February 28, 2005 at 12:00 PM EST

Admit it: You thought Kara Saun had Bravo’s surprise-hit design-off, Project Runway, all sewn up. Certainly the crowd at the Feb. 4 taping of the fashion-show finale did, giving her Aviator-inspired collection the loudest applause. But when the finale aired Feb. 23, it was Jay ”Bitch is gonna get stabbed!” McCarroll who came out on top, winning $100,000, an Elle spread, and a Banana Republic mentorship with his bright-hued knits.

Held during NYC’s Fashion Week, the show also featured Wendy Pepper (who never really had a chance, right?) and gown-obsessed Austin Scarlett — already eliminated, but there as a spoiler-preventing decoy. And in the audience: designers booted in previous weeks, who were more than willing to dish about the show’s breakout villain. ”Wendy was extremely two-faced,” said Alexandra Vidal, eliminated in week 6. ”It was horrible.”

But the best drama was backstage, where Saun frowned with laserlike concentration and McCarroll, in a tizzy, fussed with a model’s earmuffs amid cameras and shouts of ”I need double-stick tape!” Scarlett, a diva even in defeat, caused a few gray hairs with last-minute tweaks. ”Austin is just starting to dress two models, and he’s starting the show!” said a panicked Bravo staffer.

Just the kind of adrenaline-fueled scene that made the series — whose early episodes played to a paltry 340,000 viewers — into must-see fashionista TV. Along with surprisingly accomplished designs and, let’s face it, the cattiness (go, Wendy!), Runway drew more viewers nearly every week, helping give the net its highest-rated Wednesday night.

So now McCarroll is fashion’s latest darling. ”[This collection] was the first time it all made sense,” he said after his show (but before he knew he won). ”Fashion should be about creativity and artistry . . . I wanted to show all the possibilities.”

Access Denied

Why Austin isn’t dressing for the Oscars

On Feb. 9’s Project Runway,Austin Scarlett lost out to Wendy Pepper in a challenge to design a Grammy dress for Access Hollywood cohost (and guest judge) Nancy O’Dell. O’Dell loved his gown so much, she asked Scarlett to design her an Oscar dress. Will he?

Sadly for fans of the coiffed-to-within-an-inch-of-his-life Scarlett, no. ”He never followed up and called her,” says a rep for O’Dell, who notes that the TV personality plans to wear Pamela Dennis at the Feb. 27 awards. ”Nancy didn’t have his number, so she couldn’t contact him. She needed a dress, so she had to move on.” Perhaps it’s all for the best: That orange chiffon number Pepper whipped up for the Grammy red carpet barely made a ripple in the fashion press.

Make it work! Please use the accessories wall thoughtfully! Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum guide undiscovered designers through the harrowing rites of fashion.
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