SOME PEOPLE, very early on in life, have a handle on their destiny. Take Oakland's Amy Sarabi.

Twenty years ago, at age 6, Sarabi let it be known that fashion design was in her blood. That's when she jotted in a birthday card to her older sister, Shiva, these telling words:

"I love you, but not as much as I love clothes!"

That passion for fashion put Sarabi on an adventurous path that has taken her to California College of the Arts in San Francisco, and then to Paris, and now to "Project Runway," the popular reality series that launches its seventh season Thursday night on Lifetime.

"I've always been a fan of the show, but I never thought I'd be on it," says Sarabi. "It just didn't seem accessible."

But there she is — among the 16 designers summoned to New York to put their creative talents to the test before the discerning eyes of Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn and the show's finicky judges. At stake: A trip to Bryant Park to show their collection to top industry insiders during New York Fashion Week. The eventual winner also will nab, among other prizes, a feature in Marie Claire magazine and $100,000 to launch their own fashion line.

Born in Texas to parents of Iranian descent, Sarabi moved to the Bay Area with her sister at 18 to pursue her studies. After attending Diablo Valley College, she landed at CCA, where she became known for her offbeat couture visions. Her senior collection at CCA, for example, was inspired by the "gills" on the undersides of mushrooms.

"I tend to be a very experimental designer. I take a lot of risks," she says. "My style is a little more on the edgier side."

CCA Fashion Design chair Amy Williams has been impressed. She describes Sarabi as an "inventor" and a "magician."

"She is tenacious in her exploration: Building, testing and rebuilding until she is satisfied," says Williams. "The final garments are a marvel of new and innovative methods, delicate and beautifully crafted."

Even so, Sarabi admits that her work, which earned her the top prize in a San Francisco competition that sent her to Paris to study, can be a little "out there" for some.

"I've had a few people look at certain pieces," she says, "and joke that 'It's alive!' or claim that it looks like some weird sea creature."

Others, however, might feel right at home in Sarabi's wildest get-ups. Perhaps someone like pop singer Lady Gaga, whom Sarabi admires for her risky fashion sense.

"Oh my God," she says, "if Lady Gaga was to ever wear one of my designs, that would be very, very cool."

But while Sarabi gravitates toward the offbeat, she also has a great mind for practical streetwear, which she puts to use as a freelance designer for Old Navy. For the past three years, she has designed menswear for the company.

"I have to rein myself in. It's a different way of thinking," she says.

Some adjustment was also in order for "Project Runway," which constantly plunges its contestants into high-tension challenges marked by tight time constraints. Over the years, many designers have cracked under the pressure, but Sarabi was determined to avoid that fate.

"I didn't want to go in with the attitude that this was my all-or-nothing chance to make it in the fashion world," she says. "If you do that, you're just setting yourself up to be a nervous wreck."

Instead, she tried to enjoy the experience and maintain some perspective.

Says Sarabi, "I accepted that, in the end, this is just a TV show."

Read Chuck Barney's TV blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/tv and follow him at http://twitter.com/chuckbarney

season premiere
  • WHAT: "Project Runway"
  • WHEN: 10 p.m. Thursday
  • WHERE: Lifetime
    To see photos of fashion designs by Amy Sarabi and other "Project Runway" participants, go to: www.mylifetime.com/shows/project-runway