In the Mood: Project Runway‘s Fabric-Merchant Extraordinaire Gives Us Some Material

"There have been a couple—not meltdowns, but panics."

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Lifetime

Mentor Tim Gunn talks contestants on Project Runway during Season 9 inside the Mood Fabric store.

Lifetime’s flagship fashion competition, Project Runway, has its tenth-season premiere tonight, and all the regulars are back: Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn… and Mood Designer Fabrics. Mood is the scene of both the show’s televised shopping chaos and where viewers’ scream at their televisions when a designer chooses something ugly. The store’s owner, Eric Sauma, has been running his family’s business for 14 years, which means he’s had a view of the making of the PR sausage, wrapped in its sequined casing, right from the very beginning. He spoke to TIME about the mood at Mood during shooting, how this season will surprise views, what you can tell from the designers’ fabric choices—and the latest news about Swatch, the store’s resident Boston Terrier.

TIME: Do you remember when Project Runway first approached you about incorporating Mood into the show? How did that happen?

Eric Sauma: At the time [of the pilot], we did a lot of Martha Stewart, we did Oprah, we did HGTV shows and The Apprentice. It never hurts to do more pilots in case it turns out to be something. It was three designers they brought in, and one little camera. Then they said, ‘If it gets picked up by somebody, we’ll be back.’ I guess Weinstein backed the show, so we did Season One. We didn’t know what was going on. They sent 14 designers in, and they had a pretty big production crew at the time, they had three cameras running around with them, they had the mic guys, they had the producers—probably 40 people altogether running through the store. We left the store open because nobody knew what the show was, no one knew anything, none of the customers. Then Season One aired and we’re like, that’s actually a really cool show.

Has it been good for business?

It’s been excellent. It’s pushed our business from being wholesale to a much more retail-oriented company. It helps us branch out, gets our name nationally recognized if not globally recognized. It’s a really beneficial relationship.

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Take me through what happens when the contestants arrive at the store. Do they actually stick with the time limit for shopping?

Oh yes. Tim actually sits there and when he counts down, that’s a real countdown. “All right designers, you have 30 minutes to shop”—he says the whole speech. They start running around the store. Employees help them a lot — well, not too much. We point them in the right direction because we don’t want to take away too much drama from the show. Then they’ll stop and he’ll say, “Designers, you have to come to the register right now.” Some of them will still be cutting, and then he actually walks up and says it doesn’t count: “If they started cutting that after we said stop, we’re not allowing that on the show.” He’s pretty strict about it.

So the time during which the fabric is being cut counts for time?

Everything. Even when they’re checking out, they’re not even allowed to pick up needles or scissors. Everything has to be together at the register in one pile at the time of checkout.

When you watch, it often seems like they get within about 50 cents of what they’re allowed to spend. Are they just really good at math, or is there some secret to how they get so close?

Occasionally a couple of them go over by a couple dollars, and sometimes we’ve had contestants go over by like 100 or 200 dollars, just not paying attention. Especially when they do it as groups. You might get one individual running off and buying fabric. Then they’ll have to pull a couple things out.

Do they get a tour before they go shopping for the first time?

It’s funny you say that. This is the first season that I’ve noticed they give them a 15-minute tour of the store on the first challenge. All other seasons before that, they’ve never walked them through the store; their first challenge is probably the hardest.

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Have you ever seen anyone have a total meltdown in the store?

We had a couple instances where they cut fabric, they get to the register, that fabric is missing and they panic. We’ve had people—Anya, last season—she lost her money within the store. She panicked. But I believe she actually won that challenge. There have been a couple—not meltdowns, but panics. They don’t like the fabrics they’re choosing and then Tim says “one minute left.”

Can you tell how a contestant will do by what he or she is buying?

I’ve tried to. Sometimes they pick a really beautiful fabric and you’re like, this should be something beautiful. But in the end it all depends on what their inspiration was and what they actually create. Sometimes they pick beautiful fabric and they create something not so nice; sometimes they take such basic fabrics and do great things with it, like pleating it or dying it. It’s hard to tell from what they’re choosing.

Can you think of any examples of someone defying your expectations like that?

Going back to one of the earlier seasons, Uli (season three) would take really gorgeous prints and do something really simple with it and let it float down the runway. The first time it was awesome, the second time the judges loved it and after that they were like, you need to do more than just show beautiful fabric. You have to actually show beautiful design.

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Is there anyone we should keep an eye on from the first episode, this season?

I don’t have a favorite but a lot of them this season are past clients of ours, and they’re in the store like every week. I think there’s five or six New Yorkers on the show and they’ve all been really good clients. They’re all friends of ours.

Watching what they were buying, did you notice any trends in terms of the fashion that we’re going to see this season?

They usually have something in mind, they have an inspiration. I know lace is trending right now and I don’t remember them buying a lot of lace. It all depends on the challenge.

And how’s Swatch? 

He’s amazing. He’s our man. He’s the Mood mascot but more and more he’s becoming the Project Runway mascot.

So we’re going to see more of him this season?

I believe you will be. He was on many episodes and he’s Tim Gunn’s favorite, so I think Tim is the one pushing for him.

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