Season 2 of Project Runway is sashaying back onto Bravo's schedule Dec. 7 (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.), meaning those hooked by last season's couture on speed (Austin's cornhusk dress!), design-room cattiness (''Bitch is gonna get stabbed!''), and frequent melodramas (Wendy Pepper!) can once again get their fashion fix. The format remains the same host Heidi Klum and ''den father'' Tim Gunn, plus designer Michael Kors and Elle fashion director Nina Garcia as judges, whittle down 16 contestants to find America's next top couture creator. And this season's crop is as determined as a socialite trying to snag the last Galaxy dress at Henri Bendel.
''The group of people we found are very talented more so than last year,'' says Kors. That's not to say there aren't any uncomfortable moments in the new season, like when Santino Rice, a designer from L.A., blithely tells Kors he knows ''lots of people who don't know Michael Kors.'' Or when Andrae Gonzalo, also a designer from L.A., has a runway meltdown when he tries to explain the philosophy behind his garment. (''I don't need to hear all this,'' the reliably bitchy Garcia huffs as Andrae sobs.) Adding to the drama is season 1 bootee Daniel ''Follow your bliss'' Franco, who returns for another go-round. Gunn believes this batch of contenders is far tougher than the first. ''[The contestants'] interaction with me was very different than in season 1,'' says the ever-impeccably dressed Gunn, who is chair of the fashion department at NYC's Parsons School of Design (where the series is shot), and the group's adviser/confidant. ''In season 1, they didn't quite know what to make of me.''
They may have been clueless at the time, but many of those season 1 Runway-walkers have remained newsworthy in the fashion world unlike most reality contestants, who fade into oblivion once their shows end. Both Kevin Johnn and Austin Scarlett showed collections at the spring 2006 shows in New York; runner-up Kara Saun has designed wardrobes for What I Like About You, R U the Girl?, and America's Next Top Model; and even villainess Wendy Pepper is enjoying brisk sales at her eponymous boutique in Middleburg, Va. But at least one contestant's transition from reality TV to the professional world has met with some backstage drama: This past April, winner Jay McCarroll landed in the tabloids for drunkenly insulting both a reporter and a designer, Kai Kuehne. (He apologized.) In September, he was supposed to design Klum's dress for the Emmys, but the supermodel ended up wearing clutch the pearls! Dior. (''Jay's gown just didn't work,'' Klum said at the time. ''He was very cavalier about the whole thing,'' says Gunn.) ''I'm not a red-carpet designer and I'm not doing that again, 'cause it was a fiasco,'' says McCarroll of the incident. (Hold your tears: McCarroll has his own one-hour Bravo special in February, Project Jay, in which he chronicles his post-Runway life, including the Emmy situation.)
Ruffled feathers aside, this season will present plenty more opportunities for sartorial adventure and catwalk catfights: The designers find out that the model each of them casually chose for the second challenge is theirs for the entire season, and unlike last season, the winner of each week's task won't be granted immunity from eviction in the next episode. ''The greatest thing about the show,'' says Kors, ''is that it's not about eating worms.'' True, Project Runway may be more glamorous than most reality shows...but that doesn't mean it's always pretty.