NINA GARCIA IS IN A CAB RACING up 3rd Avenue in Manhattan. She's on her way to dinner at the Rosa Mexicana on East 59th street when she takes my call.
'I'm sorry,' she says. 'I knew I was supposed to talk to somebody but I've been packing for Europe. Can we talk after dinner?'
Of course we can. In a few seconds, while paying her taxi driver, the smartest, most elegant, most opinionated star of the Project Runway (TVB Pearl) series has established that she is frantically busy, desperately charming and full of infectious energy.
'Everything started with my mother back in Barranquilla,' she says, now back in the luxurious apartment she shares with her financier husband David Conrod and her one-year-old son Lucas. 'She was the kind of woman who gave her seamstress the key to our house and eventually persuaded her to move in with us. Every piece of clothing in her enormous closet was meticulously cared for and nobody was allowed in without her personal supervision.'
'Everything' in Garcia's case is a career that has taken her to the top of the fashion world and established her reputation as a woman with one of the best pairs of eyes in the business. By day she is fashion director of Elle magazine. By night she becomes the Cruella de Vil of Project Runway, the one judge on the panel of three - her stablemates are model Heidi Klum and designer Michael Kors - who can be relied upon to give contestants a hard time.
'I didn't want to do Project Runway when they first approached me,' she says. 'I thought they might want to do something that demeaned the fashion industry. They convinced me it wouldn't and now I think the show is making a great contribution. Vogue was approached first but turned it down because it couldn't get enough control. Elle was more open minded and it has been amazing for the magazine's profile.'
Like all reality shows, Project Runway throws ordinary people into taxing situations and the one who has the best survival skills wins. In this case the participants are aspiring designers. Garcia and her fellow judges whittle down - or more like slash and burn - a list of 15 contestants who set out at the beginning of each season. The eventual winner gets to show their own line at New York Fashion Week. The triumphant designer also wins an editorial spread in Elle, a cash prize of US$100,000 from TRESemme professional hair care to start their own line and the opportunity to sell their clothes on Bluefly.com. Past winners such as Jeffrey Sebelia - whose line is available in Hong Kong at Harvey Nichols - have built successful careers.
'The show has made a big difference,' says Garcia. 'It has increased awareness of how difficult it is to be a designer and, by demystifying the process, it has opened the doors for more people to become designers. Admissions to the fashion course at Parsons [New School of Design] have doubled since the show first aired.'
Hong Kong will get a chance to meet Garcia this month. On March 11 she will be at Lane Crawford in the IFC Mall at a cocktail party to celebrate the Hong Kong release of her latest achievement, The Little Black Book of Style, a guide designed to help women define their own sense of style without too much reliance on luxury labels.
'A lot of women think they will be more confident if they have the latest It-bag or dress,' says Garcia. 'But style is internal. I want women to be more style-confident and avoid being style victims.'
Garcia's ascent to the status of fashion guru began with her closet-obsessed mother and playboy father. They thought nothing of dragging her out of school in the middle of a term for a quick shopping trip to Paris or Rome. She would return weeks behind in algebra but with a fine awareness of Chanel and Balenciaga. When she left home her first thought after getting a liberal arts degree from Boston University was to become a designer. She set off for Paris and the Ecole Superieur de la Mode where her dreams were incinerated by her fellow students.
'They were so talented at making clothes and I realised I was never going to be as good as them,' she says, a faint whisper of regret in her voice. 'It was hard for me to accept because it had been my life's dream to be a designer.'
Heading back to the US, Garcia enrolled at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and looked for another way to build a career in the industry. Marc Jacobs gave her a chance and inspired her with a new direction.
'I worked for Marc as an intern,' she says. 'My job was to send the clothes out to editors at fashion magazines like Vogue and Mirabella. I worked out of a closet but I didn't care if I had to put six bags of clothes together - I was sending them to Vogue. And then we would get people like Keith Richards to come into the story because Marc was hotter than hot.'
Garcia also realised that New York's garment district was full of girls like her, sending clothes to the fashion editors at big magazines.
'I realised that was my new dream, to be an editor, because they got to see all the clothes,' she says. 'The only problem was how to get that job.'
It was another tough moment for Garcia because as she began her new direction Marc Jacobs decided to take a year off. She got hired as an assistant in Perry Ellis' public relations department but she was making no money and was regarded as disposable.
'I was Colombian and I didn't have a work visa so I had to work for free for a long time because there was no reason for anybody to sponsor me, I was just an assistant,' she says. 'There were thousands of girls waiting in line for my job and I had to work 10 times harder than anybody else to make myself indispensable. My parents supported me but they began to lose patience. They said get a real job or return to Colombia.'
With such a tough start it's no wonder Garcia is so hard on Project Runway's aspiring designers. After Perry Ellis, Garcia got her real job - at Mirabella magazine (now defunct) - and, in 2000, moved to Elle where three years later she became fashion director.
She is now the one who gets the clothes sent by girls in closets dreaming of working for a fashion magazine.
'I'm living my fantasy,' she says.