From the first episode, the judges fell hard for her sophisticated, edgy and impeccably constructed looks. Even her ousted competitors named her the designer to beat.
It was no different on last night's season finale, when Shabayeva sent a showy trail of urban black down the catwalk and managed to win, while defiantly ignoring judge Nina Garcia's stern warning not to produce an "all-black" collection.
Now that's confidence.
StyleList caught up with Shabayeva this morning as she shuttled between television interviews that were part of her post-victory media tour.
And lest you think that Shabayeva made only enemies this season, hear this: She watched the finale at a New York City cocktail party she and her parents hosted along with finalists Althea Harper and Carol Hannah Whitfield!
Since she was pressed for time, StyleList offered congratulations and jumped right into questions.
StyleLIst: You kind of got the bitch edit.
Irina Shabayeva: I'll say.
SL: Was that fair?
IS: You know, it's a show. They need to create characters through editing. After awhile of watching the season, though, I was like, okay, I got the memo, I'm playing that role. It got a little old for me. I am really not that mean. What you didn't see was me being nice, which I am capable of... Just as an example, when Carol Hannah was sick and we were getting ready for Fashion Week, I gave her one of my models. She was short a model and needed help. I called the agency and got someone else for my show. You didn't see that. But I wasn't there with making friends as my first priority. I am not against friends, but I had other goals.
SL: You said your winning collection was meant to signify shelter and security for urban women. But I viewed it as a statement about your own vulnerability.
IS: Then you read it correctly. Certainly, I was speaking to a woman I understand, but It was also a statement about how vulnerable I felt being on "Project Runway." Being judged like that makes you feel extremely insecure. Week after week, all that judging can make the most confident person feel kind of awful. I designed it in New York when I was back home from LA, and that was kind of where my head was at. I felt extremely vulnerable and I was creating something that felt protective.
SL: "Project Runway" has had some success in producing designers with staying power, but not consistently. Any idea why?
IS: It's a reality show and fashion is a business. I viewed being cast as a contestant as a business opportunity. Anybody who assumes because you are on, or because you win that your career is going to take off is being naive. You have to do the best with the opportunity. I have to take the opportunity now and make the most of it.
SL: You said last night you had "real competition." Which designer threatened you most?
IS: Different designers, different weeks at different points. We had some great designers. The person who's work I most admired -- who I thought was a real threat -- was (Rodney) Epperson. He was eliminated much earlier than he should have been. I tried out with him and when I saw him at casting I was like, "Oh boy, I'm in trouble." And now I love him. He's such a sweet person. If I had not won, I would have wanted him to win.
SL: We know you make beautiful clothes. Who dresses you?
IS: [Laughs hard.] Oh God. I love that question because I hate to shop. I almost never do. I went to Bloomingdale's yesterday to buy a pair of jeans and it was the first time in months that I had been in a store. When I need something, I make it. The only time I shop is for jeans, shoes and makeup. I like to buy makeup.
SL: Now that you've won "Project Runway," what is your next move?
IS: Well, in a couple of days my spring collection is going to go up on my Web site. I couldn't show it sooner because of the rules of the show. They didn't want me to tip my hand by putting it up. I am very serious about this and I am going to be showing at (New York) Fashion Week in the fall, so you can expect to see me.
SL: Will you give us some color in the spring? Nina really gave it to you for all that black.
IS: I don't have any problem with color. It just wouldn't have worked for the story I was telling in this collection.
And as far as black goes, what woman doesn't look good in it? In New York, you see a woman coming down the street in head-to-toe black and it makes a very chic statement. But I am not married to it. Don't expect to see all black -- for next fall either. As soon as all this calms down, I will be working on that.
SL: Let's talk about your family. Anyone who finds you cold, had to alter their opinion a bit when they saw you with your father after you were declared the winner. He had long questioned your desire to be a designer. [Shabayeva was sobbing and her stoic father was sobbing in a moment that also brought normally chilly judge Nina Garcia to tears].
IS: Wasn't that so moving to watch? It was for me. This has been an incredible thing for my family. Last night I watched the finale with them. We had a cocktail party. Carol Hannah and Althea were there and so was [fellow competitor] Logan [Nietzel] and Epperson. It was a very warm, relaxed event and it was so great to be with them. We needed to celebrate. We had not really had any time to get together to just enjoy each other and honor what we had achieved. We all did some incredible work. And last night, we had fun.