Kate Hogan
July 29, 2011 10:30 AM

“This year we’re going to shake things up a little bit,” sexy host Heidi Klum promised at the start of Thursday night’s Project Runway season 9 premiere. And while nothing in the episode was that out of the ordinary for the show – workroom drama, dodgy designs and lots of tears – the elimination of five designers was a bit of a shock.

Twenty hopefuls arrived in New York City, only to be told that four of them would be going home by day’s end. Each designer had a few minutes with the judges – Heidi, Nina Garcia, Michael Kors and mentor Tim Gunn – to show off his or her finest fashions and fight for a spot on the show. Some standouts: Anya, a 29-year-old former Miss Trinidad and Tobago, who only learned to sew four months before the show; Bert, a 57-year-old who took a 20-year hiatus from design and wants to get back in the game; and Anthony Ryan, a 28-year-old cancer survivor who’s also colorblind.

The judges offered lots of praise and some tough criticism, ultimately sending home four unmemorable contestants – David, Amanda, Gunnar (who designed Kentucky Derby dresses) and Serena. Then the real fun began.

After settling into their apartments, the designers got a 5 a.m. wake-up call from Tim, who told everyone to stay in PJs, grab a bed sheet and follow him to Parsons for the first challenge: design a garment using just your jammies and sheet. With dyes, closures and trimmings at their disposal, contestants had 17 hours to get creative.

Some designers rose right to the top: Bert used his orange-check boxers to craft a cute dress; Anya proved she was a pro at pants, even though she’d never made them before; bubbly Laura, 26, happened to be wearing silk and lace pajamas, so she had great materials. But there were also some disasters in the making: Denver native Fallene, 29, was determined to use a puking clown from her PJs in her design, while 27-year-old Rafael, who struggled with his garment, was told by Tim that he’d just barely made the cut to be on the show (ouch).

On the runway, where actress Christina Ricci joined the judges, there were some great looks – but there was also a lot of ugly. Outdoor enthusiast Julie, 35, sent some terrible snowboard-inspired pants down the catwalk, while former banker Josh C., 29, created a poorly designed top with white shorts and a hoodie. Saving the show were designers like 30-year-old New Yorker Viktor, who created a snappy black-and-white shirtdress; Portland native Bryce, 29, who made a perfect flowy top tucked into a short black skirt; and Bert, whose little dress was divine.

It came down to the top three, Anthony Ryan, Bert and Anya, and the bottom dwellers, Julie, Rafael and Josh C. Nina called Anya’s pants and tank combo “extraordinary,” while Heidi told Bert she was “in love with” his outfit. And while Michael called him out for his bad styling, Bert took the victory, earning immunity (and personally, a place in our hearts).

Meanwhile, Julie was scolded for her ill-fitting pants and immature top (“I had really high expectations,” Heidi chided), and Nina blasted Josh C. for his sporty look. “You are in a competition of design and you are going to show me a pair of white shorts and a tank top?” she said.

But ultimately, Rafael got the boot for his unflattering pants and peek-a-boo white top, paired with a “necklace” he made last-minute from a leopard-print headscarf. Though he was bummed, he kept his chin up, telling viewers, “Just because I’m off the show doesn’t mean the sewing machine is turned off.”

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