'Fashion Star' is designed with retail in mind

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."

The producers hope their buyers — Caprice Willard of Macy's, Terron E. Schaefer of Saks and Nicole Christie of H&M — will become famous in their own right. But the show doesn't forgo more established stars. Supermodel Elle Macpherson is the host, and Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie and John Varvatos act as "celebrity mentors." Their presence further reinforces the idea that "Fashion Star" is about real-world shopping rather than high-concept design. Varvatos makes wearable menswear, and Simpson and Richie are among a recent wave of young female stars who've converted their fame into cash via clothing lines.

It's a combination that could appeal both to fashion insiders and the public. "'Project Runway' isn't successful because the designers are so great, it's because of Michael Kors, Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia and Tim Gunn," says Lauren Sherman, executive digital editor of the fashion magazine Lucky. "'America's Next Top Model' is successful because of Tyra Banks. Who cares about the models? Jessica Simpson can carry a show, Nicole Richie can carry a show. And they'll be there with Elle Macpherson, who is also a strong voice, a strong point of view, and known inside the fashion world and out."

It's still a big gamble: Fashion fans, after all, are notoriously fickle. So why would any network take a chance on the genre?

"People are fascinated by good-looking people wearing spectacular clothing," says Shari Levine, Bravo senior vice president of production, of fashion reality shows. She adds that these programs generally are not controversial and thus "very friendly to the ad sales community.... So it's good from a monetization standpoint." The potential for new forms of product placement — a field pioneered by "Project Runway" and "America's Next Top Model" — also doesn't hurt.

Add to that "Fashion Star's" retail angle. Although "Project Runway" has experimented with merchandising (Season 5 winner Leanne Marshall sold a collection through Bluefly.com in 2009, and last fall Anya Ayoung-Chee's "Runway"-winning look sold out on Piperlime.com), NBC's new competition takes this concept much further.

Saks will carry clothing designed on the show in all 46 locations, and H&M plans to stock it in 100 American stores. Macy's will carry winning items only in its Manhattan flagship store and online, though it plans to stock merchandise from Season 1's final winner in other U.S. locations.

None of the stores has spent money on traditional commercials during the show, because they'll be prominently featured in each episode. They do, however, shoulder the burden if the clothing fails to sell. Their financial stake is actually a big part of the hook, says Silverman: "They're invested on a serious level, because they're putting in the production order, taking that risk."

The stores will produce the clothes themselves. Once they've recouped their initial investment, they'll pay out the designers, the producers, the network, and their partners.

According to Silverman, NBC isn't looking at the "Fashion Star" clothing line as a major source of revenue; he claims the appeal is creative, not financial. But if the show hits, NBC will have achieved TV alchemy, turning behind-the-scenes merchandising into ratings gold. And it will join the ranks of entertainment industry figures — like its own "Fashion Star" judges Simpson and Richie and host Macpherson — in making a profit off of apparel.

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