The Fashion Show premieres tonight, and reviewers say everything about Bravo's Project Runway replacement, from judges Isacc Mizrahi and Kelly Rowland, to the contestants, to the challenges, is far less inspired.
Project Runway's move from Bravo to Lifetime prompted a year of lawsuits, which finally ended with a settlement last month. (Project Runway's sixth season will begin on Lifetime on August 20, and Bravo's ripoff of its own flagship series debuts tonight at 10 p.m.) The show follows the same basic concept as Project Runway, with 16 designers competing in a weekly challenge, fashion show, and elimination, but there are a few tweaks to the formula. The show is judged by designer Isaac Mizrahi, Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child, and Fern Mallis, a senior vice president of IMG Fashion who appeared as a guest judge on Project Runway. There will be one main challenge every week, in addition to a Harper's Bazaar Mini Challenge, judged by the magazine's Special Projects Director Laura Brown. Mizrahi and Rowland perform Tim Gunn's role in addition to hosting and judging, taking a tour of the work room during the challenges and offering their thoughts. The designers are competing for a chance to see their designs sold in a not-yet-named major retail store, and to win $125,000. A team of fashion insiders will vote on the runway show at the end of each episode, then the judges will decide who is eliminated. Viewers will vote on the final winner.
Critics say the judges don't have the chemistry of Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia, and Michael Kors. Unlike Tim Gunn, Isaac Mizrahi's comments are more mean than constructive and Kelly Rowland's fashion credentials are dubious. As for the contestants, it seems they were chosen because they fill certain Project Runway stereotypes, not because they are great designers. At the end of the first episode, one group of designers presents Hammer pants as a wardrobe staple, and Mizrahi tells the contestants, "you all let me down." Still, three months is a long time to wait for more Project Runway and The Fashion Show may help tide fans over. Below, the critics judge The Fashion Show.
Talk about a cheap knockoff. Bravo's look-alike replacement for Project Runway is what Christian Siriano would call a hot mess. By raiding the production closets of shows like The Biggest Loser, The Fashion Show attempts to jazz up the old business model with the idea of real life, real people, real fashion. Problem is, making the fashion more accessible also makes it a lot less, well, fashionable and, inevitably, much less fierce. There's just not that same level of drama when designing a standard blue blazer.
Even delightfully entertaining host Isaac Mizrahi seems slightly aghast at the designs, often unable to mask his horror. If Tim Gunn was diplomatic, Mizrahi is just melodramatic. His signature sign-off of "Bah-bye darling" seems rather harsh even by Heidi Klum's gruff, auf Wiedersehen standards. Still, he totally eclipses bland co-host Kelly Rowland, whose credentials in fashion seem rather nebulous. The two, along with Fern Mallis and a weekly guest judge, weigh fashion show votes to pick a winner and loser. Mallis, a popular judge from Runway, adds practical, relatable advice and some much-needed clout.
Hosts designer Isaac Mizrahi and singer Kelly Rowland (ex-Destiny's Child) are not exactly your new Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum. (Rowland's fashion credentials come from having looked at and worn a lot of it — and fair enough.) They are peppy where the Runway hosts were contained and tend to steal focus from the contestants. And unlike Gunn, whose role as disinterested mentor allowed him to love all players equally, Mizrahi is both an involved commentator and a judge, a mixing of duties of which I'm not sure I approve. (When Gunn was brought in as a substitute judge for last year's Runway finale, it seemed very wrong.)
Isaac Mizrahi is the host and lead judge instead of Heidi Klum, which is a little like giving the Grace Kelly role in To Catch a Thief to Rosie O'Donnell. There is no avuncular Tim Gunn acting as mentor to the 15 designers; instead Mr. Mizrahi and his co-host, Kelly Rowland, formerly of Destiny's Child, inspect the workroom where the designers are frantically cutting and basting. They don't hand out helpful tips or encouraging words; mainly they exchange eye rolls and dismissive comments. (Mr. Gunn's exhortation, "Make it work," became famous; Mr. Mizrahi leaves the room with a less inspiring motto, "Keep pluggin'.")
Mr. Mizrahi, who can be very funny as well as flamboyant, is mostly a scold here. Ms. Rowland is not exactly nurturing, either. "Is that supposed to be like that?" she asks Haven, 29, a contestant who is struggling with a misshapen fold on her blouse. "No, it's not supposed to be like that, Kelly," Haven replies, barely concealing a bristle.
Instead of acting as the mercurial designer's more tolerant foil, Ms. Rowland tries to keep up with Mr. Mizrahi's venom - without his verve.
The show, the contestants and even the judges (who have almost no chemistry) are almost entirely without flair. Fashion plods through the paces but never seems to gather a real momentum, and there's little spontaneity or a true clash of creative wills: the contestants just seem to get on one another's nerves.
On the other hand, examining fashion with a more serious attitude leads to informative, interesting discussions. The runway segment of Fashion puts outfitted models on display before a room full of industry leaders, and producers seek out feedback from top names. During the runway examination, contestants provide a play-by-play on their fashions; later, when called on the carpet, they're articulate and insightful as to their design motivations and theories. In those moments, Fashion raises the bar for fashion reality.
The show would be so much more hahaha, and so much more interesting, if we hadn't seen these contestants before. Merlin's costumes and smack-worthy comments seem far less outlandish when you realize he's pretty much just a Christian Siriano/Jay McCarroll hybrid. And Fashion's Kristin, with her flaky eco-inspired designs and what looks like a dreamcatcher in her hair — didn't Elisa and Sweet P (Runway Season 4) have that shtick covered? The contestants of Fashion sometimes act as though they auditioned not to be fashion designers on a reality show, but rather to fill the specific shoes left behind by Runway contestants. You can almost picture them backstage, doing rock-paper-scissors to determine which one of them will be "the offensive contestant," which one will be "the contestant who wears a headpiece bigger than Milwaukee."
Project Runway is ingenious at casting. Will we ever forget Santino? Christian Siriano? Or Kenley Collins, last season's finalist who was so combative that she has since been charged with throwing her cat at her ex?
Tough to top. But The Fashion Show just may do it. So far we have a men's underwear designer who calls himself "the pantychrist"; a Siriano look-alike who mumbles something about how he only works with squares and rectangles, and Merlin, who has an impenetrable accent, at least one red cat suit and a collection of astonishing hats. "The world is controlled by bitches, that's what I believe," says Merlin. I think.
Mizrahi also doesn't seem to be from the pep-talk school of hosting. At one point in tonight's show he informs the assembled group that "you all let me down." ... In Mizrahi's defense, tonight doesn't suggest these contestants are quite ready to revolutionize fashion. It doesn't take a professional to know that if a dress is so painfully tight even a wispy model can't comfortably wear it, it's probably not going to score in the shops. But as viewers, we're less interested in the destination than the ride, and this one starts out feeling like fun.