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By Jay Bobbin
As she enters the world of unscripted series, Heidi Klum has designs on designers.

The supermodel gives 12 amateur fashion creators the chance to enter the big time in "Project Runway," premiering Wednesday, Dec. 1, on Bravo. An executive producer of the show, Klum also serves as one of the judges who gauge which competitors fare best at the weekly challenges they're handed. Also-rans are eliminated, in reality-TV tradition; the last three left standing, and designing, will get to unveil full lines during New York's Fashion Week in February 2005.

Sharing the judging with Klum are sportswear and men's wear designer Michael Kors, Elle magazine fashion director Nina Garcia and Fashion News director Anne Slowey. Joined by guest judges every week, they also offer guidance to the designer wannabes, who have to live together and, in 11 cases, will feel the pain of ultimately being cut loose by the same industry professionals who encouraged them.
"This shows how important what designers do is," Klum says, "and how difficult it is to break into this business. It's the same thing as a model. I was discovered when I won a competition. Nowadays, it's so hard to break into anything. The world is getting so small. So I think it's a great opportunity for people who want to become a designer to be found on television."

Kors agrees, having endured his own struggles to make his mark on the world of fashion. "The objective here is to find something that is original and says something," he explains. "We would like to see this person turn into the next great designer who actually dresses real people, and not just in 'garbage-bag couture,' as I call it. It's an entertaining process to watch what designers have to do, the hoops they have to jump through to get clothes made and to get them to look great."

Originality is no small element in "Project Runway," since, Klum notes, "copying things is part of the whole thing about fashion. Before, it always started in Europe. American designers always get really mad because people say [they] steal from Europe, but it has changed." Indeed, Kors adds the series is partially "going outside of New York City. You're going to people who are from small towns in the Midwest. They've been sewing in their basements."

To that end, while the featured design amateurs span the country from New York to Los Angeles, they also encompass locations such as Middleburg, Va., and Charlotte, N.C. "We looked at a lot of people," Klum confirms, "and there were some crazy outfits out there. There are many twisted people and outrageous, crazy things that are very fun to watch and very interesting.

"I think about being back in school, sitting there when you get something you have to do, and you look around and everyone else is writing and you can't come up with something. All these people getting the same challenge, and seeing what they all come up with, is also very interesting."

The payoff will be big for the budding fashionista who makes it all the way through the contest. "You're talking about a sponsorship, a mentorship that they are going to receive," Kors says. "Right now, fashion is in a fabulous place for new talent. The show will bring attention to the designers, [with the winner] being able to have a whole portfolio in Elle magazine and also being able to have a runway show in front of the world press." Another part of the prize package: $100,000 in "seed" money to get the winner started professionally.

Kors wishes he'd had such an opportunity as a beginner. "I think I would have done the show in a heartbeat," he reflects. "Would I have won? I'm pretty tenacious, and I hope to think I'm pretty talented. I don't know if I would have won. I know I definitely would have done well.

"When I started, fashion wasn't even covered on television. That was over 20 years ago. Television is a big part of the fashion industry now. These people need to have experience with a reporter asking, 'What's this collection about?' You can't just say, 'I don't know.' I think this is going to be great for them."

A fan of reality TV, the German-born Klum puts fellow model Tyra Banks' UPN series, "America's Next Top Model," at the top of her must-watch list. "I'm in the modeling business, so of course I want to see who's going to be the next top model," Klum reasons. "They're all in line after me, so I have to watch out for them. But I think our show is a little different. We're talking about designers, and what the models are wearing, and what the women out there are wearing, so we want to know who's going to be the next one doing that."