In December 2004, TV viewers started to tune in to a reality show that documented the dramatic details of producing a runway collection, and with it came a familiarity with infectious little catchphrases such as "make it work, people" and "auf Wiedersehen." "Project Runway" lifted a curtain on the fashion industry, bringing usually behind-the-scenes individuals — magazine editors, stylists and designers — to millions of homes. It offered competition, drama, lively characters and eye candy in the form of sometimes gorgeous clothes as well as the models who wear them.
Since then, a slew of style- and fashion-centered programs — all unscripted — have hit the air, and the upcoming summer schedule promises a number of others. Cable networks such as the Sundance Channel and Bravo are beefing up their fashion-related programming, building on the success of shows like "Project Runway" and trying out new formats that riff on everything from salvaging a fashion designer's struggling business to 24-hour extreme design challenges.
So what's up with the clothes ogling?
"In the case of fashion, many people have always watched TV for the clothes anyway," says Robert Thompson, professor of TV and pop culture at Syracuse University. "Look at 'Dynasty.' It can be argued that some of those shows were about the clothes. We watch award shows for clothes. Fashion has a good built-in audience."
Bravo in particular is taking advantage of that audience. The network is known for its fashion- and style-related content, first with "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," (July 2003-October 2007), which had a makeover component and focused on fashion as well as interior design, grooming and manners. Next up was "Project Runway," which ran on Bravo for five seasons before moving to Lifetime in 2009. Currently, "The Rachel Zoe Project," which debuted in September 2008, documents the celebrity stylist dressing her clients for major events and photo shoots.
In production (but with no release date) is "It's a Brad Brad World," a show that follows former Zoe assistant Brad Goreski as he begins to build his own styling business.
"I get asked all the time by people about how I'm doing, what am I doing and how I'm doing on my own," Goreski says. "This seemed like the best way to show what it's like being my own boss [and] hiring a team.
"I'm really interested in trying to show people how to put a red carpet look together from point A to point B. The same things goes for a photo shoot."
Unlike his gig on Zoe's show, Goreski will allow the cameras to focus, to some extent, on his personal life. "My home life is very important to me," he says. "I have a longtime boyfriend. It will be nice for people to see me at home with my dogs and what my life is like outside of the fashion world."
"Mad Fashion" is another show without a release date that is slated for Bravo's schedule. The premise? Throw design challenges at fashion and costume designer and former "Project Runway" contestant Chris March, who must complete tasks, such as making actress Jennifer Coolidge a Mardi Gras outfit, in under 24 hours.
In March, the Sundance Channel debuted "All on the Line," in which cameras follow Elle magazine creative director and veteran stylist Joe Zee while he attempts to revamp a flailing fashion business. It is reminiscent of Gordon Ramsey's tough-love-filled show "Kitchen Nightmares" but with better clothes. Generally the same amount of stubbornness comes from the featured subjects.
"Unleashed by Garo," another addition to the Sundance Channel's unscripted, style-related offerings, is scheduled to premiere on Sept. 6. Cameras will follow a designer named Garo, based in New York City's East Village, as he creates custom clothes for people who are undergoing some kind of major life event and want the armor to express what they're going through or at the very least look good while going through it.
"Dresscue Me," vintage retailer Shareen Mitchell's show on Planet Green, visits women experiencing events such as a family reunion or a military husband's homecoming. Mitchell robes and styles them in her vintage wares and accessories.
"The makeover used to be: This is how you look now and this is how you look after,'" Thompson says. "Now there's the sense that they're making over your outside and inside. It's a makeover of body and soul, not only your bad hair."
The value of vintage is another theme popping up in a few shows currently being developed by Bravo. Cameron Silver and Christos Garkinos of L.A's Decades and Decadestwo.1 are in talks to star in a network show on which cameras follow them as they peek into the closets of L.A.'s well-heeled women. In "Ready to Wear," set in the New York consignment store Second Time Around and slated to premiere later this year, the store's owners assess the value of clothing brought in by customers and go into closets to assess the value of certain pieces.
Then there's "Project Runway," successful enough to expand in running time (from 60 minutes to 90) and inspire two spinoffs. "Project Accessory" will follow the same format but with designers competing to create accessory collections. "Project Runway All-Stars" will bring back past winners to crown the best of the best. Neither show has an air date.
"Fashion is unique because everyone has an opinion," adds Rob Sharenow, executive vice president of programming for the Lifetime network. "There's an enormous play-along. The average viewer knows what they don't like but may not really know why. So when one of our judges says it or gives a reason why it doesn't work — well, there's something really gratifying about that for viewers."