TV TURNS IT ON
Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio, with contributions from Natalie Rooney, Los Angeles
NEW YORK — In the beginning, there was Lucy, who everyone loved and whose fashion statements were made with flared dresses with puffed sleeves. Now, there is Amanda, whose thigh-high skirts and body-hugging jackets have spurred retail sales from here to Los Angeles.
TV’s influence on fashion seems almost as old as the cathode ray itself, going back to tiny black and white screens with the image of Loretta Young making glamorous, full-skirted entrances as she spun through a doorway, and continuing through the decades with an increasingly colorful procession of performers, panelists and pundits.
This year, however, there is a heavy concentration of programming that targets viewers under the age of 30 — a collection of shows that is popularizing key, affordable looks in stores around the country, from racy hip-hugging vinyl dresses to baby-doll looks.
One of the hottest such shows is Fox’s “Melrose Place,” whose main character — Amanda, played by Heather Locklear — has helped redefine the power suit and make it sexy. That look is now heavily touted by Seventh Avenue, from designers like Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan to junior firms like Rampage. The show is in its third season.
Then there’s Tori Spelling’s Donna of Fox’s “Beverly Hills 90210,” which is winding up its fifth season. The teenage Donna, say fashion observers, has popularized the baby-doll look: cropped mohair sweaters with miniskirts, baby barrettes and shrunken T-shirts. The look has caught on even with older women.
This year’s additions to the genre include Fox’s “Models Inc.” and “Party of Five,” ABC’s “My So-Called Life” and NBC’s “Friends.” “The West Coast mentality seen on these TV shows is what is broadening the perspective of the average consumer,” said Nina Charles, a sportswear buyer at The Doneger Group, a buying office here. “No average consumer wants to be first, but when they see it on TV, they want to try the look because it is familiar. These TV shows are creating a fashion uniform: the A-line skirt, baby T-shirt and denim vest.”
“Our customer is usually a little more conservative than in other regions, but I really believe that these TV shows out there have made the trends more familiar, and therefore they are buying them,” said Arlene Goldstein, fashion director at Parisian, a Birmingham, Ala.-based chain with 35 stores in the Southwest and Midwest.
“A lot of people are glued to the TV set, and, subconsciously, they are taking their cues from characters they can relate to. We are not talking about theater. We are talking about real life,” Goldstein said.
Over the past year, Parisian has pounced on such looks as the choker and slipdresses often seen on “Beverly Hills 90210.”
While the ’95-’96 TV lineup won’t be officially announced until May, viewers next year will see yet another show targeted to a young audience. Darren Star, creator and executive producer of “90210” and “Melrose Place,” is planning an East Coast version called “Central Park West” on CBS next fall. So far, Star has received a commitment to do 13 episodes, with Jeffrey Kurland, Woody Allen’s costume designer for the past 10 years, signed on as the wardrobe creator, according to Star’s spokesman.
The current shows, which focus on affordable looks, contrast sharply with the hit nighttime soaps of the Eighties — “Dallas,” “Knots Landing” and “Dynasty” — all of which touted designer gowns and expensive-looking jewelry.
“A lot of viewers can relate to the fashion trends on the new TV shows today; it’s not someone wearing a designer ballroom gown, like you saw on ‘Dallas,’ ” said Wendy Red, a buyer for Up Against the Wall, the 16-unit Washington, D.C.-based chain that sells trendy clothing for young people.
“In the Eighties, there wasn’t any TV show that I can think of about young pop culture. I used to look to MTV’s videos for fashion cues; now, they seem to take on a more grunge look,” said Red.
She also cited the increasing clout of “90210” and “Melrose Place” among this age group. “Melrose Place” got a slow start when it made its debut in July 1992, but its popularity has dramatically increased. For the season to date, the show is ranked nine out of 133 regular TV programs among women 18 to 34 years old, based on the Nielsen Index. “Beverly Hills, 90210” is ranked fifth among this age group.
All this fashion on TV is helping merchandisers find some buying direction, said retailers.
When Goldstein of Parisian first spotted chokers last year on Shannen Doherty (in the former role of Brenda on “90210”), she had the accessories department order up hundreds, all of which quickly sold. The choker became a national trend. She and others also pointed out that Locklear’s power suit has taken the whole suit look to a different level.
A spokeswoman at Kmart Corp., which has 2,400 stores, said its junior buyers avidly watch these TV shows to make sure they don’t miss a trend.
“One of our buyers was watching ‘Friends’ recently and she saw a screen-printed baby T-shirt that was worn by a lot of the characters,” said the Kmart spokeswoman. “We already had them stocked in our store, and later, a lot of it sold. I believe these TV shows really help popularize a look.”
Major stores are also developing merchandising campaigns with TV studios to promote key looks.
Express, a division of The Limited Inc., for example, launched a campaign with “Models Inc.,” its first TV promotion. All 713 Express units carried four-foot-by-five-foot posters featuring the cast in Express jeans, which were worn on the show. The retailer also received on-screen credit through November for having its clothes on screen.
“Models Inc.” has had a lukewarm response from viewers, but an Express spokeswoman said that has not deterred the chain from going ahead with other TV promotions because the medium is “hot.”
Last fall, Spelling Entertainment and Sony Signatures, the merchandising arm of Sony Corp., struck a deal for a group of in-store shops selling licensed merchandise inspired by “Melrose Place.” The merchandise includes sweatshirts, T-shirts and mugs. The in-store boutiques were launched in 15 Macy’s West/Bullock’s stores at the end of November. A Macy’s West spokesman said sales have been strong ever since.
For spring, the merchandise offering has expanded to include $18 crop tops, said Stuart Spiegel, vice president of retail distribution at Sony Signatures.
While vendors don’t usually get on-screen credit, costume designers are usually willing to talk about their sources. Most fashion firms said that TV exposure helps the bottom line.
Take for example, Damze Co. Inc., a Tustin, Calif., sportswear company that expanded into decorative chenille robes two years ago. Sales took off when its robes with moon and stars appeared on such shows as “Melrose Place,” “Northern Exposure” and “The Nanny.” “It took us to another level,” said Don Chapman, president and owner of Damze. He attributed the robe’s 20 percent sales increase over the past two years to TV exposure, especially to “Melrose Place,” in which Courtney Thorne-Smith’s Allison wore it in almost every episode. “It helped expose us to a younger market,” said Chapman.
That burst prompted the firm to move its plant in Southern California from Santa Ana to Tustin, quadrupling its production capacity. Last October, it also traded in its “rickety old chenille yardage machine,” as Chapman described it, for a more updated one. Serving up the fashion on these shows isn’t that simple, costume designers pointed out. With as many as 100 clothing changes for a single one-hour episode, costume designers are careful not to offer a cookie-cutter image, especially for a young audience whose fashion tastes have been known to be fickle.
With shows taped about four to six weeks prior to airing, costume designers emphasize the importance of staying ahead of the trends, not following them. Most of the designers said they stop showing a trend once it’s merchandised heavily at the stores. Many also prefer to shop the market themselves, instead of getting clothes unsolicited from manufacturers. Their favorite shopping haunts range from The Gap to Neiman Marcus. Given the price-sensitive consumer, designers all emphasized the importance of inexpensive fashion looks.
“I tend to mix inexpensive items with designer elements,” said Molly Campbell, costumer for “90210,” adding that she might mix a Gap T-shirt with a pair of Moschino jeans for Tori Spelling’s Donna.”These are college students, and they have to look real.”
One of Campbell’s best finds was a little pink baby T-shirt with a satin heart, purchased at Fred Segal in the Melrose section of Los Angeles. Stores pounced on the item immediately, she said, adding that three months later Seventeen magazine showed the baby T-shirt on its cover.
“Models Inc.,” which focuses on the fashion industry in L.A., made its debut last September, touting “flashy put-together looks.” But after getting a negative reaction from viewers, it soon scrapped them, said Alexis Scott, women’s wardrobe supervisor for the show.
While Linda Gray, who plays Hillary, the owner of the fictitious agency called Models Inc., wears expensive designs by Calvin Klein, her models have toned down their image. They now wear contemporary designs from such resources as Bisou Bisou, Parallel and Product.
“At first, we wanted to make it a fantasy, but we heard that our viewers couldn’t relate,” said Scott.”It’s really important that you stay real with the audience.” As for “Party of Five,” costumer designer Scilla Andreen-Hernandez said her strategy is to play down the Los Angeles look, opting for a rugged San Francisco style.
The show, which focuses on five young siblings living on their own in San Francisco after their parents die in an auto accident, touts a number of denim and rugged looks, like denim vests, rompers and jeans.
Some of Andreen-Hernandez’s hits include a cargo coat and a black rubber coat with orange lining, both of which were picked up at thrift stores, and a sexy black leather dress with lots of straps, which she had made just for the show.
A departure from the West Coast mentality is “My So-Called Life,” set in Pittsburgh. The show, which stars Claire Danes as Angela, a troubled 15-year-old, takes an eclectic approach to fashion. The show is on hiatus and is waiting for renewal in May. Costume designer Patrick Norris, who is expected to direct the show next fall, mixes Betsey Johnson dresses with army boots, or cutoff overalls with baby Ts, picked up at church thrift stores or department stores like Nordstrom.
“The hardest part is not grabbing the same thing,” said Norris. “I’m always bumping into the costume designers — either at Nordstrom or at Bullock’s. But I try to stay ahead of the gang.”
Denise Wingate, the costume designer for “Melrose Place,” said she prefers to shop in her West Hollywood neighborhood, especially at Ron Ross in the San Fernando Valley and Beverly Center, which houses specialty stores like Bebe and Ice.
Wingate’s latest find was a store in Paris called Mouton e Cinque Patts. The boutique sells second-hand clothes.
“I found this great old Moschino black crepe dress; I haven’t used it on the show yet,” she said. As for labels, she prefers to use young designers, like Bettina Budewig and Escada’s Nic Janik. But it was at Bebe that Wingate found the original body-hugging power suit for Amanda, the sultry executive of the fictitious advertising agency called D&D; now, she says, the look can be found all over. “When I first started with the show, all I could find were boxy, staid business suits,” Wingate said. “I think that I helped reshape the women’s power suit. I have often stood by the theory that there is a fine line between sex and power.” The Amanda character has prompted a flood of calls from Amanda wannabes. One woman from the Midwest told Wingate she would pay her anything if she could be made to look like the character. Wingate declined the offer.
But Amanda’s look has also triggered some negative responses, including a call from an irate Wall Street female attorney who charged that the come-hither look is belittling to women.
“She literally screamed at me, saying that Amanda’s suits were too tight and sexy,” Wingate said. “I tried to defend myself, but then I just said, ‘Listen, if you had legs like that, you would wear those suits.’ Then I just hung up.
“I mean,” she said.”It’s only a TV show.”