THE FASHION TV BOOM
Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio
NEW YORK — Elsa Klensch and CNN pioneered it in the Eighties. Now, plenty of TV stations are following suit.
The increasing intensity of fashion coverage has been most evident on cable, with perhaps the most aggressive push from E! Entertainment Television. E! has dramatically expanded its fashion coverage this past year and now offers 28 half hours per week. That’s 33 percent more than a year ago, according to Fran Shea, senior vice president of programming.
Last year, E! added “Model,” “Model TV” and “Fashion Emergency.” For fall, it is getting ready to launch “Style,” a 24-hour cable network that will focus on style, fashion and home design. That’s on top of “Fashion File” and “Joan & Melissa Fashion Reviews,” both launched in 1994, and “Video Fashion,” which debuted in 1995.
Within the past year, Lifetime, whose core audience is women from age 30 to 40, added “New Attitudes,” hosted by Leanza Cornett and Suzanne Whang. The show explores trends in health, finance, career, beauty and fashion. “New Attitudes,” inspired by the original “Attitudes,” which went off the air in 1987, plans to hire three reporters, one each in fashion, health and finance, to give the program more of a hard-news edge.
And VH-1, which scored with its Fashion Awards, which debuted three years old, began expanding its fashion coverage last year with “Fashion Kingdom,” a documentary series. Programs that offer an inside look of the worlds of Naomi Campbell and Calvin Klein air on July 18.
TV executives say their viewers’ appetite for fashion coverage, which often means celebrity coverage, just keeps on growing. Over the past few years, designer runway shows have become a media circus, with TV reporters in pursuit of the star-studded audience. The lineup at a recent Halston runway show, for example, included Whitney Houston, Minnie Driver and Elizabeth Hurley.
Unlike Klensch, whose runway-oriented “Style” show offers a respectful approach to fashion, the new breed of TV fashion programs aims to demystify the subject. They tackle all price points from Giorgio Armani to the Gap. And while they offer plenty of profiles of models and designers, they also dispense a bushel of beauty advice.
Take Emme, Ford’s top money maker in the plus-size category and the host of “Fashion Emergency.” Her show has provided makeovers for such participants as a nerdy dolphin researcher, drag queens, an ex-nun and professional male athletes with bad nails. The show, which often features guest designers, brought in Halston’s Randolph Duke, who transformed a woman in Army fatigues into a sexpot in a gown.
“We are tapping into this sort of voyeurism,” said Emme, who gets thousands of e-mails per week from women and men inquiring about makeovers or seeking fashion advice. “Instead of paying somebody to do the makeover, they are looking into somebody else’s life, and they are relating the whole thing to themselves.”
Many people say the opportunities in fashion TV coverage are limitless.
“The fashion industry has only become really important in the last five years. Fashion on TV is in its infancy,” said Shea of E! “We all have to tip our hats to Elsa Klensch. She was really out there. She was more high-brow, but she was bringing fashion to the average viewers.”
“It is parallel to the fragmentation of the TV dial,” said Jay Levine, creator, producer and director of Toronto-based Fashion Television, which debuted in Canada and Europe in 1985 and was picked up by VH-1 in the early Nineties. “TV has become a magazine rack. I mean, who would have thought we would have a food network?”
“It is about time,” said Jeff Buchman, professor and chairman of advertising and communications at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “I am amazed that it has taken so long. Cable TV is blazing the trails. I like that fashion is taking a step out of the closet. Fashion is fun and sexy.”
Pushing fashion also makes good business sense, say many cable TV advertising executives.
Since January, VH-1 has seen such players as Tommy Hilfiger, the Gap and Old Navy come on board as advertisers.
“We are seeing a steady increase in fashion advertising over the past 12 months,” said Mark McIntire, vice president of ad sales and marketing for VH-1. He declined to provide figures.
“The amount of business we have done in the clothing, fashion and accessories categories in addition to the health and beauty categories has increased dramatically as we have increased the amount of fashion programming on E!,” said David T. Cassaro, senior vice president of advertising sales. “It is the ideal program environment for these advertisers because these programs deliver a young, upscale, fashion-conscious audience.” Despite all that, at last two observers fear overexposure.
“I don’t want to saturate the world with fashion,” said Gabe Doppelt, creative director of VH-1. “That is what happened to politics, and that’s why nobody takes it seriously. My greatest fear is that it will happen to fashion.”
She noted that “Fashion Kingdom” isn’t about “the length of a hemline,” but offers compelling stories behind the people in fashion. With the Calvin Klein segment, VH-1 shot the designer for three months.
“There are too many fashion programs that do magazine formats,” complained Alisa Bellettini, executive producer of MTV’s nine-year-old “House of Style,” which offers about 10 programs a year.
“There are just too many makeovers, too much backstage stuff and too many profiles,” she said. “Enough already.”
That’s why “House of Style” is getting its own makeover, starting in January.
“We are getting away from the magazine format and doing more specials,” Bellettini said. This year’s swimsuit edition, which airs next Tuesday, isn’t about pretty suits on models, which had been its focus. It will concentrate on what is sexy to women and who is sexy. Another show featured model James King, who went out with a video camera, filming the streets here in New York and offering her take on who she thought was sexy.
Since December, “House of Style” — whose core audience is 18 to 24 — has had a new host, Rebecca Romijn, who replaced Daisy Fuentes. Bellettini said MTV is working on a pilot to develop a whole new show around Romijn, but added that it was too early to elaborate.
Others also see the need to change, given the heated competition.
Lifetime’s “New Attitudes” is undergoing some fine-tuning, aiming to make the show more current by adding new reporters in health, fashion and finance. The change will be evident starting in August, according to Robin Sestero, executive producer.
“In the beginning, we were fairly generic,” said Sestero. Starting for fall, the show will carry fewer segments on addressing figure flaws and more on news-oriented stories such as up-and-coming designers and profiles of retailers.
One of the pieces to be aired is on the strategy Sears, Roebuck & Co. employed to woo its fashion customers.
Even CNN’s “Style” feels the need to adapt to the new climate, with Klensch just beginning to expand her coverage to include designers who are not yet established.
However, Scott Leon, CNN vice president of entertainment news and senior executive producer of “Style,” says it has not been hurt by increasing competition.
“I haven’t seen any effect on our ratings,” he said. “Elsa has more access to certain designers and gets more backstage interviews than a lot of the other neophytes.”
He said the show’s heavy international coverage distinguishes it from the pack.
CNN, he added, is looking into developing another fashion show that is more consumer-oriented, but he wouldn’t offer details.