09 November 2010

'The Fashion Show' Swaggers into Second Season

Seattle Times

Were it not for "The Fashion Show: The Ultimate Collection," whose second season begins Tuesday on Bravo, our universal impression of the Somali-American supermodel Iman, an entrepreneur who is fluent in five languages, would surely have remained positive. Iman is 55 and looks 37. She designs handbags, jewelry and other accessories for a line called Iman Global Chic, which translates the looks of her African heritage for a Home Shopping Network audience that might not otherwise be exposed to such adventuresome style. Additionally she does charity work for organizations like Raising Hope for Congo, and she is Mrs. David Bowie.

But on "The Fashion Show," where she now appears as judge in chief alongside co-host Isaac Mizrahi, she has permitted herself to be turned into a reality she-wolf: a denigrator of paltry ambition, an angry and insistent muse. The new season of "The Fashion Show," Bravo's response to its loss of "Project Runway" to Lifetime, has a new format, no less lifeless than the previous one. In this re-imagining the ethos is inexplicably communitarian, as 12 contestants are divided into two design "houses" and each house must work every week to produce a collection that is unveiled in a fashion show.

Judges criticize the teams for lack of cohesion, but cohesion is hardly the point, and crimes of synergy are not dramatic enough to animate something like this. The prize ($125,000 and editorial coverage in Harper's Bazaar, now almost entirely inconsequential) is not dealt out evenly among members of the winning house but rather is given to the last candidate standing. So it is in the best interest of everyone competing to produce work that is distinctive instead of subservient to some collective vision. Each week a contestant is sent home with the limp, Iman-delivered directive, "You're out of fashion."

In the initial episode little looks terribly original to the judges, although it is difficult to know how anything could in what now feels like the 129th take on competitive fashion television. The problem isn't with the lack of originality in the clothes but in the lack of anything fresh about the contestants themselves. In some distant otherworld, bizarre scientists are cloning people who say, "When I was 7, I just knew I wanted to be a fashion designer." (These words are spoken by someone called Jeffrey about six seconds into the "The Fashion Show.") Television has brought us a ceaseless supply of men and women between 22 and 45 who labor to seem eccentric and who express precisely that feeling.

"The Fashion Show" gathers every cliché of fashion-television contestant: the nice person with the sad story, the self-important dispenser of Diana Vreeland-esque nonsense, the mean guy/girl and so on. In addition to Iman, who gets peeved when designs don't adequately reflect her Iman-ness, there is a Bazaar editor, Laura Brown, who also serves as judge and believes she is really bringing the butcher's knife down when she tells a contestant that a certain design looks as if it came from Strawberry. Here the wounds don't need stitches.

03 November 2010

Angels in Stripper Heels

NY Times

This is how an angel earns her wings. First, she is born, in someplace like Belarus or Florianópolis, the spot in southern Brazil where an awful lot of folks with German names fetched up over the centuries, or, well, Saskatchewan.

Then the angel grows up pretty. (There are no homely angels.)

Next, the angel is discovered, most likely in a mall.

The angel, at this point, does not realize she is an angel, because the process of becoming an angel requires time and guidance and support and miracles and, O.K., occasionally a sleazy boyfriend, as well as a decision at some point by Steven Meisel, or by some other star-making fashion photographer to choose a woman from among the thousands who would gladly sign away their firstborn for a chance to appear in front of his lens.

Although it is doubtless the dream of untold numbers of hopefuls to be discovered at a Victoria’s Secret open call some day — their beauty so radiant that they rise above the ranks of ordinary flesh-and-blood humans and appear as dazzling supernovas in underwear and stripper heels — the truth is that those destined to be cast in the coveted role of a Victoria’s Secret angel are not drawn from the general population. There is no democracy in angel land.

“We cast 30 models, but 10 times that many are sent to us by the agencies to be considered,” Edward Razek, the chief marketing officer for the Limited Brand, the parent company of the lingerie powerhouse, said last week before a casting session for this year’s Victoria’s Secret show, which will be televised on Nov. 30 to 11 million people in 185 countries, but will be taped before a more modest crowd in New York on Nov. 11.

“And 100 times that many would want to,” Mr. Razek said. “That’s why I hate castings, because I’m basically a softy and I hate the broken hearts and I hate saying no.”

As it happens, “no” is seldom heard at a Victoria’s Secret casting, at least not within earshot of the hopefuls. What the aspirants instead hear, during the roughly 120 seconds each is given to present herself to a specially selected panel, are phrases polite and generic enough to be anodyne.

They hear, “Lovely.” They hear, “Thank you for coming.” They hear, “Do it again, please, with a little more energy.”

The people who spoke these words one chilly fall morning, on the 12th floor of an office building in Midtown, under lighting that flattered no one, included Mr. Razek and Monica Mitro, the executive producer of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show; Alexander Werz, a fashion show director; John Pfeiffer, a casting director; and Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou and Dan May, two London-based editors (Harper’s Bazaar and the luxury quarterly 10 Magazine) who somehow eke out time in between intercontinental jet crossings to serve as highly paid stylists for global brands.

There were other professionals in the room — production people and a photographer and a small group of assistants who stood beside a wall of model headshots. But the crucial people, the ones deciding the fate of the angels, sat at a folding table about 10 long strides away from a makeshift privacy screen created from a rack of Victoria’s Secret panties and bras.

Behind that screen, for close to three hours, some of the most beautiful beings on the planet, one after another, stripped out of their street wear and underclothes and changed into a generic audition outfit consisting of a satin finish bra, a pair of lace bikini panties and champagne-colored platform heels.

Exiting the makeshift dressing area, these women then walked toward the table casually, or as casually as a nearly naked person can under the circumstances, and shook hands with the Victoria’s Secret crew.

“What people don’t realize is that they’re rarer by far than superstar athletes,” Mr. Razek said of women who fit precise but unwritten physical parameters for becoming a Victoria’s Secret angel. “The numbers of people who can do this are probably under 100 in the world,” Mr. Razek said. “And in the show it’s only 30 girls.” (Actually, there are 33 this year.)

Anyway, people do realize. And, as with most disagreeable facts, they block that one out.

This is worth noting because the fantasy (by merely laying out $53 for a Miraculous Multi-way Gel-Curve Bra one will somehow be transformed into a winged creature resembling Gisele Bündchen or Heidi Klum or Helena Christensen or Adriana Lima or Irina Shayk) is so powerful that the Limited, Victoria Secret’s parent company, posted a 12 percent increase in comparable sales in September over the same period a year ago.

That growth, industry analysts said, was led by the Victoria’s Secret division, which itself posted a 13 percent year-over-year increase. What is more, the company’s October results, to be posted today, are expected to be stronger still. Call it the uplifting Gel-Curve effect.

Nobody that morning was thinking about any of that. The focus of those behind the table was on Carolyn Winberg, a tomboyish Swedish model with a board-flat belly and limited décolletage and well-toned buttocks and blond hair that, like that of so many successful models, had been frazzled by styling until it was the texture of wood shavings.

“Never mind the hair,” Ms. Mitro said after Ms. Winberg had changed, walked, smiled, laughed, turned, laughed and changed again, packing up her T.G.I. Friday’s tote bag and blowing the panel a kiss as she made her way out of the room.

“Carolyn always takes it away on the runway,” said Mr. Werz, the show producer.

“She’s a baby doll,” Ms. Mitro said.

“The body’s amazing,” said Mr. Pfeiffer, the casting director. “She’s got this amazing, 1970s, Sharon Tate-y thing.”

“So much energy,” Ms. Mitro added.

“And energy, grace, poise is what it’s all about,” said Mr. Razek, who added, “You’ve got 16 or 18 cameras on you and the show is broadcast around the world, so you have to bring something special and unique.”

“Anyway, we can always do something about the hair,” Ms. Mitro said.

Next up was Bruna Tenorio, an aquiline Brazilian beauty favored by European designers for their haute couture shows; followed by Chrishell Stubbs, 18, a newcomer with cascades of dark curls; and Marloes Horst, a Memling Madonna in a lace mesh bikini; and Liu Wen, a Beijing native with longer legs than most point guards; and Cameron Russell, a part-time (“very part-time”) economics major at Columbia; and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, the woman best known as Megan Fox’s replacement in “Transformers 3”; and Maryna Linchuk, a young woman from Belarus who, although she has already been anointed a Victoria’s Secret angel, was auditioning again this year because, as Ms. Mitro said, bodies do change.

“You don’t see them for a minute, and...” Ms. Mitro said and then fell silent. She held her cupped hands wide in the universal gesture for hips as broad as a barn.

Does it go without saying that no Victoria’s Secret angels are fat? It does. A person cannot be expected to attain the angelic heights on a diet of Tasti D-Lite cone or Cinnabons

“With the smile, the hello, the walk, they get maybe two minutes,” to make an impression, said Mr. Razek, who has worked for the Limited since the early 1980s and who is notably tan and whose enviable shock of graying hair closely matched the salt and pepper flecks in his custom-made socks. “Maybe it’s not even that much.”

Maybe it’s just seconds, which was all it took for Ms. Linchuk to win over the panel, partly because she is beautiful in an uncontroversial and generic blond way but also because she is brisk and efficient and works out five days a week. The model Angela Lindvall, another occasional angel, at a certain point compared her particular line of work with that of a boxer. “You have to make weight,” she said. Ms. Lindvall herself once shed 20 postpregnancy pounds to make angel weight by jumping rope and subsisting on nothing but spinach, chard and kale.

The fitness horizon for a model preparing to audition for the Victoria’s Secret fashion show is perhaps 12 weeks, said Justin Gelband, a personal fitness trainer known in the business as the Model Whisperer. “We’ve been killing ourselves for this show,” Mr. Gelband explained before the casting call, referring to clients like Ms. Linchuk and Ms. Shayk and Anne Vialitsina, a model whose career has risen and fallen over tiny weight gains but whose physique that day was so starkly fit that it elicited a collective gasp.

“This all looks straightforward, but it’s not,” said Ms. Neophitou-Apostolou, the editor and stylist. “It’s not just women of a certain shape or size who can do this, although you might think so. And it’s not such an obvious proposition,” to choose from among so many seemingly flawless female specimens those who will best make the transformation to the status of mythic lingerie seraphim. Few are called, and fewer still are chosen to wear the strap-on wings of a Victoria’s Secret angel.

“The girls actually dream about it,” said Ms. Mitro, referring to the wearing of feathers. Flipping open a scrapbook, she pointed briskly to a photo of a teary model seeming to stagger under the weight of a costume that looked like a something Cher might wear to a powwow.

“These,” she said, “are the wings that made her cry.”