The contestants on "Project Runway" have had to tackle some off-the-wall challenges over the years, but this season's crop will get an assignment that's literally a tall order: designing garments for models on stilts.
"We're filming it in Battery Park City, and it's our very first outdoor challenge," says Heidi Klum, who is host, judge and executive producer on the Lifetime competitive reality series, which returns on Thursday, July 28. "It's very exciting, but we're constantly trying to come up with new ideas to keep the show fresh for the designers and interesting for our audience. This wagon isn't driving itself."
"We had guest models who were stilt walkers, so they were elevated 26 inches, which forced the designers to design for this elongated figure," adds Tim Gunn, who serves as a mentor to the designers. "I was making it analogous to what we see during Paris Couture Week. Those shows in many ways challenge our sensibilities and question what's real and what isn't. It was a very interesting set of dimensions to design for, and we had some interesting outcomes."
But first, the 20 designers get a slap of reality from the moment they arrive in New York this season, because they have to appear before Klum, Gunn, and judges Michael Kors and Nina Garcia to make a case for why they deserve one of the 16 coveted spots on the show.
"That's just the nature of what 'Project Runway' is," Klum says. "You always have to show us what you can do is better than the others. The designers arrive thinking they've got it all figured out, but they don't. Some of them think it's made up for TV, and when they discover they really have to make an outfit in a day for $100, they're in shock. They're surprised how hard it is, and they get very tired really quickly."
While Gunn empathizes with his charges, he thinks that immediate challenge was a valuable wake-up call for the designers.
"For those 20 designers, I was happy -- and I hope this doesn't sound at all mean-spirited -- that they were shown this competition was beginning the very first day. There could be no assumptions made about 'Oh, I'm on the show' or 'Oh, I have a sense of entitlement. I'm one of the chosen ones.' No! You need to compete for one of these 16 spaces on the show. It put everyone on their game, in a manner of speaking."
This season the show retains the 90-minute format to which it expanded last year, and Klum couldn't be happier about it.
"It just helps us tell the story better," she explains. "When our guest judges come on, they're almost all surprised by how long we deliberate, and I mean, like, six hours. You get to see more of that process in a 90-minute episode."
Some members of last season's cast -- most notably designers Ivy Higa, dubbed "Poison Ivy" by fans for her toxic personality, and Gretchen Jones, who went on to beat fan favorite Mondo Guerra in the startling finale -- were widely disliked by many viewers. Even Gunn freely admits he was "completely and totally shocked" by Guerra's loss to Jones.
"After we did the home visit with Mondo, which was the last one, the crew turned to me and said, 'Well, this is the easiest decision in the world. It's obvious that he has won.' And that's what I thought going through the entire finale process," Gunn says. "I was happy for Gretchen, but I was very, very surprised. And frankly, I think Gretchen was surprised, too, as surprised as everyone else."