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NEW YORK — “This show is about finding the next great fashion arbiter,” proclaimed Tommy Hilfiger, who presided over an open casting call Saturday for his new reality TV show, “The Cut.”

The show, which will debut on CBS early next year, will profile 16 aspiring designers as they compete for the opportunity to design their own collection under the Tommy Hilfiger label.

Eager wannabe designers began lining up outside the Hilfiger flagship in SoHo around 5 a.m., while others rolled up to the store in limousines around noon. All were ready to convince Hilfiger they were the next great American designer. The store continued to service rubber-necking shoppers, while groups of eager designers-to-be were escorted to a velvet-roped-off corner. Hilfiger greeted those in line and posed for photographs at 11 a.m., then headed inside to get the interviews under way.

Ourlando Petarkin, 21, commuted from Mount Vernon, N.Y., early Saturday morning to claim his spot in line. “I live and breathe fashion,” he said excitedly while he waited for his turn with Hilfiger and his team of casting directors. “My friend saw Tommy on E talking about the show and she called me immediately and said, ‘You’ve got to do this!’ I think it’s definitely worth a shot,” he said. Petarkin studied fashion at Westchester Community College and described his designs as “couture with an edge.”

“We’re not all Jennifer Lopez, we all can’t afford couture,” he said, “but I want to change that. I want to make couture affordable but still fabulous.”

While the line looped around the corner of Broome Street and West Broadway, a number of sightseers and shoppers stopped to ask if a celebrity was inside. A headset clad CBS staffer managing the line replied repeatedly that it was a casting call for a reality show. One passerby asked, “Another one?” and shuffled off.

The two- to four-minute group interviews were held 11 a.m.-4 p.m., with 300 people being seen overall, a Hilfiger spokeswoman said. Hilfiger joined the casting directors for the first two hours and sat on a display table that had been cleared of its wares for the interviews. The wide-eyed contestants — all of whom had to be at least 21 years old — sat in a semicircle in front of him. Six to seven designers entered at a time and were asked their opinions on the latest fashion trends, which designers they loved (but couldn’t afford) and which fashion ad campaigns they favored at the moment.

This story first appeared in the October 12, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Contestants did (and said) whatever it took to get noticed — even if that meant a little sucking up.

“Everyone said they loved the Sarah Jessica Parker ads for the Gap, but I love Beyoncé and it just so happens she’s doing Tommy’s ads, so I said I loved his ads,” said aspiring designer Esther Nash. She smartly came equipped with her portfolio and a folding chair. “The whole thing took less than five minutes,” she said. “I think they were more interested in learning about our personalities than anything else.”

In today’s reality-saturated environment, one wannabe was returning for her sequel: Nash already has been a featured character on the WE Network’s “Single in the Hamptons.”

“I went on that show to find Mr. Right,” she said, exasperated. “Unfortunately, I’m still single.” Nash designs what she calls “rock-star glamwear” for the contemporary set.

All heads turned when Edwing D’Angelo emerged from the store with his elaborately dressed mannequin in tow. D’Angelo’s mannequin was wearing a two-piece gown of bright pink roses. When asked if his interview went well, D’Angelo replied, “It went fabulous,” as he struggled to get his mannequin and garment bag of samples into a cab. “I let Tommy have it.”

Back in the line, those with just an armful of sketches stared enviously at D’Angelo. “You must bring attention to yourself, which he certainly did,” Petarkin said of D’Angelo. “You won’t seem interesting if you don’t. And why bother if that’s the case?”

But it takes more than a bold entrance to make the cut, literally. “The biggest challenge right now is to narrow it down to just 16 different designers,” said Hilfiger, between auditions. New York was just one stop on the 12-city tour. The casting team has already held auditions in Los Angeles, Kansas City, Chicago, Washington and Miami, and will hold more next Saturday in San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston and Minneapolis.

“This show is going to be completely different from what one would expect,” Hilfiger said. “Fashion and pop culture are now one. I’m basing this show on F.A.M.E., which stands for fashion, art, music and entertainment. This series will show what goes on behind the scenes. We really are trying to find the next great American designer.”

Hilfiger’s reality show comes at a curious time. Shares of Tommy Hilfiger Corp. hit a 52-week low in intraday trading Monday in the wake of recent news of multiple shareholder lawsuits stemming from a federal investigation of the Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A. subsidiary. In late September, the Hilfiger subsidiary received a grand jury subpoena for documents relating to the commission rate it paid to a non-U.S. subsidiary. There is speculation that the probe by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan centers on tax-related issues.

“I’m not going to comment on that today,” Hilfiger said of the charges.

The 16 contestants on “The Cut” will live together in their own SoHo loft and will face weekly style challenges. Each week, the contestants will face Hilfiger and his style council, who will rate the hopefuls and determine who makes the next round.

“Right now, everyone is aware of fashion,” said Craig Piligian, co-executive producer of the series. “That’s why this show will work. It truly resonates through the world. Twelve-year-olds know who they’re wearing. When I was a kid, no one knew about that stuff,” he said. Piligian was the co-executive producer on a number of the “Survivor” episodes and the creator and executive producer of “American Chopper,” “American Hotrod” and “American Casino.”

Jared B. Leese, 35, waited patiently to show Hilfiger what he called his “fun, tailored, men’s wear designs.”

“I’m trying to bring back the European, colorful look to men’s wear,” he said. “I’m not really nervous. I’ve been through much worse than this.”

Adina Carkhum, 24, from Teaneck, N.J., thought the best approach was to wear her own design. “When you don’t have fabrics, you find them: umbrellas, newspaper, it doesn’t matter,” she said.

Sabrina Cooper, 29, a West Coast transplant currently residing in Queens, was feeling relatively calm. “I was part of the dot-com bust and have been on a lot of interviews since I’ve been unemployed. I’m used to this feeling,” she said. Cooper said she designs for the 18- to 35-year-old market and incorporates what she calls a “vintage, shabby-chic element” to her clothes.

Asked if she thought friends would be surprised to hear she auditioned for a reality TV show, Cooper responded, “I think a lot of people would say, ‘That’s pretty lame.’” Cooper feared the selections would be based on filling stereotypical roles instead of talent.

“I think they may be looking for someone who’ll bring the drama, someone who’s funny and so on,” she said. So where does she fit in? “Who knows? We’ll all wind up being some form of entertainment.”