February 10, 2012 9:54 pm

Reality check for fashion’s wannabes

On top of talent, you need drive and desire and luck and a willingness to get through all the bad stuff

It’s Saturday, week one of fashion month, the four-city circus of shows that begins in New York and continues in London, Milan and Paris. As you read this, chances are I am by the catwalk at Prabal Gurung, or Alexander Wang, or Band of Outsiders. Do you wish you were by my side? Would you love to experience the emotional highs and lows of the bizarre fashion system – make a collection, show a collection, hopefully sell a collection?

I ask because I recently heard about a new TV show that will allow you to do just that, though not with the sort of designers who already take part in fashion week, but rather the sort who want to. Yes, there’s a new reality show, and this one’s made the leap to network TV in the US (which means it will have audiences of between 5m and 10m for each episode). After Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, and 24 Hour Catwalk, we get Fashion Star. NBC, which bought the first season, is bullish about its prospects. Personally, I have mixed feelings.

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Vanessa Friedman

Here’s the idea: you take a bunch of wannabe designers from across America, some who make clothes in their kitchen, some who may have actually sold some; hook them up with one of three celebrity mentors – Nicole Richie, Jessica Simpson and John Varvatos – and then you get three real stores (H&M, Saks, and Macy’s) to bid on these wannabes’ creations. The most popular offerings will be sold online the next day. At the end of the (show’s) season, the last designer left standing will get to make an entire collection, which will be offered in shops and online, presumably before most of the stuff I am currently viewing (autumn/winter 2012/13).

Oh – and Elle Macpherson is the host.

As to how EJ Johnston and James Deutch, the show’s creators, persuaded NBC to take the leap of faith, the spin has to do with: 1) a thrilling story about how clothing goes from concept to shop floor; 2) the idea that this is like sport – but with a more female audience. As to how Johnston and Deutch got the stores on board, all of which had to commit $3m to the programme ($1m to bid on clothing and $2m for the final collection), well, they are also predicting that the clothes will sell out online within 24 hours of all those viewers seeing them being made, shown and then gushed over by Simpson. Forget Pavlov’s dogs, we have apparently become Pavlov’s purchasers. Ka-ching!

Still, when I called Johnston to explore all this further, he didn’t persuade me of one thing: that this is, in any way, actually about fashion. Rather, it seems the same thing all reality TV is about, whether the subject is cooking, real estate or pop stardom: human frailty. As much as viewers like to see the eventual winners of these shows realise their dream (at least momentarily), they love to see the losers: the untalented, the girls who lock themselves in the bathroom and cry, the ones whose hopes are wrecked. Because to see regular people fail is to feel, “My life sucks, but it doesn’t suck as bad as that guy/girl’s life sucks right now.” It’s not the schmattas we tune in to see, it’s the schmaltz.

. . .

This is also why I think the sport analogy is wrong or, perhaps, misguided. I’m not surprised it came up – Johnston used to work at IMG, the sport marketing behemoth that now also runs New York fashion week (as well as numerous other fashion weeks around the world) – but, to make it convincing, the designers in Fashion Star would have to be real New York fashion week designers, the style equivalent of Eli Manning, David Beckham or Michael Phelps: athletic geniuses who have spent their lives honing their skills and been culled from pools of competitive peers. They would have to be Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs or Donna Karan, not people who make stuff in their kitchen.

Because, though Johnston says the show is “just another platform for discovering talent”, what the real stories of great athletes and great designers and great pop stars demonstrate is to be a success in all these fields talent is not enough. It’s part of it, sure, but it’s really just the beginning. On top of talent, you need drive and desire and luck and a willingness to get through all the bad stuff. You need to have paid your dues and done the grunt work and all those clichés of employment. You need to have connections with factories, like Wang, and won awards, like Gurung. (That, or you need to have been really famous to start, as with Richie and Simpson.) That’s the difference between the NY fashion week schedule and the NBC schedule.

After all, once the Fashion Star winner has had their season’s pay-off, there is no guarantee a store will ever re-order, that the winner will have even been able to create the infrastructure needed to produce a collection on their own, or that fashion consumers, who have notoriously short attention spans, will even remember their brand name.

In other words, reality TV, at least as far as fashion is concerned, is actually fantasy. Even if sometimes when I look at an actual catwalk I can’t believe my eyes.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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