Clothing designer Jay McCarroll grabs two slices of pizza as he sat down on my living room couch Monday afternoon, letting out a snarky laugh.

We were about to preview the debut episode of the fourth season of Project Runway. Two years ago, McCarroll won the reality-show competition, then in its inaugural year.

The fourth season debuts tonight at 10 on Bravo. While I was speaking with McCarroll at Philadelphia University, where he now teaches a class, I mentioned I was about to go home and watch the preview.

"You have it?" he asked. His eyes widened. "We should watch it together."

So now we sit on my couch with my cat and a cheese pizza, half topped with mushrooms (Jay is a vegetarian), our eyes glued to the television.

"I just can't wait to see this," says McCarroll, dressed in all black. His platinum hair is spiky, his devilish sideburns alive and well.

Hosted by former model Heidi Klum, Runway has become Bravo's most watched show and is credited for stoking fledgling fashion designers' flames of creativity.

Runway hasn't deviated much from its form. The designers' mentor, Tim Gunn, still tells them to "make it work." Klum continues to look fabulous and each week boasts a new guest designer who helps judge the runway challenges (the premiere features bridal and eveningwear designer Monique Lhuillier).

The 15 designers in the first episode seem a little more polished than contestants of past seasons.

Jerusalem-born Rami Kashou has a studio in Los Angeles. Chris March - Jay knows him from his New York fashion connections - has been a costume designer in New York for nearly 20 years. And Jillian Lewis, 27, a former illustrator, is a designer for Ralph Lauren.

Even Gunn is impressed, telling the group before their first competition - creating an outfit that defines them as a designer with $50,000 worth of specialty fabrics - that they are by far the strongest.

McCarroll yells at the TV screen: "It's still going to take them five years to figure out what it's all about."

"He [Gunn] really irritates me."

McCarroll speaks from experience.

After he emerged as winner, he didn't accept his $100,000 prize money, but instead found a sponsor in the Humane Society of the United States. (There was a skirmish between McCarroll and Project Runway that he just can't talk about.)

"I felt entitled," he said. "When you are on a national television show and people tell you you are America's next great designer ... you believe it."

His first ready-to-wear women's collection, Transport, debuted at New York Fashion Week in September 2006. Based on 1970s architecture, the grouping was pretty and whimsical; the clothes focused on volume and unexpected color combinations.

After the show, however, sales and distribution turned out to be an issue. Not one of his pieces sold.

"I didn't feel it was my best work," McCarroll said. "At the moment, I was happy with it. But when you have to push your inspiration into a deadline . . . "

McCarroll filmed the entire experience in a documentary called Eleven Minutes that he submitted to Sundance Film Festival. His contractual obligation to Runway is officially over, but he has a coming line on QVC that features two other Runway designers, Chloe Dao and Laura Bennett.

Twenty minutes into the new Runway season and the personalities, both good and bad, are starting to shine.

Christian Siriano, 20, who has worked with designers Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, is definitely persnickety. McCarroll, who was outspoken to the point of obnoxiousness on the first season, likes him.

"I can identify with his sense of style and self the most," he said.

With her first challenge, Elisa Jimenez, who designs clothing for marionettes, is proving to be a little nutty. For example, she rubbed her fabric in Bryant Park grass to give it a "natural look."

We both like the sensibilities of "green" designer Simone LeBlanc, 32 - she had the most wearable dress on the runway, a two-toned baby-doll frock.

McCarroll had already seen her work in an exhibition of some of this season's Runway work in New York last week and dubbed her a favorite.

And neither of us like Victorya Hong's attitude.

"She's just not nice," McCarroll said.

So who are the front-runners?

"It's still early, but right now I think Christian," McCarroll said. "And Marion Lee, I like his aesthetic and Rami, he's safe and his work is beautiful."

McCarroll will be blogging about the fourth season of Runway through February on Elle.com.

Right now he lives in South Philadelphia. Although he's three credits short of finishing his degree at Philadelphia University, he has returned to the school to teach sophomores how to draw fashion figures.

"It's about life experience," he said.

In addition to Transport, his fashion endeavors after Runway have included a redesigned Camp Beverly Hills Collection. In February, J. McCarroll, a collection of tunic dresses and trench coats, will be available on QVC as part of the home shopping network's design collective.

"I'm excited about working with QVC because they sell clothing in all sizes, including plus," he said. "I'm looking forward to wearing my own 3X jacket."

His advice to designers? Ignore the pressure and take time to build up your product.

"You need an infrastructure," McCarroll said. "It really is a 'house,' and it takes more than six months to have a firm vision."