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Episode 1: Is Fashion Star the Next Fashion Star?

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Last night, after months and months of build-up, the beleaguered NBC network debuted its slightly tardy to the party fashion reality spectacular: Fashion Star. And it was pretty enjoyable—even if the show's production is a bit Dancing With the Stars schlocky and the layers and layers of rules are a tad baroque.

A quick summary before we get all detailed: The show features 14 fledgling designers from all walks of life and all over the (English speaking) world. They're shipped off to Los Angeles where a state-of-the-art production studio complete with cutters and pattern makers and make-up artists awaits. Trolling this studio they find three Tim Gunns: Nicole Richie, Jessica Simpson and John Varvatos. Each week, each designer uses the tools and mentorship at hand to create a showcase featuring one of their signature looks three ways on three models. Then, well, then things get crazy: Each designer throws a mini runway spectacular that is one part televised Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, one part Project Runway, and one part nightly cruise ship entertainment, hosted by Elle MacPherson.

The mentors weigh in followed by the buyers—Caprice Willard from Macy's, Nicole Christie from H&M, and Terron Schaefer from Saks Fifth Avenue. Buyers are given the opportunity to bid on each showcase and more often than not—at least last night—they're not buying. That said, when they do, a cash prize goes to the lucky designer and a version (or two, or three) of that designer's garment—produced to conform to the retailer's price and production specifications—becomes available on that store's respective website as soon as the show is over, and on the selling floor the next morning. If two buyers both want something, they can outbid each other; and if buyers aren't biting that designer could be sent home. Still with us?

Elimination is where things get hairy—hopefully we have this straight. The buyers choose the three least impressive designers who didn't make a sale. Those designers come out for some reamin'. At that point the mentors discuss and choose one of the three to save. Finally, the buyers send the loser packing and that other middling, panicked designer back to the drawing board.

Oh, and the whole thing is filmed in front of a live audience American Idol-style. And big, stupid pop songs are featured several times each—NBC is getting their money's worth! Also, there are frequent, totally unrelated to anything else going on, fashion-esque dance numbers featuring scantily clad "models" who are more likely NFL cheerleaders—they gotta keep straight dudes from leaving the room somehow!

Does that all make sense? It's a lot.

There is, naturally, a requisite clippy, sound-byte-y introduction narrated by "former supermodel with a multimillion dollar lingerie line" Elle McPherson, declaring that Fashion Star will establish the "next great fashion icon." Introductions are made all around—John Varvatos is mostly just "the former head designer" for Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein."

The grand prize is also revealed—and it's kind of insane: A $6 million dollar contract with all three retailers. In other words: One designer's work is going to be featured at international fast-fashion mass-marketer H&M; American-classic, all things to all people, let's go to the mall Macy's; and the hallowed, high-fashion halls of Saks Fifth Avenue.

Next thing you know, there's a crazy models in bras dancing and posing with motorcycles situation—oh, it's McPherson's intimates collection. Synergy at work! As Varvatos claps lackadaisically (he's dripping in jewelry), McPherson emerges (she's inhumanly tall). She explains the rules but it's all so layered and crazy it's barely going to make sense even after the whole episode is said and done. And with that: It's designer time!

First we meet bartender Orly Shani who hopes to one day be able to focus more on her design work—a collection of easy to wear convertible knits she calls Tuc & Wes (like cut and sew backwards, get it?) She sends a mini down the runway layered with a zip-off detail. Meanwhile, Edmund Newton—a barber/fashion designer/stylist who calls his look “Studio 54 meets 2012” (what happens in 2013?)—debuts his middling bubble cocktail dress. There are steam effects; there is very loud Lady Gaga; and Richie, who looks fairly unimpressed, is wearing this sort of awesome hairpiece thing.

We’re merely minutes into the show and Jessica Simpson is already trying to be homey down-home. On Shani’s skirt: "My mom and I would call it a twofer!" Meanwhile, Richie managed to applaud one of Newton’s dresses—a piped black and white iteration and the only one that was worthwhile.

Before moving on to the buyer’s panel it’s time for more introductions: The retailers! One moment of note during the Macy’s spiel: "You're probably already wearing something [Caprice Willard] bought!" Um, not true.

Anyway—the show starts with a bang. Newton gets a $60,000 offer from Macy’s (basically because Willard buys for a broader range of shoppers (literally broader, and the dress is universally flattering)) and Shani gets an $80,000 offer from Schaefer for Saks (above). Shani is stunned, and thrilled: “Saks is a store a walk through to tease myself!" Shaefer’s rely: "Good."

An illustrious beginning—but the competition is a lot tougher than that first showcase made seem. Let’s move on to the second showcase: Oscar Fierro and Nikki Poulos. Fierro is a teeny tiny little person originally from El Salvador. Extraordinarily flamboyant, he favors large, colorful bowler hats in cheap looking satin; was filmed riding a dwarf pony of some sort; and hand makes over-the-top “couture” for private clients in Texas. Other contestants are already annoyed by the make-up encrusted, tears-prone designer—who at one point climbs into a trash can for a laugh. Except he made a white trash joke instead of an Oscar the Grouch joke—missed opportunity. He’s up with Poulos, an Australian who designs resort and swimwear, and the designer seemingly most annoyed by his crazy.

To a soundtrack of La Roux, Fierro sends down his Real Housewives of Who Cares trashy butterfly dress; Poulos sends down a maxi-caftan thing (which is kind of awesome even if the prints look a little cheap). After the show the two join McPherson on stage—their three completely different heights are hilarious. Oscar is weeping (yes, he wiped his nose with his scarf). All that emotion can’t swing the judges: Varvatos says he’s seen it (to which Fierro responds, “You’ve never seen it with my label!”). Richie says she thinks he has something but “this dress is not it;” Simpson wants the sequined one. There are no buyers, and an unimpressed Schaefer worries that he’s a comedian rather than a designer—zing!

That said, Macy’s offers $50,000 for the caftans (above)—as much for its “retro/chic” feel as to keep Poulos in the game. Strategy! Best moment so far: Poulos crazily gloating on her trip backstage hulking over and hugging loser Fierro.

Oh, first crazy product placement sponsorship thing (aside from several thousand Macy’s commercials): McPherson on the Fiat 500. Followed twice by Richie shilling Suave hair care. Richie obviously constantly uses Suave.

Next it’s time for some menswear—from bullheaded, over-confident Aussie Nicholas Bowes. He’s joined by Barbara Bates—a designer who left her corporate job after years of selling her designs to colleagues in the ladies room on payday (love that). Bowes—a former model who isn’t so good at accepting criticism—shows his totally blah motorcycle jacket. And, can we just say: Bowes—get a stylist. The first two models were wearing shirts so low cut they should’ve just gone shirtless. The third was wearing short, tight denim cut-offs with contrast cuffs and huge, ridiculous cowboy boots. Meanwhile, Bates debuts her tea-length skirt with hip pockets and matching cotton tops.

Simpson—who had a good chuckle over Bowes’ styling choices along with the rest of the panel—attempts some friendly criticism, and Bowes just loses it. A tirade of "what would someone like you (or any woman for that matter) know about cutting-edge menswear" follows. Simpson is shocked—you should be nice to the ladies, boy! “We run the world”—at least “in this industry!” Needless to say, he very quickly receives absolutely no offers. No offers for Bates, either, but multiple panelists noted her sewing technique and attention to detail. Just, you know, what woman wants big crazy pockets accentuating her hips?

Next up: Ross Bennett, a young Texas tailor who is as straight as they come—he hunts! His clients include senators and attorneys and their wives and his look is pretty adorable: Very Brooks Brothers meets Billy Reid. Also—he went to the same high school as Simpson! His look: Full culottes. Yes, seriously—camel toe culottes you can probably find in Talbot’s right now (Richie: “It looks like someone is grabbing her in her vagina!”) He joins Sarah Parrout—a southern sewing-room seamstress with no formal fashion education and a young family—who shows a sexy and pretty adorable take on a classic shift dress. Also: More Lady Gaga.

Varvatos tells Bennett the look is dated; Richie wants his womenswear to be more like his look (agreed)—and no-one buys it (Shaefer, to wild applause: "It wasn't special enough for Saks.") Christie, however, offers $80,000 for the shift for H&M (above). Bennett, a sweating wreck, remained a total gentleman and seemed incrediblely happy for his opponent. We heart him.

The next three designers made no impact whatsoever and editors totally glossed over their nothingness. Perhaps we’ll learn more next week. The dresses: A one-shoulder Calvin knock-off; a froufy party dress from a Tiffany mall tour; and the red dress from Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red” video.

Next up, we meet Lizzie Parker—a former programmer from Seattle who started sewing because she didn’t like what she could buy in stores. Plus-sized, Parker designs clothes that can flatter any figure—and proved it by wearing her garment, an asymmetrical tunic. The look inspired a mini bidding war between Saks and Macy’s—but ended up at Macy’s for $60,000 (above). Parker was thrilled: "The biggest thing is people are going to wear my clothes!" We like her, too.

Finally, we meet Nzimiro Oputa and Kara Laricks. Oputa, a Nigerian-American, grew up poor in Detroit, and designs meanswear. He showed three crisp men’s sports jackets with bits of fun detail. Laricks, an adorably androgynous designer who specializes in accessories, showed a deconstructed collar/tie thing—and someone else’s clothes. The soundtrack: J. Geils Band (yes, really).

The mentors are atwitter over Laricks’ choice to show clothing she didn’t design; and Christie dubbed the move “indulgent.” The buyers passed—though seemed to love the idea of her, her look, her philosophy (we do too). Everyone loves Oputa’s blazers, though, and Christie offers $50,000 for them for H&M (above). Though Schaefer didn’t buy, he loved Oputa’s use of detail—showing off his own hot pink under collar and declaring that “fashion is about surprise and delight.” Agreed!

Backstage, everyone who didn’t sell anything is crying and upset and, naturally, Fierro is yelling shit at people. The buyers finally deem Fierro, Laricks, and Bowes as the three worst options. They then pingpong their choices to the mentors who opt to save Fierro (because he’s funny and zany and ratings and Santino!). Then, finally, back to the buyers who kicked Bowes and his Australia-sized attitude to the curb (“You're not our Fashion Star"). Good riddance!

Within minutes, all options are on sale at each store’s respective websites, with Shani’s convertible mini at Saks for $350; Parker’s tunic at Macy’s (in three colors) for $79; Poulos’ maxi at Macy’s (in two colors) for $89; Newton’s halter dress at Macy’s (in two colors) for $110; Oputa’s blazer at H&M for $49.95; and Parrott’s shift (in two colors) at H&M for $19.95.

Whoa, note: Parrout's dress for H&M sold out online (in both colors) 45 minutes after the show ended, and Shani’s skirt was sold out on-line by around 10am.

We’re thinking it’ll all be less confusing next week? See you then.

· Fashion Star [NBC]
· Shop All The Winning Pieces From Fashion Star Ep. 1 [Racked]
· H&M Is Launching E-Commerce for NBC's New "Fashion Star" Reality Series [Racked]