Let’s talk about the statement tee. Like everything else in fashion, it can veer from deep sincerity to dripping with irony based on context and execution. Indeed, most statement tees will end up on both ends of that spectrum at different points in the lifespan of the garment. Earnest political slogan tees become arch thrift store finds 20 years later after a round or two of KonMari.
While the ideas or beliefs behind many statement garments may remain strongly held in the individual, fashion moves on, which is a jarring thought. Will hipsters on the Mars colony version of Brooklyn don pink pussyhats and Black Lives Matter tees in a nod to 2010s nostalgia? It’s unsettling to consider, but right now on Etsy you can buy a new tote bag with old slogans from the Black Panther party and shirts supporting Reagan’s reelection. The personal becomes the political becomes the commercial.
This week, the designers get to work with the first iteration of a statement tee: the most earnest and raw place, where the statement tee is working hardest to change the world. The designers are called back out to the runway to receive their next challenge, seemingly right after the last runway. Tessa asks Christian if it’s okay to go out since she’s been crying. A sensible question, but this is reality TV and so the answer is, yes, it’s more than okay.
Karlie and Elaine enter wearing clothes with statements printed on them. Karlie’s t-shirt says “Feminism is for all genders” (true on all points) and Elaine has a black FUBU dress on that I am living for. They’re joined by people all wearing tees featuring slogans from “I can’t breathe” to “Time’s Up” to the ’80s-style “D.A.R.E.” (the latter of which is…a choice). Elaine asks the designers what they stand for and gives a mini-lecture on the history of fashion as the personal political platform. This week’s challenge asks the designers to craft a high-fashion interpretation of a cause that they care about.
Elaine, who merged fashion and politics in her leadership at Teen Vogue, will mentor the designers this week. Unlike some other reality shows, none of the contestants on this season’s Project Runway have yet butted heads on matters of social justice, so we can’t expand any firebrand hot takes, alas. I guess we’ll have to just find those literally everywhere else we look in our daily lives and interactions.
Jamall is reflecting on his brother, who was sent to prison right before Jamall started on the show. Jamall says that after their father passed, Jamall was taken out of their home and had access to different opportunities than his brother did. On his mind is the Black Lives Matter movement and the stereotypical conception of black men as dangerous rather than in danger. He tells Elaine he wants to make another puffer look. Initially I was like, to quote Tiffany “New York” Pollard, “Oh no. Not you.” So many puffer looks, Jamall!
But then Jamall explains that the puffer material acts as a kind of protective armor for so many black people and Elaine gets so excited she starts to shimmy and I am 100 percent on board. Later, he says that the puffer is a strong symbol of black masculinity, something that is always on his mind, and he wants to bring out the royalty and beauty in contemporary black culture. Now I’m 1000 percent on board.
Venny is also working in puffer material. Like Jamall, he is taking on the ways in which black people can be underestimated or stereotyped based on appearance, but he seems to be attacking it from an opposing angle. In his sketch, he envisions a model entering in a puffer jacket and then taking it off to reveal a sleek gown. There’s a lot of unpack here. Or, rather, unpuff. It seems that his message is not to judge anyone by their external presentation, which is great. But there’s also an interpretation in which the puffer can be seen as a less refined or worthy look, thereby aligning the traditional gown underneath and all of the politics therein with the real or the correct presentation. I’d argue that Jamall’s design makes the opposite point, but we’re just at sketch phase so we’ll see how it all puffs out.
Tessa wants to make “a black dress honoring women’s rights and sexual, mental, physical abuse.” She’ll stitch-embroider a figure onto the dress, which will be revealed when the model opens a panel on the front. She is digging so deeply and really doing the work to both match this challenge and open up a new part of herself.
Hester’s issue is marriage equality and LGBTQ rights. She shares a couple of nascent ideas about a faux fur coat made out of tulle with Elaine, who is on board but makes her promise not to spin out. “I’m never sending a rooster down the runway again,” Hester says, referencing her Foghorn Leghorn look from the Elton John challenge.
Hester maintains her status as queen of getting the last word in, however, by adding, “If you look up close, that jacket is impeccably made, though.” Elaine is absolutely not here for this. “Girrrl,” is all she needs to say, as she swivels off the table and hops onto the floor. It should be noted that Elaine’s FUBU outfit—a full-length black dress with long, drapey sleeves that puff at the shoulders and a high collar—is giving her a distinct judicial vibe. Put her on the bench immediately. I need an entire Supreme Court full of justice-focused justices, serving lewks and saucy but kind commentary in equal measure.
Garo wants to save the bees! What a delight! He concedes that maybe it sounds trivial but he notes, correctly, that the survival of bees is integral to the survival of humanity. So he’s making a bee dress! For the bees!
Bishme wants to shed a positive light on the city of Baltimore, a city that…how do I put this…has a couple of competing narratives. He specifically wants to focus on inspiring the youth of Baltimore to blossom—but probably not like a certain recent former mayor of Baltimore, who inspired the youth of Baltimore to blossom by self-publishing a series of children’s books that she made hundreds of thousands of dollars from, by selling them to hospitals that do business with the city. If I were a designer, I’d put that on a dress. Like, the whole story. And on the back I’d write, “Honey, Baltimore is wild. Come see for yourself!”
Sebastian wants to work with a message about equality but is having trouble articulating it. Elaine advises him to get more vulnerable, talking about the importance of his presence for people like him: gay, Colombian, Latinx, and more. She is so, so good at this. Sebastian starts to cry. Even though he’s not there yet on his ideas, we already know Sebastian is going to send something stunning down the runway. But will the concept match the skill?
Christian comes in and looks at Bishme’s fitted, Baltimore Ravens–purple pencil skirt, and questions what the relationship is to Baltimore, particularly the kids of Baltimore Design School that he works with. Bishme concedes that he’s trying to pull back after being slapped on the wrist for doing too much in the past. He goes back to the drawing board.
Sebastian has come up with a dress that layers different shades of brown organza to represent different skin tones. Both Tessa and Christian come up, separately, and comment on the fact that Sebastian doesn’t have paler or pink shades. This is white erasure! They want to be on the dress! Representation!
With five hours to go on the first day of this two-day challenge, Christian reveals that the designers are going to have to dress a second model on the challenge. Honey, I would throw a shoe. And then Christian reveals that the model is…them! Fine, I would take that shoe back! The designers must additionally craft a statement t-shirt that they will wear on the runway themselves and which will be manufactured by 19th Amendment. My wallet is ready!
Aurora James, a leader in conscious fashion, is the guest judge today, along with the full panel. The runway is surprisingly successful, with no catastrophes (despite the fact that Hester is panicking about her design). Some of the designers have a natural strut that they employ on the runway when they model their tees, but most slink down, hunch-shouldered, and skitter out of there as quickly as possible.
After deliberation, Hester and Tessa are declared safe. Hester’s tulle coat is hot pink, with rainbow sleeves and a sheer back that reads “Gay AF.” I need it immediately. Underneath, the model is wearing a cerulean body contour skirt and crop top, both of which have sparkly silver hems. Hester’s shirt also reads “Gay AF” and includes a hashtag, #OK2BGay. Elaine loves the affirmation message, as do Brandon and Nina.
Meanwhile, Tessa goes monochromatic but equally bold. Before emerging, Tessa’s model, Asia, opens the square front panel of the dress behind the screen so all we see is her silhouette in a box with the word “Mine” cut out at the bottom. It’s already an impressive design. On the runway, we see the fitted black dress with the outline of a body stitched on to the front and back, the “mine” cutout flapping triumphantly beside her on the flap. Tessa’s shirt has a similar outline and the word “mine” printed across the butt. Nina likes that Tessa kept her minimalist aesthetic. “This was absolutely beautiful,” she says. Aurora has a tough time with the dress because she’s over “designers telling women what their body shape should look like.” She also has questions about the covering and uncovering. She asks Tessa for clarification. Tessa says that was intending to reclaim her body as her own, after an unearthed memory of being molested came to her mind. Backstage, the designers praise her for her resiliency and her truth.
The top three
The top three are Sebastian, Bishme, and Jamall. Sebastian, reliably, has a stunningly constructed gown with architectural arches of layered organza surrounding the model’s waist and springing from her shoulder. His statement tee features swatches of different skin tones and the letters DNA in red. It’s pretty fetching, and Aurora says it’s better than most of the statement tees that she’s seen. The judges are impressed at his technique of layering one shade over itself to create new shades. Nina says the design is poetic and elevated, but up close, Aurora isn’t as sold as she was when it came down the runway.
Bishme’s dress has had a glowup since the workroom. There’s a huge purple ruffle at the bust and there are faces, presumably of Baltimoreans’ children, made out of sequins on the bottom of the dress. Bishme’s shirt has a similar face, with a flower coming out of the crown, and the words “Baltimore Blossom” on the back. Aurora says that the dress made her emotional. “I would wear it tomorrow,” she says.
Jamall’s look is so dramatic. The puffer dress looks so elegant and has an incredible regal heft to it. The puffs are aligned vertically on a floor-length, full-skirted, sleeveless gown, which gives off Ursula vibes in the very best way. He pairs it with a black seatbelt belt. Jamall’s shirt reads “My Royal Story…,” which I think takes a couple beats to understand. Nina says she sees the streetwear reference, but she’s not seeing the reference to his statement.
Baltimore-boosting Bishme is this week’s winner and, by the rules of the charter, he is also appointed the new mayor of Baltimore. Congratulations, Bishme! Now, I’d like to talk to you about my taxes…
This leaves Venny and Garo on the bottom.
Venny’s jacket isn’t so much puffer anymore as it is an army green bomber with netting at the shoulders, paired with a fitted little black dress with similar shoulder netting. Because of time, he’s replaced his planned hood with a hat. Without context and on a white model, it reads a little as “undercover special ops soldier changing for a night mission at the embassy.” Venny’s shirt reads “I have a name.” Elaine thinks the messaging got muddled in the delivery. Nina thinks there’s a problem with proportion, noting that he’s hiding the model under his oversize bomber jacket. Aurora passionately tells him that he’s going to nail the jacket another time, as long as he keeps working from his heart. In private conference, the judges take note of how unfinished the outfit is.
Garo’s model is wearing a corseted neon yellow minidress with black piping and a raised strap on her shoulder, which is very cool but also makes the dress look like it could be gripped like a purse. His statement tee has a cluster of bees in a heart shape on the front and the words “We Are Bees” on the back. Indeed. We are all bees.
Nina is a little over the corsets. “At some point you need to step up,” she says. In private conference, Elaine says it looks out of touch with where we are in fashion. Brandon calls the look “weird, Elizabethan highlighter saleswoman.” Nina summarizes the look as “S&M bee.” It occurs to me that one way bees could combat encroachment by humans is by embracing sadism. Just a thought.
Venny is out this week. Brandon congratulates Venny on making the journey from accountant to designer. “One thing that I’ve learned is I have it in me,” he says. “As my shirt says, ‘I have a name,’ and you’ll definitely know it.”
Who I’m rooting for this week
Everyone actually. But mostly Mayor Bishme, because Baltimore is a hard city to govern.