Pop Culture

A peek inside ‘Project Runway’s’ sixth season

Heidi Klum had envisioned a major overhaul for Project Runway's sixth season. A different color palette for the set. New seating for the judges. A spruced-up, elongated catwalk. In a word: change.

After five seasons in New York, the hit reality competition for aspiring fashion designers was moving to both a new city, Los Angeles, and a new network, Lifetime. And the show's statuesque host had her heart set on a revamped world.

But when she first stepped onto the soundstage in downtown L.A. last fall, she almost fell over in her stilettos. Before her was an exact replica of the Manhattan set that Runway has used since 2004. Same logo. Same lighting. Same everything.

''I was shocked,'' Klum says. ''It was déjà vu. I was looking forward to different scenery, and everything was the same!''

Well, there can be comfort in familiarity, right? Especially in times of turmoil. And lately, there's been nothing but turbulence in the “Runway” universe. Beginning in April 2008, the hit series became the disputed pawn in a trio of lawsuits between The Weinstein Company (which owns a majority stake in the show), NBC Universal (parent company to the series' original network, Bravo), and Lifetime (which bought the rights for seasons 6 through 10).

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The legal deadlock kept the fate of the entire series hanging in the balance for almost a year. ''By the end of production [of season 6],'' says new exec producer Jon Murray, ''we started to joke around, like, 'Are we going to have to show this to our friends and families in our living rooms?'''

Nope. Thanks to a resolution reached in April, “Runway” will soon be back in almost everyone's living room. Season 6 premieres Aug. 20 on Lifetime, amid a blowout marketing campaign that is one of the biggest in the network's 25-year history.

Between “Runway” and a new spin-off — “Models of the Runway,” which focuses on the glamazons who flaunt the designers' creations each week — the femme-friendly channel hopes to up its cool quotient something fierce. And despite a delay of nine months for the new season's debut, team “Runway” insists the series is still as fresh and addictive as ever.

Says exec producer Jane Cha: ''It's like we've been keeping a baby under wraps in the house and now we're ready to give it a party.''

Tim Gunn loves L.A.Dressed in a smart gray suit and pink striped tie, “Runway” mentor Tim Gunn looks dashing as always. It's a recent May afternoon, and the man who rallies frenzied designers with his trademark ''Make it work!'' is sitting in a Manhattan hotel room, taking a break from interviewing applicants for the seventh season.

''After five seasons, the show needed a booster shot,'' says Gunn, his blue eyes peeking out over the top of his glasses. ''Los Angeles is indisputably the home of the red carpet. It's the home of film and television costume, and it has a celebrity dimension that New York doesn't have. Watching the first elimination this season, I thought, Wow, we should be here.''

But when fans first got wind of the cross-country move last spring, they flipped. They'd already been fretting about the April 2008 announcement that Runway was leaving Bravo for Lifetime. One month later, news of the relocation to L.A. surfaced, and in June, another bombshell dropped: Bunim-Murray, of “The Real World” fame, would be replacing Runway's longtime show-runners, Magical Elves.

For Runway's most rabid devotees, the changes were just too much. Message boards exploded with complaints and fears: Was the beloved series about to morph into “The Real World of Runway: Hot Tub Couture in Hollywood”? Fortunately, the new bosses were all about the if-it-ain't-broke, don't-fix-it approach.

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''Lifetime was pretty clear with us: It's a wonderful show as it is,'' recalls Murray. ''There was no desire to change what made it so great.''

Adds exec producer Sara Rea, ''The format is perfect. So it really was: Here's what it's supposed to look like; let's just go do it.''

The first challenge was tackling the logistics of moving from pedestrian-friendly New York City to car-centric Los Angeles. To avoid wasting precious sewing time in traffic, Murray and Rea set up base camp in the city's remote downtown area, making sure key locales — like the sewing room at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising — were within walking distance of the Los Angeles Center Studios' soundstage.

Mood Fabrics, which has supplied designers with their materials for five seasons, even opened up a temporary, “Runway”-only satellite location of their L.A. store near the show's headquarters.

Shooting in star-studded Los Angeles, meanwhile, provided a bonanza of celebrity guest judges, including Christina Aguilera, Eva Longoria Parker, and Lindsay Lohan. It also helped inspire an entirely fresh crop of challenges.

''L.A. can be the most laid-back and the most glamorous,'' hints judge Michael Kors. ''It's the land of bikinis and gowns.'' Fittingly, this season the designers will take on challenges centered on the beach and the red carpet. They'll also create garments as a tribute to movies and Hollywood.

As production rolled on last fall, so did the legal drama: The Weinstein Co. countersued NBC Universal (which originally sued TWC for selling the show to Lifetime), and Lifetime filed suit against both parties.

Before both actions, a New York State judge had issued an injunction that barred Lifetime from promoting what they hoped would become their crown jewel. That meant no shooting promos or even developing marketing strategies in-house.

''We had to sit on our hands and halt everything we were doing,'' says Lifetime Networks president and CEO Andrea Wong. Despite her frustration, Wong says, ''I really tried to insulate everyone [on the show] from the legal issues.''

Some involved, though, started to fear the worst. Says judge Nina Garcia: ''I was like, You know what? This may not be back. I had given up.''

Finally, on April 1 — 358 days after the show's move to Lifetime was first announced — the legal dispute was settled and Runway was free to hit the catwalk.

Miraculously, in this age of Internet spoilers, the identities of the 16 contestants have remained a secret all this time. At the season-ender, which taped in February at Manhattan's Bryant Park, the three finalists hid backstage and sent their collections down the runway anonymously. Though photos of the garments are widely available on the Web, the producers and judges aren't worried about viewers figuring out the winner after a handful of episodes.

''Somebody might start as the weaker designer,'' says Garcia, ''but they come back as a dark horse and wow you. It's even sometimes a surprise to us.''

Either way, viewers are still likely to get their dose of seam-popping drama.

''We have a challenge, the outcome of which will have the blogs going crazy!'' says Gunn. ''I'm surprised I didn't need CPR when it all came down the runway, because I'm still in such a state of shock about it.''

Dead-bird fashion?As the season 7 auditions wear on in New York, Gunn's gentle, infinitely forgiving demeanor is being put to the test — especially when a slouchy Brooklyn hipster walks in front of the judges. ''I'm kind of obsessed with dead birds,'' she says by way of introduction.

''With dead birds?'' Gunn ventures politely. The young designer nods, then proudly gestures to the two models wearing a mishmash of fluffy white tulle, butterflies, and feathers. Auf Wiedersehen, sister.

The feather fetishist shouldn't despair. She'll have ample opportunities to try out again, because Lifetime is determined to, as Gunn might say, make “Runway” work.

Of all the parties anticipating the show's return, none has more to gain than the network that's been trying to drop its cheesy “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger” image for years. Adding the No. 1 cable reality series to its lineup — which already includes the hit drama “Army Wives” — is another big step toward a full-body makeover.

''Our average age is under 47 and “Runway's” is about 38, so there's an opportunity to bring a younger viewer to Lifetime,'' says Wong.

In the best-case scenario, Lifetime — currently in 98 million homes, versus Bravo's 91 million — could even expand Runway's audience, which topped out at 4.8 million viewers last year.

Beginning with the seventh cycle, each season will alternate between New York City and Los Angeles — a new format that could be just the beginning of further changes.

Like Klum, Gunn is eager to see the show take more risks: ''Now that we have a season behind us on Lifetime, we'll feel more comfortable pushing the envelope.'' He'd like to chat more about the possibilities ahead, but it's time for him to resume his seat next to his fellow casting-session judges, Runway season 4 winner Christian Siriano and Marie Claire editor Zanna Roberts.

Applicants file in and out of the room, and one articulate young woman with an innovative take on felted wool impresses the panel.

''I'm truly smitten,'' Gunn tells her, beaming. ''Best wishes for success in the next phase.''

Right back at you, Mr. Gunn.

WHAT'S NEW ON THE RUNWAY
THE L.A. LOCALE
Shooting in a new city ''gave us a little twist, a different energy,'' says EP Cha. ''There was excitement on the set every day.'' Still, the show had to stick to the city's quiet downtown area to steer clear of L.A.'s epic traffic.

MORE CELEB JUDGES
The revolving panel includes Eva Longoria Parker, Christina Aguilera, Rebecca Romijn, Lindsay Lohan, and Bob Mackie. And once, says Cha, ''we had a near fainting when the designers saw who the guest judge was.''

NEW SPONSORS TRESemme out, Garnier in! Also gone is the Bluefly.com Accessories Wall; contestants will use an array of goods from Macy's. Finally, judge Nina Garcia's new employer, Marie Claire, takes over for Elle as the featured mag.

THE PRIZE: PARIS! This season's winner gets $100,000, a fashion spread in Marie Claire, and an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Paris. Sorry, no more free Saturn Astras for the top designer — but who wouldn't prefer a stroll around the City of Light?

‘MODELS OF THE RUNWAY’
The 30-minute spin-off will air each week after “Runway” and focus on the same drama — but from the perspective of the ladies on the catwalk. ''It's a little looser,'' says EP Murray. ''More behind the scenes.''

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