Fashion Star: all your burning questions answered

Fashion Star airs its fifth episode tonight at 10 p.m. ET, and the first five episodes have established the show as something unexpected, a hybrid of American Idol, Shark Tank, and Project Runway. While the initial description made it sound like a knock-off of a Bravo Runway knock-off, the show was definitely not that. It’s more spectacle than fashion design, and has some interesting elements. It also leaves viewers with some unanswered questions, from why there’s such grating fake applause to how exactly the bids buy buyers from H&M, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Macy’s actually work.

This morning, I talked with E.J. Johnston, who created Fashion Star along with his EJD Productions partner James Deutch (who previously worked at Hearst Entertainment and produced shows such as the awesome Bravo series Tabloid Wars and MTV’s Miss Seventeen). They first had the idea two years ago “for a really big, large-scale show” that focused on “the dream-come-true moment when a buyer says to a designer, ‘Yes, I want your clothes.'” They wanted to “show that moment happening, multiple times a week,” and developed the show with Electus’ Ben Silverman and 5×5’s Rick Ringbakk.

We talked about the show from conception to production, and he addressed a lot of those previously unanswered questions. Here they are:

Why aren’t the buyers actual buyers?

According to NBC’s bios, Macy’s Caprice Willard is Macy’s vice president and regional planning manager for women’s apparel (southwest region); Terron E. Schaefer is Saks Fifth Avenue’s executive vice-president and chief creative officer; and H&M’s Nicole Christie is their communications manager for North America.

In other words, their bios don’t make them sound like buyers, but they all actually do work as part of that process.

When they were putting together the show, Johnston told me that producers asked the stores for candidates who could “speak about your brand and specifically this function” of buying clothes from designers, and then “spent time with them, put them on tape, went through the normal casting process.”

He pointed out that Caprice is a buyer; Taren oversees buyers at Saks; and H&M has a unique structure where its “PR and buying functions are very, very linked.” So while it seems like Nicole is in publicity, he said they “really do link their marketing and their buying very closely,” and thus her presence makes sense.

Do buyers make decisions by themselves?

Yes and no.

Each company has teams of people, some in the studio and some available electronically, who consult with their on-camera buyer. Johnston told me that the process could take between between three and 10 minutes of “going back and forth after they saw [the designers'] pieces,” and the on-camera buyers were “definitely speaking with teams all the time” but “they were certainly the lead dog. Ultimately the choice was theirs; their organizations empoweered them to make the decision on the spot.”

That process isn’t part of the show because “the decision to buy or not to buy was what were trying to capture, not necessarily the thought process,” Johnston said.

Do buyers see clothes for the first time on the runway?

No. The designers finish their work the day before taping, and that’s when producers “get images to everyone,” and so the buyers have “not quite 24 hours, or overnight,” to think about what they might want. In addition, for some later episodes, the buyers also actually looked at the clothes in person the night before.

How did producers get stores on board?

Johnston said that stores they approached “wanted to share what they do” but also “don’t want to open up the kimono entirely.” He said that producers told stores they would “present them in the best possible light,” and also said that illustrating this “fascinating” process on television would make them “part of that dream-come-true moment.”

How much time elapsed between episodes, and between now and filming?

The show taped over about 10 weeks last summer, with five to seven days between each episode. It takes about six months to get clothes from the runway to stores, and the show’s spring broadcast schedule was known when the show taped, so designers could create clothing that would be seasonal.

How does the money work?

When the buyers offer money for a designers’ clothes–$50,000, or $80,000, or even more than $100,000–it’s not clear on TV what that money is for. But the designers don’t seem to act like it’s cash they’ve just won.

Johnston said that “the designers do get a portion as a creative fee, and then they get points on the back end.” He said that, “unlike the real world, all of these buys are guaranteed,” and that when the buy happens, these are “real dollars, retail dollars. … The vast majority of those dollars are going to the clothes” and the costs to do things such as manufacture, produce, and ship them.

The whole equation seemed very complicated to me, and also involves things such as the price point and how many units a store will produce. “If they’re buying more, they like it, and they think it’s going to sell more,” Johnston said. As the season progresses, designers will make more strategic decisions about what they make, asking themselves whether they want “more units in more stores,” like in H&M, “or do they want to be in Saks because it’s a $400 price point,” he said.

Why were celebrity mentors selected?

I admit that when I first heard that Jessica Simpson and Nicole Richie had been cast as mentors for Fashion Star, I was baffled. They were both popular around 10 years ago, at least as far as reality TV celebrity is concerned, although they now both have successful fashion brands and careers. However, they’ve surprised me, and are one of the highlights of the show for me: They give good advice and feedback, and are entertaining, too, like when Nicole Richie said one designers’ dress “looks like someone’s grabbing her in her vagina.”

Johnston told me that “NBC had a nice wrinkle of bringing in celebrity mentors versus regular mentors,” and said, “let’s make them celebrities” instead of just well-known people in fashion. He called them a “dream team” and said he’s friends with John Varvatos. The designers, he said, “really, really appreciated getting this kind of direction and tutelage.”

Why does the show have fake audience cheering and applause?

The most grating part of the show for me is the constant roar of the audience cheering and clapping. The lemmings in the American Idol audience are bad enough, but here, it seems like it’s been faked: the camera will sweep across the audience, and there’s a roar of cheering and clapping, but the people we see are motionless and nowhere near that excited.

Johnston told me that producers wanted the show to “feel like it was a very large event,” and “bring a lot of the entertainment value” of fashion runway shows to the TV program.

He said that “the applause is there and the cheering is there,” but the way they “rigged the studio space, it doesn’t come across as cleanly and crisply,” so they “cleaned up in the audio” in post-production. He also said that “sometimes [camera operators] didn’t get a great shot of the audience at that exact moment” of cheering, since it’s mostly shot live to tape.

How do its creators feel about the show’s ratings and reception?

Fashion Star hasn’t been a breakout hit, or even a hit: It has about half of the viewers of its lead-in, The Voice‘s results show. Last week, among viewers 18 to 49, the show was #2 in its timeslot after ABC’s Body of Proof, though a repeat of CBS’ Unforgettable had more viewers. The previous week, it was third in both metrics behind new episodes of those two shows, and had 4 million viewers overall. However, the show has just been sold to around 75 countries.

Johnston said that the fashion industry has had an “almost overwhelmingly positive” response, and while “they’re always going to be more people who are more purist,” mostly “they’re excited to see their industry showcased on large-scale television.”

Consumers have embraced the show, judging by the way clothes have sold out. “We have the high-class challenge of H&M selling out within a few minute so of the east coast airing,” he said, which led to people on the west coast being upset that they couldn’t buy those clothes. He said that “the sell-out has been very robust” and clothes at H&M, Macy’s, and Saks have sold out in anywhere from minutes to a few days.

As to the ratings, he said, “we’re pleased,” especially when those numbers include repeats on E! and Style, and DVR and web viewing, which he called “pretty massive.”

Will it be renewed for a second season?

“I feel like that will be coming, but it’s always up to the network,” Johnston told me, adding, “they’ll let us know in a few weeks.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.