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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

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Why Fashion TV Has Flopped

A brief history, from House of Style to Project Runway.

It’s 1989 and TV has caught the fashion bug. Elsa Klensch is serving journalism runway-side for CNN and Jeanne Beker is bringing Vogue-level insider coverage to FashionTelevision. Todd Oldham is making printed sweaters using dollar-store finds as the original DIY expert on MTV’s Todd Time and Cindy Crawford is hosting the channel’s soon-to-be cult classic House of Style.

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TV networks’ desire for shows about high-fashion would wax and wane for the next 25 years, leading to both long-running staples and one-off copycats. But with a slew of both failed and canceled series in recent years, can fashion television be declared officially dead?

The height of fashion TV occurred in the early 2000s, when reality series began to take over network lineups. TLC’s makeover show What Not to Wear (based on the UK program of the same name) landed stateside in 2003, ultimately ending its run in 2013. Tyra Banks's competition series America’s Next Top Model premiered the same year; the following year brought Bravo’s take on the genre, Project Runway, a fashion design competition that bounced to Lifetime in 2009. And viewers got a tiny taste of what it's like to work at a magazine while watching Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port mess around in the Teen Vogue closet on The Hills.

House of Style was one of fashion TV's earliest—and biggest—hits.

America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway are still running today, but ANTM’s ratings have dropped from over six million viewers the first season to a little over one million during this current cycle; Project Runway’s ratings steadily rose to five million after a disappointing premiere viewership of 354,000, but are now down to two million. However, even at the shows' peaks, networks unsuccessfully tried to replicate, and in some cases reinvent, the fashion reality prototype.

It's safe to say that fashion TV has largely flopped.

There were design competition imitators like Bravo’s The Fashion Show and NBC’s Fashion Star, along with Bravo's decidedly avant-garde ANTM rip-off Make Me a Supermodel, all of which only ran for two seasons. Shows like The CW’s Stylista and The Style Network’s Running In Heels followed industry hopefuls pining for positions at Elle and Marie Claire (both lasted a single season). Even MTV attempted a web reboot of its iconic House of Style last year, but the network has failed to fully revive the program. Bravo’s The Rachel Zoe Project, which gave a peek into the world of celebrity styling, had more staying power, airing from 2008 to 2013, though that is now off the airwaves too.

It's safe to say that fashion TV has largely flopped, while food and music-based reality programming continues to explode. As industry executives explain it, that's because though there is dedicated viewership in the fashion space, the content is decidedly more niche than, say, cooking or singing competition series.

"There’s a lot of strong brand equity in the uniqueness of fashion, but that's not going to lead to a successful ratings boom," says Sarah Weidman, the former executive producer of development and new series of the now-shuttered Style Network. "It’s just not relatable to the average person. If you’re watching the runway shows in February for what’s going to be in stores in September, that doesn’t help me figure out what to wear to work tomorrow."

The girls of America's Next Top Model, 2004. Photo: Getty Images

When The Style Network first launched in 1998, it ran fashion week coverage every season, but by the time it shut down in 2013, it had opened its doors to wider lifestyle programming; home makeover shows and celebrity docu-series aimed for broader viewer education and entertainment.

The Style Network’s first big push into more general programming was 2008’s Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane, which followed a fashion personality—Kimora Lee Simmons—but highlighted her life outside of the industry. "She was deep in fashion, she was a model, but at the same time she was a mom, like a huge portion of our audience," says Weidman. "She was an inspirational leader-type character."

It's not really about high-fashion, but rather standard reality TV tropes.

It's for the same reasons that a show like America’s Next Top Model has endured: it's not really about high-fashion, but rather standard reality TV tropes. As the show's executive producer Ken Mok explains, "It’s a very simple fantasy show that anyone can watch and get a taste of the fashion world in its mass entirety from. If you’re a girl watching you can say, 'I could easily be that girl.' On top of that, this show is a real soap opera. You get invested emotionally in the stories, in the conflicts in the house, and in the dream that they’re trying to get."

It's not just expanding beyond the industry bubble in terms of concept that's proven effective for style-focused shows, though. The success of Bravo’s Fashion Queens, now in its third season, is owed to its inclusivity, says co-host Derek J. "What we’ve all known for so many years is that there’s only one kind of person who is allowed to talk about fashion," he explains. "With Fashion Queens, we’re three black individuals. Bevy is a woman of a certain age, Lawrence and I are two gay men. We don’t have nose jobs, we’re curvy. Five years ago, we wouldn’t be the people on TV talking about fashion."

Lawrence Washington, Bevy Smith, and Derek Johnson of Fashion Queens. Photo: Getty Images

This democratization can also be seen online, where a steady influx of videos about the industry and its players have also stolen much of fashion TV's thunder. From campy VFiles model shows to high-gloss videos put out by magazines and brands themselves, not to mention the tremendous amount of user-generated fashion and beauty content on YouTube, there’s no question that the internet is picking up where networks have left off.

"The internet is a whole different playing field," says Weidman. "There’s bite-sized samplings of fashion content online. It's growing and serving a lot of the stuff that we were doing." Whereas fashion-hungry viewers once turned to House of Style or The Hills to get an insider's perspective, they can now stream interviews, tutorials, and more created by the likes of Vogue or watch their favorite editors’ (or designers', or models') Snapchat stories.

"We are very cognizant of social media and its impact on the show," says Mok, who enlisted blogger Bryan Boy to be a judge and social media correspondent for ANTM during seasons 19 and 20. "Every cycle we’ll have at least one or two people from the social media world come on the show, whether it’s a Vine star to teach the cast how to use it, or someone with a big Instagram."

Derek J, however, notes that fashion television does have advantages over online video, especially when it comes to production value and resources: "With the YouTubers—and I’m not knocking them because they’re excellent at what they do—a lot of them are at-home people who are just picking it up. We’re professionals at what we do."

Rachel Zoe styles Jaime King on The Rachel Zoe Project in 2012. Photo: Getty Images

Indeed, fashion TV has recently witnessed the quiet beginnings of programs like Ovation’s Fashion Fund (which revolves around the CFDA's emerging designer competition) and E!’s House of DVF (a competition in which the winner is named a brand ambassador for Diane von Furstenberg's label), both of which have reached second-season status despite lackluster ratings. There is at least still some kind of demand for traditional fashion programming.

"The world of television is changing completely—the whole structure is changing," says Mok. "I do think with the rise of streaming, different channels could come up with ways to cater to people’s specific tastes." For now, it’s a matter of network experimentation. "In terms of what is the trend in reality, that’s always cyclical," adds Weidman. "All it takes is one new version of a show about fashion to get big or break to be the next Project Runway and then there will be a whole new host of copycats."


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