epperson clawed his way out of his hole of doom with an elaborate concept: A ''beautiful lady'' whose husband has gone to war and is left behind to take care of the land. Moi, I'd have stretched the concept and gone for Marilyn Monroe in "The Misfits." But hey, at least no one did "Rhinestone". (Good lord — I saw that movie in the theaters back in the day. Thanks, mom!)

Of all the designers, Ra'mon was the most excited, throwing his fan-boy arms around science fiction and divulging that he was a ''die-hard Trekkie.'' There were shots of him giddily dyeing his fabric, which he explained was for a ''human-alien hybrid.'' But soon things took a bad turn. Ra'mon, did you learn nothing from your first skin-tight bodysuit — the one you replaced with the neon-green Neoprene thing that earned you a win? Tim warned him that his spandex super-hero number ''could be sublime, or it could be a big hot mess.'' By the time Ra'mon realized it was looking like ''Kermit the Frog gone wrong,'' he had just two hours left to start over. His model Vanessa tried to put a game face on, but it was obvious what she was really thinking: ''Holy s---. I have to walk in front of Heidi Klum in this reptilian Jazzercise thing that looks like the costume designer from the original "V" made it ... after someone spiked her Tab with acid.'' Cue lizard baby sticking out its forked tongue.

Of course, none of this was lost on Nicolas, who used his ample screen time to diss Ra'mon. The way Nicolas talks, it's as if he's following the How To Maximize Your Reality Star D-Bag Potential handbook, so perfectly is he playing the part. I mean, he even kicked off the hour with the ole ''I'm not here to make friends'' line. Groan. (Oh, and kudos to the readers who compared Nicolas to Kenneth Mars as Hugh Simon in "What's Up Doc?" last week. Hilarious! Also: did you catch that shot of him fixing his hair? He styles that mop?)

As the camera navigated around the workroom, I had virtually no sense of who was tanking and who was slam-dunking it, simply because the nature of the challenge was so murky. Were they to design fashion or costumes? At first glance, Gordanna seemed to be on solid enough footing with a gold flapper dress for a 1920s heroine who, she said, was debuting in society after recently discovering oil. (That made me want a milkshake. Gratuitous "There Will Be Blood" reference: Draaaaaaiiiiiiinage!) Louise also had flappers on the brain, but Tim told her to push her vision further. We barely saw what Logan and Carol Hannah were up to, other than winking and swooning, respectively. (Aside: They walked the red carpet together at the Runway Fashion Week party last week. And Carol Hannah was wearing a dress designed by Logan. Make of that what you will, TV Watchers.) As for Irina, when she wasn't stitching together chevron stripes of alternating lace and black charmeuse, she was giving Nicolas a run for his money in the race for the Queen of Unbridled Ego. First she congratulated herself for winning the previous week: ''The last challenge ... reminded me how good I am at doing these 'wow' pieces.'' Next she went after Gordanna, saying the dispenser of spoon-related wisdom had no place trying to make it to Bryant Park. She then took two swift steps to the left, just barely escaping two bolts of lightning.

Irina's super-sexy/verging-on-slutty peek-a-boo gown hardly screamed film noir to me, but even if she hadn't had immunity, I doubt it would have landed her in the Circle of Hell. For noir attitude, I much preferred Althea's black pencil skirt and white butterfly-sleeve top, which might have lacked show-stopping drama, but was plenty worthy of Barbara Stanwyck. And I guess all that flirting ended up melding the brains of Carol Hannah and Logan, cause they both sent black pleather-clad super-heroines down the runway. I gotta say, with its dramatic satin coat, shiny bustier, and Wonder Woman-ish gold belt, Carol Hannah's ''sexy assassin'' out-wowed Logan's ''sword-fighter'' by an Invisible Jet mile.

I wasn't surprised that the judges — this week John Varvatos, Zoe Glassner, and Hollywood costume designer Arianne Phillips — dinged Gordanna again for delivering a garment that was technically unimpeachable, but lacked any signature zest. Gordanna got a similar critique last week, and while I do like her, it's pretty clear that she doesn't often fly in the zone of true artistry. (Yuck — I just sounded like Kara DioGuardi. Apologies.) Her dress wasn't so much ground-breaking design as Park Avenue princess Halloween costume.

For someone whose own personal style is a tip of the hat to silent film goddess Louise Brooks, Ms. Black sure did struggle this week, churning out a shiny flapper dress that was supposed to evoke film noir but was instead a ''cheap ... convoluted mess,'' according to Zoe, who then called it a ''snooze fest.'' That's usually the kiss of death on "Project Runway." Or at least it is when Nina ''Don't Bore Me'' Garcia has her say. But Nina wasn't there. So Louise dodged a bullet and Ra'mon got flogged. Was his Lola the Lizard Lady number creepy and shoddily assembled? Was the way Vanessa pulled off a strip of fabric on the catwalk, like she was shedding reptile skin, icky? No question. But Ra'mon has shined in the past and I figured that the judges' appreciation for his risk-taking would spare him. No dice. With tears in his eyes, he bid Heidi and Co. adieu. And I have to say, I'm pretty bummed about this. He's the first one I'm sorry to see leave. Good luck, Ra'mon. Don't loose your vision — or your apostrophe.

Now for the top three. After Tim informed Christopher that sleeveless does not equal 18th century France/Victorian, I was pretty shocked to see Katie showing off her bare arms on the runway. What? Could Christopher possibly be so arrogant as to ignore the mighty Gunn? But Christopher made no reference to the Age of Victoria when he was defending his design. In fact, he mentioned no era at all, carrying on instead about a vampire attending her wedding, turning her husband into a bloodsucker ... blah, blah, blah. Sorry, but I simply don't get the appeal of Christopher's design. Yes, the details on the collar and back were lovely, but that skirt? An over-bustled mess! What did he do, grab a few bolts of whatever fabric was closest to his sewing machine and scrunch it all up, eyes firmly shut? I'm not saying Christopher should have been eliminated, but the fawning? Do. Not. Get. It. If avant-garde was what he was going for, all I can say is: Christopher, this is how it's done.

His nerves might have been frayed earlier, but Epperson came out Annie-get-your-guns a-blazin' with that Wild West couture. Aesthetically, ruffled denim is not my thing, but I give the guy major props for creating the most cutting-edge design, mixing a modern fabric that's synonymous with the dusty ranches of pioneer country with a silhouette more historically evocative of "Deadwood." And that was pretty ingenious. So I was happy to see the dude with the gentle voice and the groovy 'dreads get some love. And Varvatos was certainly diggin' Epp's model: ''Matar, you can manage my farm anytime.'' Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

When Arianne cooed that she could see Epp's design in a contemporary fashion show, I was hoping this would lead to them naming him the winner. Yeah, Schwartz, as if! They gave it to Nicolas! And here's where the challenge baffled me all over again. Nicolas' Ice Queen gown with the silvery snowflake collar was dramatic for sure, but by the judges' own admission, it looked cheap! Cheap, people! Ah, but it would look just terrific on screen, according to Phillips. Um, OK. But ... shouldn't the winning design have at least some real-world fashion currency outside the confines of cinematic costume? Tell me, TV Watchers, can you imagine Nicky's white dress being anything other than a punchline at a real-life couture show? As I said: baffled. When Heidi announced Nicolas as the winner, all I could think was: Man, if Nina and Michael had been there, they never would have stood for this nonsense.

Speaking of Garcia and Kors, here's the deal: It appears that Nina has been absent because she was in France covering the Paris shows when the last few episodes were taped. And Michael Kors, I've just learned, was in Europe as well, doing fittings, visiting his factories and looking for inspiration. Michael is back next week, and Nina returns later in October. Stil ... harrumph, right?

OK, time to scoop up the cats and get some shut-eye. What did you think of tonight's journey into Hollywood fantasy? Were you as perplexed by the ever-bending rules as I was? Did Carol Hannah get short shrift? Are you tired of Zoe telling us what she wrote down on her note cards? And were you as impressed as I was with Louise's gracious attitude during her critique? Poor girl was crying right along with Ra'mon as she left the stage!

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