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By Colleen Nika

Wednesday’s long-awaited finale of Project Runway’s fifth season fostered, along with a botanical bonanza, a minor yet unsettling plagiarism scandal.

Artistic floral philosophies imbued each of the Top Three’s collections: Leanne Marshall created supremely sculpted floriform frocks; Korto Momolu, boldly bohemian naturalist gowns; and Kenley Collins, hand-painted teacup dresses. In the end, Leanne emerged as the rightful victor, but a crucial question persisted for many viewers: Were second-runner up Kenley’s alleged knock-offs really only a (not so) “happy accident”?

Collins, a brassy Brooklyn-based freelancer known for her love of rockabilly kitsch, is no stranger to charges of derivative design. Throughout the season, Tim Gunn, Nina Garcia, and Michael Kors all at various points questioned her originality, at times suggesting she had lifted motifs from designers’ annals ranging from the berserk (Viktor & Rolf) to the dreamily exquisite (Alexander McQueen). In each case, she vehemently denied consciously channeling anyone’s direction but her own. Yet, traces of British and European masters’ trademarks, subliminal or otherwise, were evident in her output, and cast shadows of doubt upon Kenley’s veracity.

This “umbrella of suspicion” hung over Collins well into the finale. The more incriminating of two questionable dresses she presented was a splashy, painterly floral dress with an armor-like silhouette. It was lovely, but, conceptually, it smacked heavily of last Spring’s Balenciaga. Also dubious was Kenley’s feathery frock, once considered the “standout” of her collection, as it bore an uncomfortable similarity to one featured only eight months ago on the runways of the aforementioned Alexander McQueen. His dress, incidentally, has been featured prominently in recent editorials and lauded in fashion essays as the vital crownpiece of Fall 2008.

Could Kenley, who claims to be oblivious to fashion media, really not have noticed?

Even so, doesn’t she – as Michael Kors has repeatedly stressed – owe it to herself and the public to stay informed?

Is Kenley is an intentional rip-off artist or is she truly innocent and misunderstood? And if her originality hadn’t been called into question, do you believe she could have won Project Runway?