Even before the writers strike threatened to denude the TV schedule, it was clear that "Project Runway" was poised to conquer this season. To get a sense of the building anticipation among "Runway" fans about this week's return of the Bravo fashion competition, one had to spend only a few minutes perusing the forums on websites such as TelevisionWithoutPity.com.
Under the topic "You know you're obsessed with "P.R." when . . . ," one avid watcher posted: "When you start planning your "P.R." Debut Party two months in advance, making up a menu to rival a Superbowl blow-out, sketching designs on where to move the furniture so the maximum number can squeeze into a 15x16 room, calling friends you haven't spoken to in a year to make sure they travel cross-country to attend."
Such commitment may seem a bit overblown to those unfamiliar with the reality show, which pits 15 fashion designers against one another in an exhausting gauntlet of unconventional design challenges. (At one point last season, the contestants had to create an outfit solely from materials they found at a New Jersey recycling depot.)
But "Project Runway," which returns for its fourth season Wednesday, has acquired legions of near-fanatical devotees who are entranced by the designers' inventive creations and backstage pathos, not to mention host Heidi Klum's blunt pronouncements. Last season's finale drew 5.6 million viewers, beating out all its cable competition for the night and delivering Bravo's biggest audience ever.
"I hear people say that for them, it's like television crack," said Tim Gunn, the sleekly avuncular former chair of the Department of Fashion Design at Parsons the New School for Design, who acts as a mentor to the designers. "They watch one episode and say, 'Hmm, this is intriguing.' They watch two, and suddenly they're totally hooked."
Bravo executives promise that this season will keep "Runway" addicts sated. Between the surprise guest judges (a clue: think celebrities with three-word names) and some unexpected drama, "it is not going to disappoint in any way," said Frances Berwick, executive vice president of programming and productions. Gunn, who helps select the contestants, said that unlike past years, any of the 120 semifinalists could have won this season.
"The level of talent of the designers is pretty astonishing," said Jane Lipsitz, one of the show's executive producers.
The caliber of the contestants stems in part from the status "Project Runway" has accrued in the fashion industry, which regards the reality show as a credible purveyor of new talent. During New York Fashion Week, fashionistas flock to the runway show where the show's finalists display their collections. Many have landed plum design jobs after the show, while Gunn was tapped to be the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne Inc. this year.
"The first season nobody knew what it was -- it was just a reality show," said Jeffrey Sebelia, the Los Angeles-based designer who won last year's competition. "The second season, people started to take a little more notice, but were still in the closet about it. People I know were watching it, but pretending not to like it. And it seemed last season, everyone came out of the closet."
But the show's success is also due in large part to its appeal to those outside the fashion world.
"I think people didn't realize until they started to get into the show that they care as much as they do about clothes or that they have as many opinions as they do about clothes," said executive producer Dan Cutforth. "It seemed like kind of a niche world, and what's happened with 'Runway' is that it was revealed to be actually a very broad and relatable world."
The show has also helped raise the profile of Bravo, which has largely remade itself in recent years with a savvy pop culture aesthetic aimed at a high-income demographic. The cable channel bought "Runway" from Miramax, where co-founder Harvey Weinstein developed the concept with Klum, who is also an executive producer. In the wake of its success, Bravo launched "Top Chef," a culinary competition that has drawn its own avid following. "Top Design" and "Shear Genius" followed last season, although the interior decorating and hair styling shows were not similarly embraced in the zeitgeist. Nevertheless, the network is now working on another iteration of the "Runway" concept with Cutforth and Lipsitz -- this one set in the world of professional dance.
"Project Runway," Berwick said, "absolutely plays into the crux of what's important to us, which is creative people showing their creative process."
But when Bravo rolled out the program in 2004, skeptics questioned the premise.
"There were certainly some raised eyebrows and questions like, 'How interesting is it to watch people sew?' and analogies of watching paint dry," Berwick recalled.