Project Runway's Nina Garcia

Laura Kusnyer

Project Runway is back in New York City, and Nina Garcia couldn't be happier. After spending last season in LA, Lifetime has brought the show back to its roots at Parsons The New School for Design in Manhattan—where fashion mentor Tim Gunn unforgettably coined the mantra of aspiring designers, "Make it work." Garcia, fashion director for Marie Claire, is respected—and at times feared—by contestants, both for her attention to details, like crooked hems and sloppy seams, and for her composure when critiquing the budding designers' innovative (or disastrous) creations as they compete for a coveted spot at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Despite her cool under pressure, there is at least one thing that makes her giddy: taking a seat alongside Michael Kors and Heidi Klum in the city where it all started.

Are you excited to have the whole gang back together in NYC?
Nina Garcia:
[Shouts] Yeeeees!

It felt like something was missing from the last season.
I completely agree. The missing chemistry, or what the viewers felt, is the fact that it wasn't happening in New York—even though we tried to re-create it as closely as possible. New York City is the center of fashion. This is where all the magazines are; this is where most of the designers come from and where the models are. This is where it all happens—let's be realistic. And for the show not to happen in New York was a big problem. Even when you think about designers' dreams—they all dream to come here. I remember dreaming about being a fashion designer—or just dreaming about fashion—when I was a teenager, and my dream was to come to New York.

Can we look forward to any surprises on the show?
I think you'll notice that our judges are a little more fashion-insider this time around. They might not be names everyone knows, but they're names that are very important in the fashion industry, that make a lot of waves. They're very big players in terms of fashion influence.

What do this season's designers bring to the table?
There are a couple of designers who are very strong and have very marked sensibilities. So right from the beginning, you'll start to notice them. They're not all over the place every time. They're very consistent in their point of view, which is great, because that's important when you're striving to be a designer. You have to know what you stand for, who you are and what your design is going to be about.

Can you share any tips on how to be fashionable during a recession?
Be thrifty on things that you can layer—T-shirts, jeans and sweaters—and spend your money on things that are unique and that you will keep for a very long time, like a very good coat, a very good bag, a very good pair of shoes. There's really great stuff out there at fantastic prices. When you go shopping, don't go into that impulse mode. Have a list of what you're going to go buy. And if you do splurge, make sure you have at least three things in your closet that will fit with [that item] that you can make an outfit from.

Do you ever go vintage shopping in NYC?
I like What Goes Around Comes Around. We pull a lot of clothes there for shoots, and, yes, sometimes I even buy for myself.

Do you draw fashion inspiration from any particular neighborhood?
Downtown is just great. It's very inspirational to go to the East Village or the West Village. It's not just fashion that you're getting [in New York City]; you're getting the museums, the music, Broadway. New York City is the fashion capital because it has all those cultural elements that connect with fashion.

Are there any NYC-based designers you find particularly inspiring?
Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, Jason Wu, Marc Jacobs. Marc Jacobs is a real New Yorker!

Where do you shop for yourself?
Oh, my God, everywhere! I shop downtown, I shop uptown. But remember, I do shopping for a living.

Does that take the fun out of shopping for you?
It's fun, but it's a different experience. I'm seeing things ahead of time. I go to showrooms, I see designers' collections, I go to shows. That's what I'm constantly doing here, in Paris and Milan. I'm very saturated in terms of information about clothes, so when it comes to personal shopping, I feel like I miss the boat sometimes. Like right now, I'm looking at spring [collections]. By the time spring gets [to the stores], I've seen it and think, Maybe I don't need a lot.

Where do you go when you really want to treat yourself?
Zero stress, just browsing, no worries about how much things cost? Probably Bergdorf's. It feels very old-world New York.