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If the clothes-obsessed aren’t in the stores these days, maybe it’s because they’re too busy watching clothes on TV.

Would-be shopper social calendars overflow with Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model and Lipstick Jungle on Wednesdays; Ugly Betty and Make Me a Supermodel on Thursdays, and What Not to Wear and Full Frontal Fashion practically any time, any day. While they’re at work, they can check out Isaac Mizrahi’s latest show—this one on the Web—and if, for some bizarre reason, the fashion media machine lets them down, they can always Netflix The Devil Wears Prada, and silently count down to a swarm of upcoming offerings from fashion personalities such as Rachel Zoe and Elle’s Joe Zee.

For those actually in the fashion business, whose evenings revolve more around Cipriani benefits than their DVRs, the media obsession with their heretofore insular worlds has become increasingly clear—some might argue to a ponderously excessive degree. During fashion weeks, clamoring camera crews obstruct the strut to front-row seats while they chase a gaggle of celebs of varying cachets. While this past runway season’s skinny Russian girls were preparing to sulk down the catwalk, the real show had already kicked into gear, as talking heads and their attendant video teams packed the venues to question the likes of Sophia Bush, Brittany Murphy and the Lipstick Jungle trio of Lindsay Price, Brooke Shields and Kim Raver about what they were wearing at their umpteenth show of the week. Like the Oscars morphed years before, fashion week has become increasingly buzzed by the preshow of interviewing celebrities, with deep questions such as who they’re wearing and what projects they’re working on, often relegating the content of the shows to mere accessory status.

“Joss, look here!”

“Brooke, who are you wearing?”

And for the really deep interviewer: “What did you think of the collection?”

“I look around and say, ‘Oh, God, what have we created?’” says on-camera personality Judy Licht, who founded the chatty cable show Full Frontal Fashion. And it’s no longer just the usual suspects filming. Between bloggers and reality TV cameras, celebrity photographer Patrick McMullan barely had space to flirt with the front-row socialites.

 

“I used to shoot the front row when no one else was interested in it, and I’d say, ‘Hi, how are you?’” McMullan says. “Now I can’t even get up to the front row—I let my bigger guys do it. There’s no longer any finesse involved.”

Such frenzy might lead some to question whether the fashion industry is in danger of overexposure, falling victim to the paradox it created of “One day you’re in, the next day you’re out.” You wouldn’t know it from this past season.

At least 10 reality TV shows filmed at New York’s Bryant Park tents, including Make Me a Supermodel, MTV True Life, The Hills and Project Runway for its season finale. The must-have accessory was a personal TV crew in tow, as modeled by Zoe, Veronica Webb and Salt-N-Pepa, who all have shows in the works. Perhaps out of jealousy or the newfound seductions of fast and flashy fame, editors and retailers toted their filming entourages, as well. Even two of fashion’s most notable figures aren’t immune from the buzz: Karl Lagerfeld was the subject of a theater-released documentary, and Anna Wintour is doing an A&E documentary about putting together Vogue’s mammoth September issue. HBO was filming a documentary on the Garment District, and a U.K. production company was there with a similar idea.

Then there’s the fashion-entertainment news shows, including New York One and Full Frontal Fashion, and the celebrity-crazed Access Hollywood and Inside Edition. American Express must have realized the correlation between designer clothes and its card, because the company was filming for its Web site. Apparently feeling underaccosted relative to the ubiquitous Sophia Bush, the most established retailers and editors (even The New York Times has had its editors film for their blogs) narrated the pre-runway festivities for the cameras. The traditional news media found time between Super Tuesday, the Super Bowl and the Iraq war to make fashion week a priority. And don’t forget the bloggers, who—if they didn’t have their own professional cameras—found no shame in shooting with iPhones from the Siberian chill of the fifth row.

Webb, who has experienced the runway both strutting as a model and watching from the front row as a celebrity (surrounded by press and perhaps getting even more attention), added yet another perspective to her show viewership at February’s fashion week: the interviewer. The former model, who spent last year as Tim Gunn’s sidekick on Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, flopped to the other side of the process for her new role as creative director and consultant producer for Living Style With Gerry DeVeaux on BBC World, which premiered on April 5 in more than 100 countries. She went to Isaac Mizrahi, Catherine Malandrino and Halston’s fall 2008 shows, and for her part, Webb—who says she doesn’t mind the attention, but that interviews can be repetitive and overwhelming—would ask, “What inspires you?” and “What is living style to you?”

 

“I spend three times longer in interviews than I do watching shows,” Webb says. “The season before last I went to five shows a day, and you’re answering the same questions over and over again, and that can be very difficult because you can be so frazzled. The first question is always, ‘What did you think of the collection?’ And that’s an important question. Then, ‘What did you like?’ ‘What would you get?’ When I answer, I always try to think about, what would my sister want to know?”
That’s important because the proverbial sister is the viewer today. But why now? What exactly has drawn the hordes and masses to the fickle world of fashion?

“People finally realized that fashion is art,” contends longtime entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose portfolio is increasingly including fashion. “Georgina [Chapman, his wife] thinks John Galliano is as great an artist as Lucian Freud.”

Weinstein is capitalizing on this moment to cross-promote his entertainment and fashion ventures, from Project Runway to Halston to keeping an eye on his wife’s design house, Marchesa. For both the entertainment and the fashion side, he says quality is key: “If they aren’t good, it’s not going to sell.” Correspondingly, when the product is good, don’t expect either clothes or shows about clothes to disappear anytime soon.

“As long as people wear clothes, there’s always going to be a demand for shows about fashion,” Weinstein says. “But the imitators always fall off.”

According to Nielsen ratings, viewership of these fashion-focused shows depends on whether the show is on cable or network TV—and how good it is. Ugly Betty on ABC has more than 10 million viewers. America’s Next Top Model on the CW has a following of about five million. What Not to Wear, whose popularity has gained it huge play on multiple cable networks, has seen its viewership wane from nearly two million when it made its debut about five years ago to about 1.4 million. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was canceled when its ratings dipped from its one million–viewer high to less than 400,000 last year, but vampy host Carson Kressley has come back this year with How to Look Good Naked, which already has more than 800,000 viewers. As shows inspired by the first round of hits emerge (aka knockoffs, in industry lingo)—Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, Make Me a Supermodel and How to Look Good Naked, to name a few—the question is whether they are cutting smaller and smaller pieces from the same pie, or whether the pie (its flavor, in this case, is the fashion-obsessed public) continues to grow with the programming.

 

In 2005, Project Runway introduced the public to the creative eccentricities of designers and the design process (however overly dramatic and improbable). The show made autograph-hounded stars of an academic, a magazine editor and an established New York–based designer.

The wildly popular show, which has seen viewership grow steadily over its four seasons to almost a million this year, is in such hot demand that it’s in the middle of a lawsuit, with Bravo suing to keep the show for which Lifetime bid higher. Nina Garcia, who was just fired from her day job as the fashion director of Elle magazine, may win yet another few months at the magazine as an editor at large because of her ties to the show.

Michael Kors, a weekly judge on Project Runway, says he’s seen every aspect of his business improve since the show began, from accessories, which have “skyrocketed,” to even sales of his collection, proving there’s no snobbery-driven backlash from designer customers. He added that television also has created a new breed of mother-daughter shoppers, who bond over fashion TV and then take the experience to the next level by shopping together.

“We’ve seen it bring in a new generation of customer,” Kors observes. “We’ve opened a considerable number of accessories stores, so a 14-year-old may come in and just start with a pair of sunglasses or a new wallet, but slowly and surely, she will progress to become a new client.”

Although the industry originally turned its nose up at the reality TV take on being a designer, today no one is above guest judging, from Zac Posen to Vera Wang to the Wall Street Journal’s Teri Agins. And it helps their business: Catherine Malandrino reported a boost in sales after she judged season three’s couture challenge, according to Tim Gunn, taskmaster for Project Runway and now chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne Inc.

“As powerful as Sex and the City and Queer Eye were in getting the fashion message out, I don’t believe either of those shows demystified fashion—if anything Sex and the City made it seem inaccessible,” says Gunn. “Project Runway strips that veil of mystery as to what fashion designers do, makes fashion accessible and gives people analytic skills and an enhanced vocabulary when they shop.”

 

Project Runway has gained such awareness in general society that Saturday Night Live spoofed the show with impersonators of Gunn and the most recent winner, Christian Siriano. They’re not the first fashion figures SNL has deemed impression-worthy: Other have included Mick Jagger’s Lagerfeld, Ian McKellen’s dead-on Yves Saint Laurent and Maya Rudolph’s recurring Donatella Versace.

“When we were taping season one of Project Runway, I didn’t think anybody would watch—just maybe teenage girls and gay men,” recalls Gunn, a three-decade academic who’s still surprised he’s a household name rather than on the cutting-room floor for the show. “But it’s all about how good the product is. Audiences are smart—they aren’t going to watch just anything.” (A theory constantly being tested by the never-ending barrage of makeover shows.)

The entertainment industry has made many attempts to portray the fashion industry—from the hilarious and scarily observant Ab Fab to Funny Face to the clunker Prêt-à-Porter—but most have failed. Is a self-satirizing industry too difficult to satirize? Or can the industry’s eccentrics not translate into characters that Middle America cares about?

Something has clearly changed, giving fashion practically a Midas touch to TV programming, and the public’s interest in fashion didn’t emerge from prayers from a showroom on 39th and Broadway.

For one, fashion married two important obsessions of the American public: sex and celebrity. Sex and the City (and its fashions) became a national obsession by its second season in 1999, according to the show’s costume designer, Patricia Field, and in 2001, more than 12 million viewers tuned into TV’s first mass fashion show, The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show—and it’s doubtful the audience consisted of primarily fashion editors and gay men. Six years later, viewership has fallen to about 7.5 million.

“There’s something mesmerizing about watching fashion models prance up and down a runway,” says Simon Doonan, executive vice president of creative services at Barneys New York. “I have seen die-hard straight football fans sit and stare at a scene watching runway shows. Everyone is sucked into the fashion vortex.”

Furthermore, accessibility both in information and in purchasing power broadened fashion’s appeal past just the Bergdorf elite. Fast fashion and fashion coverage are synergistic sources of democratized style that fuel each other: When the public can find versions they can afford, they will be more inclined to keep up with the trends, and when they keep up with the trends, they will be more likely to seek out fast fashion. Fashion-crazed mainstream shoppers wait in lines outside H&M to buy the guest collections by Roberto Cavalli, Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney, which sell out in ways their high-end collections would envy.

 

“In Paris, fashion is like a sport—part of the pop culture—where even the taxi drivers know which show is on which day,” says Michael Kors. “Television has made people feel like they are involved in fashion, and with Project Runway, they get to understand the process. Then with fast fashion, you get to buy great design for a price, and people can think, it’s relevant to me. When fashion is strictly elitist, it’s only a spectator sport, but when people can actually play the sport, they are that much more interested.”

But it’s not just those who knock off designers who benefit. As the public learns the names of the designers on shows like Project Runway, those designers benefit, too—with opportunities to do diffusion lines, guest design for H&M or sell more accessories. Isaac Mizrahi pioneered the designer-in-entertainment movement, first with his 1995 documentary, Unzipped, followed by The Isaac Mizrahi Show on Oxygen in 2001; Isaac on the E network in 2005, and now with Webisodes at WatchIsaac.com. Perhaps as a result of this familiarity with the public, Mizrahi defined the first high-low design movement, designing for Target (and, beginning in spring 2009, for Liz Claiborne) as well as for Bergdorf Goodman.

“I first came upon the scene as a fashion designer. Now I define myself as fashion designer slash television personality, or fashion designer slash cheesy host,” says Mizrahi. “My coming across this way on TV and now the Internet makes me a personality who is not necessarily just a fashion person. To conquer this American woman, you have to be her friend. She needs to know that she can trust you.”

Perhaps that’s why the characters in shows from Lipstick Jungle to Ugly Betty are likable, instead of simply superficial and catty caricatures of designers and editors (which they are too).

Once upon a time, no one cared about the trade elements of the fashion industry, and it was just Elsa Klensch and her lone cameraman filming the shows. Klensch’s first fashion broadcast aired on CNN’s second day in 1980, when the need for 24/7 news content first brought fashion to TV.

 

“For years I had believed fashion was a natural for TV,” Klensch says. “The beautiful models, the clothes, the music, the movement.”

Klensch, who has since moved on to writing mysteries, remembers the industry not as the smooth celebrity- and camera-friendly veteran it is today, but as a camera-shy teenager.

“In the beginning, the top designers were mostly spooked by the thought of being interviewed on TV,” Klensch recalls. “When the sun gun flashed on for the interview, they were aghast. Once they saw themselves on the TV screen, they used makeup and some took diction lessons.”
Klensch embraces the trend she started. “When I see a show covered with three or four cameras, I’m excited,” she says. “I think the saturation coverage is positive in giving women more choices to develop their own styles….Should fashion be serious? No, I don’t think so.”

“One often feels as if one has been shanghaied onto a TV show that nobody will ever see,” says Doonan. “The key is to surrender to it all and extract a few laughs. If you allow yourself to get annoyed every time you get trampled on, you will end up killing someone…though I am seriously thinking of carrying a Tazer next season.”

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