If there has ever been a more touching episode of Project Runway, we haven't seen it — and this is coming on the heels of what's already proven to be a pretty emotionally tumultuous season.
The misty-eyed journey started with a Heidi-dropped hint: "For this challenge, I want you to start from scratch." The designers were then sent down to the workroom, where Tim and a bunch of HP Touchsmart computers displaying photos of the contestants as children awaited. The challenge, Tim explained, was to create a "deeply personal" textile design based on an inspiring or profound moment from their past, and then build that fabric into a garment. So first came the gushy "awwwws": Baby Mondo dressed as a matador! Little Michael C. looking bashful in his undies! Even the shot of a young(er) Gretchen, hugging her mom on a ski slope somewhere, was kinda cute.
Memories sufficiently jogged, the designers set to work creating their fabrics. Gretchen drew a graphic interpretation of a sun bonnet, which her mom used to wear. Andy made "memory bubbles," which strikes us like he didn't really get the assignment — that, or he's going for something deeply meta and way beyond our nitwit comprehension. April created an Edward Gorey–ish print of a tree that represents her parents divorce.
But then the real bomb dropped.
Mondo designs a very Mondo pattern of repeating plus signs in a hot-pink color. What's the inspiration? He's HIV-positive — and hasn't told anyone in his family since he found out ten years ago. He reveals this only to the camera — and obviously the audience at home — but doesn't let the other designers or Tim or anyone else in on the secret. He says he feels guilt and shame, but knows this is the right time to come clean: "I just realized I can't live that way anymore ... I am such a better person than just being a coward." Yes, dear, sweet Mondo, yes you are. Marry us, please?
Just when you think the show can't get any more dramatic, Tim sends in some "special guests." The designers think the worst, naturally, probably expecting Jason and his bowler hat to come swaggering in. But nope! It's the designers' moms, and in Michael C. and Christopher's cases, their son and boyfriend, respectively. Cue all manner of shrieking, sobbing, and bawling. Even if you loathe Gretchen or think Michael C. is irritating, you'd have to be dead not to cry along with them.
But that's not all! Tim has an additional surprise: He's canceling the rest of the workday so the designers can hang out with their families. Some go to spas, some to restaurants, and Mondo and his mom to the High Line, where he wants so desperately to tell her he is HIV-positive but doesn't want to ruin the moment. Lots of "stay true to yourself" pep talks ensue, as do the usual "You're always a winner to me" mom-sponsored kudos.
Back in the workroom, Gretchen is being her usual judge-y self (re: Christopher: "His look I think is a C+"; re: Valerie: "[She's] making a dress that just doesn't look fashion to me"), and Andy is meandering aimlessly through his own foggy head space, feeling too jolted by his mom's visit to really focus. Come judgment time, Heidi doesn't even declare a bottom three and top three: All of the designers are asked to tell their story. It goes without saying that Mondo, long a house favorite, pushed us over the sentimental edge with his admission to Nina (on national television, remember!) of being HIV-positive; that the outfit he designed looked incredible was just icing on the cake.
"Fashion is not for sissies: You've got to produce no matter what," said a sage Michael Kors toward the end of the episode. This week, and probably forevermore, Mondo proved himself to be anything but a sissy.