Clothing designer Nicholas Bowes at his factory near downtown Los Angeles. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)
Fashion ought to be a no-brainer for television: It's fun to look at, appeals to a spending-happy demographic and involves outsized personalities who tend to believe it's their professional duty to create drama. Yet the history of reality TV is littered with fashion-based shows that never caught on or flamed out after one season. When NBC's "Fashion Star" launches Tuesday, it will be going where many shows have gone — and stumbled — before.
The most notable exception is "Project Runway," the design show at the forefront of the niche since 2004. "Fashion Star" is being produced by Magical Elves, the same team that developed "Runway." But while "Runway" focuses on the artistic side of the fashion industry, "Fashion Star" plans to shine a spotlight on retail.
The series could have been called "Shopping Star": Its new twist is that the show's contestants will be designing clothing that the audience can actually buy in a store the next day.
The judges on "Fashion Star" aren't fellow designers but representatives of three major retail chains: H&M, Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue. In each episode, they'll bid on their favorite pieces of men's and women's wear, and the winning store will begin selling the clothing after the final credits roll. See a dress you like on the NBC runway? With a well-timed shopping trip, you could wear it out to dinner less than 24 hours later. The hope is that by reframing the discussion around buying clothes rather than creating them, the show will feel accessible to people who've never fantasized about graduating from FIDM but do indulge in regular visits to the mall.
"Fashion Star" — which will air at 10 p.m. in the plum spot after NBC's biggest hit, "The Voice" — is the first big fashion competition to run on network television as well as NBC's first foray into the rag trade. Executive producer Ben Silverman, former president of NBC Entertainment, sees the real-world business element as crucial to keeping reality television fresh.
"This is just a game show with Saks, Macy's and H&M as contestants," he says. If the clothing doesn't sell, the store that invested in it takes a hit — and potentially, so does the show's credibility. This could be the first network program for which next-day sales are as important as next-day ratings.
It's an unusual approach, but the world of fashion-based reality shows could use a shake-up. "Project Runway" continues to hold its ground despite a contentious and highly publicized move from Bravo to Lifetime. (Last year's Season 9 of "Project Runway" on Lifetime had an average viewership of 2.8 million people, according to Nielsen.) It has birthed two offshoots, "Project Accessory" and the current "Project Runway All-Stars," in which designers from earlier seasons, such as Michael Costello and Kenley Collins, return to compete.
But other design contests haven't been so lucky. Though Bravo has had success with traditional narrative reality shows like "The Rachel Zoe Project" and its spinoff "It's a Brad Brad World," competitive programs like "The Fashion Show" and "Launch My Line" never found a foothold, and the network hasn't announced whether "Mad Fashion," starring "Runway" vet Chris March, will return. Lifetime recently launched a fashion contest, "24 Hour Catwalk," to weak ratings.
"High fashion, real fashion, is quirky and eccentric. It does not lend itself to the broad strokes of TV," notes Simon Doonan, author of "Eccentric Glamour" and creative ambassador of Barneys. Perhaps that's why "Fashion Star," according to executive producer Jane Lipsitz of Magical Elves, is "about creating clothes for America. It's a really mainstream fashion show, and that's what fashion is these days."
Silverman also stresses the difference between "Fashion Star" and "Project Runway": "We're not doing rarefied, only-for-rich-people clothes. And it's not people making clothes out of meat. We're doing sundresses and bathing suits."
For "Fashion Star," recruiting contestants with the potential to create a marketable collection was key, like Luciana Scarabello of Miami, whose dress line is sold across the country, or L.A.'s Nicholas Bowes. An Australia-born former model, he's already established two lines for himself: KRMA, which specializes in leather jackets and knitwear, and a self-titled collection focusing on higher-end menswear. In the show's premiere, he exudes arrogance, boasting that his greatest strength is "my knowledge of what needs to be done to create a brand."
Says executive producer E.J. Johnston, "What's the dream-come-true moment? It's not the runway show. It's when [the stores] give you $10,000 for a piece. That's what makes you real. That's the moment that I think a lot of the other efforts in the fashion space have missed."