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.

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