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Catty Perry pulls in the claws
Alex Perry. Picture: Supplied.

Controversial designer Alex Perry has carved a career out of making catty comments on television for more than 10 years. The fashion legend isn't one to hold his tongue and last year there was a public uproar when he compared a model with "overstuffed luggage" on Australia's Next Top Model.

So viewers were shocked when he appeared for the first time as designer mentor on the third season of Project Runway Australia as a toned-down version of his usual contentious self.

"I always cop flack for being too direct and blunt," he said over coffee on the Melbourne set of Project Runway Australia season four.

"I don't think I'm bitchy but I think people perceive me to be on Top Model, maybe I am sometimes on Top Model, but I didn't want to be that. I wanted to be - I don't want to go so far as saying nurturing because that will make me sound all love and mung beans, that's not that - but I kind of went a bit easier last year."

This year, viewers may be welcoming back the Perry they know and love (or is that love to hate).

"I wanted to be more direct this year," he said. "It's not about your physical appearance, it's about work, it's about pattern-making, about the finish and the quality."

The show is getting a further revamp with designer Peter Morrissey and former Harper's Bazaar Australia fashion director Claudia Navone replacing designer Kirrily Johnston and IMG Fashion global production director Jarrad Clark as judges. Perry's pal and supermodel Megan Gale returns as host and main judge for a second season and, in Perry's eyes, the casting team have finally got the combination right.

"We've really hit our stride," he said. "We watched it all together after (last season) and we were like 'you know what, that was a bit stilted' or 'that wasn't right'.

"Megan's incredible, she's been so good at overhauling it. She's had more of an opinion this season. Claudia is heaven, she knows her stuff. Peter is just a naughty boy, he doesn't mince his words."

Among the Australian fashion designers who will appear as guest judges are Toni Maticevski and Dannii Minogue.

But the main stars of the show are the contestants. The 12 budding fashionistas will compete in a series of challenges for prizes including a car, a six-page fashion feature in Madison magazine and the opportunity to present their own show at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia 2013 in Sydney.

Going head to head this year will be Jamie Ashkar, Leah Da Gloria, Natalie Cook, Sasha-Rose Hartley, who was raised in Denmark, WA, William Kutana, Tristan Melle, Christina Exie, Jordan Court, Alexandra Ovijach, Savva Argyrou, Natashya Manfield and Busselton-based Mladen Milicich. The local designer showcased his new menswear line from his label Glytch at Perth Fashion Festival's Techno Fashion parade last month.

But don't expect too much cattiness - Perry said this year the focus was on quality over personality during casting.

"Cast them on their ability and the personality will come," he said. "The drama is going to happen naturally. In the fashion industry we have those dramatics. Put 12 designers in a room together and tell me there's not going to be the bitch and the one that's really great."

Perry, who has dressed myriad stars including Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez, takes his role as mentor very seriously and when the cameras stop rolling his advice doesn't halt. "It's so important for me to be up- front with them. I'm not going to tell you how to fix something, I'm going to help to lead you there. I want that light bulb to go off in their head. Safe is so terrible in this industry, especially when you're young."

Project Runway Australia airs Monday, 5.30pm on pay-TV channel Arena.