Washington, who plays a wily political strategist in her red-hot series, is a fast-growing fashion luminary as well — a development she described as an "occupational hazard," though a happy one.
"I've had to learn about fashion because as an actor, it's such a huge part of the marketing," Washington said in a pre-show interview, dressed in a flouncy floral Stella McCartney dress. "I'm the daughter of a professor, and an A student, and I approach it as a student. I do my research. I stay informed. I communicate with the designers."
Washington joined regular judges Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia and Zac Posen at the Lincoln Center tents to watch eight final contestants display their wares. But actually, there remain only three finalists. Their names will remain a secret to the rest of us as the show catches up when the finale airs Oct. 17.
Garcia, fashion director at Marie Claire, was not giving up any secrets, but said the three finalists were clearly the most deserving. "They definitely had the best collections," she said.
As for Klum, she said the quality this year was so good, it's a real toss-up who will emerge victorious.
"This year it's gonna be very tough," she said. "They could all win. The quality is great."
Klum insisted she's still not bored after 12 seasons. "What keeps it alive for me are the people," she said. "They are not actors. They are real people with real stories. When you see people who are not in this industry who are hungry for it ... that makes me excited. Show what you got! I love it."
"Runway" is nominated for five Emmys this year, and Klum, who's nominated along with co-host Tim Gunn, said she was thrilled about the upcoming awards — for which she's already picked out a gown. Versace, in case you were wondering.
"Every year when they're nominating, I'm sweating the day before that we get nominated again," she said. "Because we are a show that's been around for 12 seasons now, and some of the biggest shows all of a sudden don't get nominated anymore. So you just never know! Obviously if we would win, we would even be more happy," she added with a grin.
As for designer Posen, it's his second season as a judge, and he said the biggest challenge for him is time management. Only a day earlier he had launched his secondary line, Zac Zac Posen. "And I'm missing some fittings today, which kills me," he said.
But Posen values the chance to work with up-and-coming designers on the show, and sometimes give them some needed "tough love" — as he got from his own mentors.
"Sometimes you need that wake up," he said of the occasionally harsh criticism on the show. But it's all in the name of better fashion, he said.
"I've had great teachers," he said. "So I've just tried to take the best from the different mentors I've had, and tried to channel that. I've tried to get the best out of these creators possible. And I think creativity should be generous in that way. We should be able to help each other and to promote a new generation of creators and designers."
Washington, for her part, said she'd been very nervous about having to criticize others.
"I told my girlfriends this morning, 'I'm going to have to be judgmental all day, and I'm not very good at that!'" she said. "But they told me I can be critical without being judgmental."
Still, she said, she won't be the Simon Cowell on the panel.
"I leans more towards Paula (Abdul), or Jennifer Lopez," she quipped.
Nicole Evatt in New York contributed to this report.