LOOKING back, the model, actor, swimwear designer and host of Project Runway Australia, Megan Gale, has a clear memory about the moment when for her, clothes became ''fashion''.
Several waiters at the Southbank restaurant where we meet gaze at her from a discreet distance while an oblivious Gale stirs her coffee. ''It was the night of the school disco and mum wouldn't let me go but I just hassled her until she said, 'All right, you can go, but you've got to go now.'
''I was so happy I just went in the clothes I was in … a pair of jeans and tracksuit top. It was the '80s, so all my friends were wearing ra-ra skirts and their hair was crimped. That was the first time where I felt like I didn't fit in because of what I was wearing.''
While you probably won't see a ra-ra skirt on the fourth season of Project Runway Australia, Gale says some of this season's designers have produced remarkably original garments. ''A lot of them have an edge and some of them interpret fashion in interesting ways.
''That's what makes this show feel different each season. Everyone remembers Matcho from season three - he was great to watch because he made you wonder where his head was creatively. This year we have Christina … she really thinks outside the square.''
Based on the long-running US version hosted by Heidi Klum, Project Runway Australia is a reality show about 12 fashion designers who must create a new garment from scratch within a brutally short time frame. Each week there's an elimination - the last contestant standing wins.
The first challenge in episode one begins at midnight; pressure, exhaustion and creative temperaments make a compelling combination. Then there's the challenges. Gale says there are plenty of fresh and innovative tasks that force designers to use non-conventional materials that take them out of their comfort zones.
This year's judges include Australian fashion designer Peter Morrissey and professional stylist and former fashion director of Harper's Bazaar Australia, Claudia Navone.
''Peter's very playful,'' Gale says. ''He takes it all seriously, but sometimes he's like a six-year-old on red cordial. But I'm the wrangler when it comes to the judges, designers and guest judges [including Miranda Kerr and Dannii Minogue], so that's a lot of fun.''
As a judge, Gale doesn't hold back and has developed an uncanny knack when it comes to spotting the designer's attempts to hide wayward pins. ''It's true. I have an evil eye when it comes to pins … constructive criticism is important, but not all the designers like to hear it. Some of them stand there and just give you excuses and that just brings out my 'mum' tone.''
Designer Alex Perry (if he had a more substantial moustache he'd twirl it) returns as mentor, dishing out his signature advice that ranges from supportive and astute to delightfully acerbic.
''A lot of people may not believe this,'' Gale says, ''but Alex has one of the biggest hearts.
''He has this persona that works on the show but he's very down to earth. He rarely goes out to functions - he'd prefer to be at home, in his jammies, having a cup of tea with his wife and his dog.''
At the suggestion that maybe the decision-making process featured on the show is the result of orchestrated scripting, Gale stresses that every result is hard won.
''We all have a different perspective. We don't always agree - Claudia might focus on how the garment photographs, Peter's looking at how it's crafted, and I'm thinking, 'Would I wear that on the red carpet and do I want my underwear hanging out the back?' We nut it out until we have a result.''
Gale is reluctant to reveal specifics about the new season but says one challenge almost ended in disaster. ''The designers were asked to make an entire outfit and someone decided they'd knock out a pair of jeans, but they ended up looking like something circa 1980 and not in a good way.''
It could be said, though, that the mishaps - say, the model teetering down the catwalk praying her ill-fitting garment doesn't cause a very public wardrobe malfunction - are a large part of the show's appeal. ''Coming up with new challenges that are good for both the designers and viewers at home is a challenge in itself,'' Gale says, laughing. ''But this year we've definitely managed to come up with some great ones.''
Project Runway Australia, season four, Monday at 8.30pm on Arena.