'Project Runway': How Characters, Controversy and Heidi Klum Have Kept the Series Fresh

 Benjamin Lowy

It's clear on the set today that there is a polarizing designer, one viewers will love to hate and who will tap-dance all over Gunn's last nerve. "She's already had her agent call me. She's negotiating for more money," a producer is overheard grousing.

The designers are in the workroom putting finishing touches on three looks while director Craig Spirko, field producer Trish Norton, various PAs, Gunn, Rea, Murray and Lifetime vp reality programming David Hillman jam into the nearby control room to watch the action on a bank of monitors.

"It's like watching paint dry," says Rea.

"Not for me!" retorts Gunn.

It's now 10:45 a.m. In five minutes, Gunn will leave the control room to give the designers a 10-minute warning. "And it's in real time," he says. "Everything we do is real."

"Painfully," adds Rea.

At 10:50 a.m., Gunn enters the workroom: "In 10 minutes, we're going down to the runway. It's going to be a knockout!" The designers barely look up from their work."Is anybody listening to me?" asks Gunn.

One designer is sewing a topless model into a pair of pants. The camera zooms in on the model's backside -- she's wearing a flesh-colored G-string -- where the designer is at work with a needle and thread. After the pants are secured, the designer turns her attention to the hem of a dress that is not yet on another model. "I'm flabbergasted! What does she think is going to happen in the next 60 seconds?!" exclaims Gunn.

At exactly 11 a.m., he heads back into the workroom. The dress is on the model; Gunn and the designers head into the hallway outside the control room. But the dress -- the one that got the last-minute hem -- is on the model backward. "This dress, if made commercially, is going to need a set of instructions," says Gunn. "It's like a Mobius strip."

The designer throws her large silk shawl over the model's head (a precaution lest her makeup rub off on the fabric), pulls the dress off and pulls it back on the right way.

"It looks very desperate," says Spirko.

"I love it," adds Murray.

Later, Gunn leads a tour through the now-empty workroom. Water bottles, scraps of fabric and parchment paper litter the floor. A black Steve Madden platform pump sits solo on a table. A heap of poly chiffon in an autumnal print is on another, wisely rejected by the designer who chose it. Previous designs on dress forms line the front wall like a ragtag phalanx of Fashion Week rejects. More than a few are so ill-conceived and clumsily assembled, it seems impossible that the designer who gave birth to them could still be on the show.

I ask Gunn which of these designs he absolutely hates. He saunters past several forms, his heels clicking slowly on the linoleum floor. He stops and, with a flourish of his arm, motions toward a truly awful outfit. I am forbidden to describe it in detail, but let's just say it looks like something from Madonna's "Like a Virgin" days. Gunn folds his arms and frowns. Then he reaches for the garment's collar: "What is this? It looks like a cupcake sleeve. Dreadful."         

MOST PROLIFIC WINNERS

Jeffrey Sebelia (season three)

  • Head designer at L.A.'s Fluxus
  • Children's line La Miniatura with Melissa Bochco

Christian Siriano (season four)

  • Luxury ready-to-wear collection at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue
  • Footwear for Payless Shoesource
  • Best-selling book Fierce Style: How to Be Your Most Fabulous Self (Grand Central Publishing)
  • Has dressed celebrities such as Emily Blunt, Rosario Dawson, Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Christina Hendricks and Heidi Klum

Irina Shabayeva (season six)

  • Debuted fall 2011 collection at N.Y. Fashion Week
  • Concept collection for INC International Concepts at Macy's
  • Has dressed celebrities Selena Gomez, Rutina Wesley, Lady Gaga and Alison Brie
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