We went behind-the-scenes on Project Runway SA

Johannesburg - All is quiet outside Hotel QSL on 44 in Milpark, Joburg, when I arrive on a Friday morning in June. One would never guess that inside designers, cameramen and models are busy creating the first season of Project Runway SA.

The show is deep into production and the filming of episode 9 is under way. I’m under strict instructions to take no photographs or reveal any details until the episodes air. It’s strange to think that the show hasn’t even hit television yet, but I’m about to see who the final six contestants are.

As viewers and fans know by now, the six remaining designers are Sandile Mlambo, Stephen van Eeden, Siphosihle Masango, Kireshen Chetty, Kentse Masilo and Jaime Liu, but when I see them back in June, their faces are completely new to me.

I’m escorted to the Project Runway workroom, where the crew is busy filming the designers as they work on their latest garments. The room is much smaller than I imagined (TV makes everything look bigger), and is crowded with work tables, equipment, dress dummies and material.

Mentor Gert-Johan Coetzee is busy advising Chetty on his creation. Our very own Tim Gunn (the US version’s mentor), Coetzee cuts a dashing figure in his tailored suit and slick shoes.

Gunn’s Project Runway catchphrase was “Make it work!” and, after the cameramen are done filming Coetzee’s workroom segment, I ask the famous young designer if he has his own catchphrase.

“I like to say ‘Show me the magic’,” he says coyly.

He takes his job as mentor seriously, and tells me he’s grown very attached to the designers.

“It’s always very hard each time someone has to leave,” he says.

After filming in the workroom, the designers go downstairs to advise the show’s make-up and hair team on how their models should look. Filming takes place in the dressing room while the models wait their turn to be dressed.

I chat briefly with model Grethe (one of the few people I know who shares my name), who is modelling for Liu.

“I love Jaime,” she gushes. “And for some reason he likes me, so he always picks me.”

The model paired with the winning designer also gets a prize, so it’s important for the models to be picked by a promising contestant.

After make-up, the designers break for a quick lunch, but even then they’re called up one by one to do pieces on camera.

From watching every season of the US show, I know that the Project Runway schedule is extremely gruelling, and I ask the group if they’re tired.

“We’ve been tired for weeks!” says Mlambo, letting out a groan.

“Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually – we’re exhausted,” agrees Masilo.

The designers all work and sleep in the same building, and are prohibited from speaking to their friends and family. After five weeks, it becomes very trying.

“It’s a nightmare not having a phone,” says Mlambo – the most talkative of the group. “But you get used to it.”

Masilo says: “We’re not allowed phones in case we expose details of what’s happening in the show.”

Chetty tells me there are many rules. For instance, you’re not allowed to work on your garment outside of the workroom or ask the film crew for assistance or advice.

Although the final contestants have an easy rapport with each other, they’re all still very eager to win the competition.

“Studying fashion, you always have a dream that you want to accomplish,” says Masilo, the only woman among the six.

“Project Runway is a way for me to achieve all those goals. I’ve dedicated my life to this craftsmanship and everything I’ve experienced has been preparation for this.”

Chetty says: “Because I’m self-taught and never went to a fashion school, I never had the opportunities that everyone else had – so, for me, this is my big opportunity. Winning this would be amazing in terms of brand building and showing what you can do in this industry.”

I ask the group what was the worst criticism they received from judges Noni Gasa and Rahim Rawjee.

“Your dress looks like a giant strawberry,” says Mlambo. “Or they’ll just throw up their hands and go, ‘It’s boring!’”

Van Eeden says: “I was shocked, in fact, disappointed by Rahim’s comment during deliberation. He said: ‘He may be great technically, but so are hundreds of seamstresses behind every super ramp, and they are not known and that is why there is a designer at the front with a point of view.’”

Liu says there were many times when he just wanted to quit.

“The episode where it was between me and Gugu [Peteni] going home was a very emotional time for me. I was very tired, and when I’m tired, the smallest things get to me. I was trashed for my dress. I just wanted to go home.”

Liu ended up winning the next challenge, which illustrates the ups and downs in the competition.

When I ask the group whether they feel that there’s confusion in what the judges seem to want, they give a resounding yes.

“They often say you should give them more, but then, when judging comes around, they say it’s too much. And then when you do less, they say it’s boring,” says Chetty. “All of us have been in the top, and have wondered why the person next to us ended up winning.”

Another gripe is around the brief. The designers are given a brief of what will be looked at in the challenge, and work around it. But according to them the judges only receive the brief a few minutes before filming starts.

“There was a time when it felt like the judges weren’t briefed properly in terms of what our challenge was,” says Liu. “It’s demotivating because you’ve sat with that brief for the past two days.”

The group laughs when I ask them whether they’d done an unconventional materials challenge yet, where they have to use items that are not fabric to create a fashionable garment.

“Yes, we went to Menlyn Mall and we had to scavenge through the trash!” says Chetty, referencing episode three, where they had to create a ballgown out of litter.

“It was so gross. We had to cut open these cans and there was gunk inside of them. At least we had gloves.”

On the other hand, there were challenges the contestants have loved. Masango remembers the Edgars denim challenge as his favourite.

“I made a huge oversized, over-the-shoulder denim trench, and a sexy skirt with a blanket-inspired top. I pushed myself and had so much fun,” he says.

The actual physical workspace is very small, and I ask them whether it was overly crowded in the beginning when all the contestants were still present.

“It was irritating,” says Mlambo. “And we only had six sewing machines between 12 people, and tiny tables. I suppose it was part of the challenge – to work around all these people.”

Chetty says: “We kept our cool. But we did have some very dramatic characters here.”

Liu adds: “Luckily, they’re gone!”

They won’t tell me who they’re referring to, except to say that “they were loud, obnoxious and dramatic. They wanted to get a reaction for TV.”

After lunch, the designers will head to the runway in Melville to showcase their garments for the judges, and then one of them will be eliminated.

Project Runway airs Tuesdays at 21:30 on Mzansi Magic (DStv 161)