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The Reality of ‘Fashion Star’

Unlike some of its predecessors, the latest entry in the fashion-reality genre landed with a concept that was compelling — too bad the clothes weren't.

By
with contributions from Marcy Medina
retail-features/news

NEW YORK — Fashion and entertainment is nothing new.

But add commerce into the mix and you’ve got the novel ingredients for “Fashion Star,” the latest entry in the fashion-reality genre that made its debut on NBC Tuesday. Unlike some of its predecessors, this show landed with a concept that was compelling — too bad the clothes weren’t.

That didn’t seem to hurt sales, though. The three retailers involved in the program — Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and H&M — all said they had strong sell-throughs of the first deliveries, both online on Tuesday night and in stores on Wednesday. It proves once again that in the new order of fashion, hype can outshine talent.

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Where other similar reality shows have designers vying for the top prize with wares that may never hit a retail floor, the crux of “Fashion Star” is the clothes’ commercial appeal — determined by the stores’ buyers themselves. The merch is first critiqued by an oddly disparate trio of judges — Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie and John Varvatos — and then bid for by executives from Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and H&M (with the option to make “no offer”).

“Fashion Star” averaged 4.6 million viewers and won its time slot among the age 18-to-49 demographic — albeit on what was considered a slow night for television.

Within minutes of the show’s end, the selected pieces are up for retail online and in stores the next day.

In that respect, there’s a sense of instant gratification. By midday Wednesday, the three retailers reported strong selling of their choices. While they declined to disclose the number of units produced, they boasted that the show’s buzz translated onto the selling floors.

Saks.com sold out of Orly Shani’s $350 convertible zipper miniskirt by 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, and a spokeswoman added that the item was also selling well in its 49 stores. H&M’s Web site sold out of Sarah Parrott’s $19.95 formfitting minidress and Nzimiro Oputa’s $49.95 men’s blazers 20 minutes after the show ended Tuesday night, and by lunchtime Wednesday, all back stock was cleaned out of the 101 stores that sold the looks. Macy’s wares — Lizzie Parker’s $79 jersey tunic, Edmond Newton’s $110 cocktail dress and Nikki Poulos’ $89 kimono-sleeve caftan — were available exclusively at the Herald Square location and Macys.com, much of which had sold out by press time.

Talk about the power of TV — for without it, it’s unlikely the merch would light up the retail floors.

The slick television production is a far cry from the runways of New York, Milan and Paris, and more in the vein of other reality concepts like “The X Factor,” i.e., a big set, strobe lights, smoke machines, “Solid Gold”-like dancers and self-motivational proclamations from contestants, replete with tear-jerking personal stories. They at least added a narrative to the clothes, which were soulless at best, with little relevance to current fashion trends. The designers proposed lots of half-baked ideas, including a caftan with a print that looked dangerously like Pucci, several poufy cocktail numbers destined for Eighties-themed proms and short-short shift dresses that might have appealed to Snooki in her pre-pregnancy days (or maybe even now).

The only notable exception was Shani’s convertible skirt, which layered a tight miniskirt under a fluid chiffon one, the two meant to be detached by a zipper. (“My mom and I call it a twofer,” piped Simpson, in her most insightful comment of the night.) It was gimmicky, but at least it was based on a novel idea.

While lacking any strokes of sartorial genius, the show set itself apart by promoting the concept of selling clothes on the heels of runway buzz — an idea that’s been floating around for years. (Just ask Donna Karan about her idea to time her runway shows with real sales.)

At a launch party at Macy’s Herald Square on Tuesday night, Terry J. Lundgren, Macy’s Inc.’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, hailed the show as “the first of its kind.”

“In the fashion business, we usually have to wait six months from the time we see it on the runway to the time we get it in the stores, so this is the idea of an instant gratification for the consumers, as well as an instant response from them,” Lundgren said. “The way the product is bought today by buyers, there is tremendous amount of press and evaluation by fashion editors. Now the consumer is going to judge the clothes and, ultimately, that’s what matters in the business of fashion.”

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Saks’ Terron Schaefer, one of the three buyers on the show, echoed the sentiment. “In most of these shows, you vote with your telephone, but here you vote with your wallet,” he said. “These clothes are real. They’re not bibs of lettuce or laced doilies sewn together. It’s not such a fantasy kind of pie in the sky.”

“Fashion Star” was filmed in the summer, allowing the retailers to produce their orders according to their needs and with price points suited to their target audience, though it remains to be seen how customers will respond to the designers’ clothes at varying tiers throughout the show’s cycle. If Saks produces a designer-priced look one week, how will H&M interpret a mainstream piece by the same talent the next?

H&M’s Nicole Christie said that the approach to buying and producing the clothes is similar to other merchandise the mass chain offers. “We bought quantities comparable to our normal order size so we can supply 101 stores across the country and also online,” she said. “It’s doing really well. We believe in the garments we bought, and so we anticipated it.”

While Christie wouldn’t say how the earnings would be distributed, she said there was a profit model and a serious business proposition, in addition to it being a marketing vehicle. “For us, it’s a great platform to expose the brand to more customers and viewers in the country, but also in so much that we are part of the plot and structure of the show. Any investment we make in the show is geared toward the garment and the business. I also think it’s important in the context of how the average viewer understands the design and retail process. It’s important the customer understands that at H&M we make educated decisions.”

It’s likely that the show’s entertainment value will provide the common thread.

“Fashion is entertainment,” said Macy’s Caprice Willard, another buyer on the show. “People almost care more about the red carpet than they do the awards shows. Our customers are far more savvy than they have ever been before. In this day and age of technology, you can Google everything you want. No one is coming in anymore and solely counting on the sales associate to give them everything they need. They come in very well armed. If we want to stay the expert, we need to evolve as well, and being part of ‘Fashion Star’ is another way of doing it.”

If Michael Kors’ stratospheric fame is anything to go by, the judges are the ones who have the most to gain from the experiment, though Varvatos claimed it wasn’t his motive behind joining the show. “I have a full-time job, and that’s what I am focused on,” he said. “I am just going with the flow. My dream is not to be a television celebrity.”

But he probably won’t mind if he becomes a household name in Middle America along the way.