Someone at Lifetime TV (apparently mistaking me for someone important) sent me an invitation to the Project Runway show at Lincoln Center. So I spent last Friday morning there, attempting to capture interesting tidbits from the experience using — listed in order of reliability — a camera, a tape recorder and my brain.

For those unfamiliar with this event, it's a showcase in which the show's finalists present the collections they've spent weeks preparing in a bid to be the season champion. In the early, primitive days of Project Runway , this showcase was held in a tent pitched in a park somewhere. Now it's at shiny Lincoln Center. So I guess it's come a long way!

As I stood in line waiting to be admitted, four already-eliminated contestants from this season — Hernan Landor, Kristine Guico, Samantha Plasencia and Jefferson Musanda (shown above) — arrived at the theater entrance, where they were stopped by some official who wouldn't let them in right away. Apparently, he doesn't watch the show and didn't recognize who they were, so he walked off and left them to cool their heels outside for a good five or ten minutes before someone finally returned to vouch for them and let them inside. The four of them seemed to take this minor indignity in stride, however, looking more bemused than offended.

Inside, I spotted several more of this year's contestants, including Mitchell Perry and Carrie Sleutskaya (pictured above), who both seemed very nice, taking time to chat with fans and patiently pose for pictures with them. I asked Mitchell what it was like to see yourself on TV for the first time and he answered, "Surreal" — then, after a pause, "Very surreal." He added that being a designer and being on TV are both strange things, so when both of these strange things happen in conjunction it makes for extra-strange strangeness. (I'm paraphrasing here.) I asked Carrie if she had any future cosplay plans, since I've read that she is an avid cosplayer (having assumed such identities as a human Nyan Cat). She said she plans to hit the cosplay convention circuit again next summer and revealed that she was considering transforming herself into a Sailor Moon villain next. "You know there's a [Sailor Moon] reboot?" she asked me. I didn't know this. I also didn't know that there were any villains associated with Sailor Moon. These were just two of several new things I learned on this day.

Although I've never been to one of these events, the interior of the theater seemed strangely familiar as soon as I entered, as though I'd been there before. I realized that this is probably because they haven't changed the basic design of the show's runway-finale set over many years. It seems like it's always been the same: A bright-white runway leading up a white backlit screen with the Project Runway logo printed on it, and everything else (seats, floors, ceiling) shrouded in black. Even the swag bags on the chairs were black. Speaking of which ...

... here's what each swag bag contained: 1 copy of Marie Claire magazine, 1 small purse containing assorted Mary Kaye cosmetics, 1 bottle of Philip B hair spray, 1 brochure + 20%-off coupon from the Aldo shoe company, 1 brochure + no coupon from the stingy Brother sewing machine company, and an empty Project Runway Eyeware glasses case. Did you know that there is such a thing as Project Runway Eyewear? I didn't. This was yet another new thing I learned!

In the pre-show crowd milling around on the runway, the center of media attention was Olympic skiier Lindsay Vonn, who was a guest judge earlier in the season. She patiently answered a few fairly inane questions from reporters. (Example: "Where's Tiger today? He didn't want to join you?" Her answer: "He's not usually into fashion, shockingly.") When a foreign reporter struggled to ask her a question in broken English, Vonn apparently recognized the nationality of her interlocutor, and answered in German — much to the reporter's delight. "Sie sprechen Deutsch!" the reporter shouted (I think), before excitedly continuing the interview in her own tongue. So here's yet another thing I learned: Lindsay Vonn speaks fluent German.

Instead of black swag bags, the judges' chairs were each supplied with a black moleskin notebook and a black pen. Judging equipment is still very low-tech these days, it seems.

When the judging panel (which included guest judge Emmy Rossum) arrived and posed for pictures, I made an interesting discovery: Although my camera had struggled to take good pictures in the low-light theater — with most shots ranging from slightly-out-of-focus to extremely-out-of-focus — Heidi's face looked perfect in every photo I took of her. Apparently, she really is incapable of taking a bad picture, even when a crummy camera is pointed at her. It's as though her photogenic-ness has the power to telekinetically control the electronics and mechanics of subpar photographic devices, forcing them to capture her face in perfect resolution.

As has always been true in these Project Runway Fashion Week shows, only a minority of the designers who showed collections were true finalists. The rest were "decoys," invited to create and show collections just to avoid revealing who the real finalists are. (The final episodes won't air on until some time in October.) I guessed that the non-finalists were Korina Emmerich, Amanda Valentine, Alexander Knox (shown above), fäde zu grau and Char Glover — based on my observation that, when they introduced their collections, all five wore resigned or bittersweet expressions, or cried (as Korina did). If this guess is correct, that would make the true finalists Emily Payne, Sean Kelly, Sandhya Garg and Kini Zamora (assuming they go with four; sometimes there are only three). But I should note that I'm probably totally wrong about this since I tend to be fairly bad at judging people's emotions. For example, maybe Korina was really crying tears of joy because she was overwhelmed at becoming a finalist? Who knows?

I'm not featuring very many of the photos I took of the dresses, mainly because much better-quality photos of all the looks are already available on the Web in several places (for example, here) for anyone interested in seeing them all. But here are a few quick mental impressions:

  • My favorite collections were the ones by fäde and Sandhya. If I'm correct about who the true finalists are, Sandhya is my guess for this season's champion, although I thought fäde was best overall.
  • Two tricks that multiple designers used: Words on clothes, and lots of fringe. Sean used fringe to the best effect, festooning several of his dresses in it — but in doing so, he seemed to rehashing the past glory of his winning Emmy-challenge dress from earlier this season, so I doubt that the judges will be overly impressed.
  • Many of the designers did some cool stuff with unconventional materials and textures — especially Sandhya, who hasn't been one of my favorites so far this season, but really surprised me here.
  • For a native of Hawaii, Kini was surprisingly averse to using any color. It's as though he was trying to buck the stereotype of the tropical-island designer making bright, patterned creations, and therefore chose to do his entire collection in solid black, white and gray materials instead.
  • The only collections I disliked were Alexander's and Amanda's, which bored me, and probably bored Nina too.

After the runway collections had been presented, Heidi announced that she'd nominated Tim Gunn to do the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and called him out to the runway receive his dousing in front of the audience. (I've written more about this here.) In case you've ever found yourself wondering, "What does Tim Gunn look like immediately before, during and after getting ice water dumped on his head?," the pictures above provide the answer.

Before leaving the theater, I took a final stroll down the runway and spotted a worker removing the name cards from the judges' seats. As I was considering whether to ask him if he'd be willing to give them to me, a woman standing next to me beat me to the punch, quickly blurting out: "Can I have any of those?" Fortunately for me, when the man asked her which cards she wanted, she chose only Heidi Klum's and Zac Posen's, leaving Nina Garcia's card to be claimed by me. So I am now the proud owner of this seat card as a souvenir of the event. Who knows — maybe it'll be worth something one day? Perhaps in 30 years (if I'm still alive then), I'll take it on Antiques Roadshow and find out.

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[All photos by Ned Frey]