Has Bravo finally filled its ‘Project Runway’ void?

Has Bravo finally filled its ‘Project Runway’ void?
December 6, 2011 DAVE Q
Mad Fashion and Fashion Hunters

TelevisionBytes with NineDaves

Bravo has never really gotten over losing Project Runway.

It’s been two and half years since the breakout show started airing on Lifetime, and Bravo has still yet to find a hit fashion-focused program to fill its shoes.

But this year, Bravo launched two new shows that are major steps in the right direction: Mad Fashion, which follows the antics of over-the-top Runway alumni Chris March and his merry staff of misfits; and Fashion Hunters, which follows the staff of one of New York’s most popular consignment shops, Second Time Around. Billed in a “Fashion by Bravo” Tuesday-night block, the half-hour docudramas stood out from the pack by avoiding nonsensical conflict and showcasing the fun of fashion.

Both shows wrap up their freshmen seasons tonight, starting at 10/9c. And for the first time in a long time, it seems like Bravo might actually be getting their fashion mojo back.

Fashion, of course, has been a staple in Bravo’s mission statement ever since the network underwent a programming makeover back in 2003. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy had just premiered to huge buzz and rave reviews, so the network (which had mostly been known for airing documentaries and after-hours-Olympic coverage) shifted its view towards the five core categories represented by their Queer Eye-cast:  Food, Hair, Design, Culture, and Fashion. Project Runway was the first show developed under the new programming direction to really hit – and stayed on the top of the Bravo pyramid until leaving the network back in October 2008. But while the other brands are all represented well in Bravo’s schedule (see: Top Chef, Tabatha’s Salon Takeover, Flipping Out, and The Real Housewives franchise), that fashion spot is still a little vacant.

God knows they’ve tried. Bravo first started trying to replicate the competition show. There was the mess that was The Fashion Show – a piss-poor Runway knock-off that inexplicitly lasted two seasons (one with Kelly Rowland as host, another with Iman). Everything about it felt subdued: from the forgettable contestants (I couldn’t name a single designer from the past two seasons if you put a gun to my head – and I watched every episode) to the messy judges (Isaac Mizrahi is no Michael Kors). Oh, and do you remember Launch My Line? Where “celebrities” like Patrick McDonald (who?) and Merle Ginsberg (what?) tried to launch their own fashion lines, under the robotic hosting/judging duties of Dsquared’s Dean and Dan Caten? Yeah. Painful.

But amongst those competition flops, Bravo also started airing a fashion docudrama series starring celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe. And wouldn’t you know? The Rachel Zoe Project was a mild hit. Was it pulling in Project Runway numbers? No. But was it memorable? Yes. So Rachel got a pickup. And the programming focus shifted towards finding interesting fashion personalities. They weren’t always successful (see Kell on Earth, Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, and Double Exposure for proof). But it’s a way better strategy than trying to find a new way to reinvent the fashion competition show wheel.

Which brings us back to Mad Fashion and Fashion Hunters. On paper, the two shows couldn’t seem more different. But when I watched them (and talked with the two casts yesterday at the Bravo offices), I was amazed at how similar they felt.

Mad Fashion is, at its core, about showing the limitless side of fashion and creativity. Each week, Chris March and his team create a couture gown (in what we’re told to believe is a rough 72-hour turnaround) for a celebrity client. See here, his consultation with Swimsuit model Chrissy Teigen from tonight’s finale:

March’s designs are pure fantasy. A dress made entirely of spray-painted bras? Sure. Another made of high-heel shoes? Sounds about right. A 1950s housewife dress with accompanying grocery cart? Great – we’ll even throw in a wig. No idea is too much, and most of his clients want that Gaga-esque exuberance, happily going along for the ride.

Of course, Chris March wasn’t the first Runway alum to do a show for Bravo. Jay McCarroll shot an hour-special called Project Jay that was meant to act as a backdoor pilot for a series, but never took off. Bravo also announced plans for a series centered on the day-to-day life of super-mom and super-designer Laura Bennett, though nothing ever came of it. But where those people failed, Chris March succeeds simply because he has one of the warmest, most addictive personalities out there. You kind of just want to watch him.

It also helps that he has a great team by his side. Chris has known master fabricator Matt James for almost 25 years. Wig-maven Izzy Decauwert (who I totally have a friend crush on, ps) and stictcher Alex Bartlett for over five years.  Decauwert and Barlett, meanwhile, have been besties for 14+ years. And although Christine Brown and Jake Kelsey were new to the Chris March Design crew, the six of them clicked. The right amount of chemistry mixed with the right amount of humor. Plus, a crazy amount of talent and creativity that helped bring a unique perspective to an industry always ready to have its envelope pushed. All and all, a recipe for a hit.

Fashion Hunters, on the other hand, is about the appreciation of the history of fashion. Sometimes, that message gets lost when you’ve got a bunch of old rich white women buying Birkin bags at a private event. But when the core staff of Second Time Around (Tara Muscarella, Ambria Miscia, Karina Lepiner, and Wilson Payamps) are talking fashion and ogling over their latest finds, you quickly get sucked into their excitement. Like this scene from the first part of tonight’s finale, when the girls hit up Kelly Bensimon’s closet.

Where Fashion Hunters could use a little tweaking, however, is in the actual consignment/pricing portion of the episode, which often comes across dull. It’s a needed change the cast fully understands. “We never price with the consigner in front of us,” said Second Time Around manager Tara Muscarella. “They usually drop it off and we have it priced by the end of the day or tomorrow. So to really be in that position of checking quality and pricing on the spot was tricky.”

But it wasn’t just the pricing issue. The quality of the garments often came off as less than exciting. “We were definitely stonewalled,” Ambia Miscia told us. “We have people who normally give us tons of things, and then they were like ‘Oh, on camera? No.’” That left the Fashion Hunters with people who wanted to be on camera, but who didn’t necessarily have the quality or quantity of merchandise. “Normally we get garment bags and suitcases worth of things,” said Miscia. “You don’t see the vassals of clothes we get.”

Still, Fashion Hunters shows a side of the fashion industry we rarely get to see: the consumer side. It’s not all about making the garment or creating the look. What the average person sitting at home can relate to is the shopping portion of it all. The search for that perfect something. And not by a stylists or a makeover artist. By the consumer. It’s attainable fashion. And in that case, Fashion Hunters is totally unique.

Although wildly different on paper, what Mad Fashion and Fashion Hunters both have in common is that they both stay positive. “When I started in this whole process of doing this workshop-oriented show,” Chris March explained, “my whole aim from the very beginning was not to do a show with backstabbing drama. Because I didn’t want to be on it if it was going to be that way. And they [Bravo] were initially a little bit hesitant to go that way with the show. But they were convinced that the fun and frolic would be enough to get people to come by and watch.”

“We were really cautious of that too,” said Tara Muscarella.  “Definitely – no drama.”

“I think it’s been a breath of fresh air on TV,” Marsh said. “And people tell me that all day, every day. I’m happy about that.”

“We’re not curing cancer,” explained Miscia. “We’re not executive directors of any companies. It’s a dream job because it’s fashion and it’s fun.”

Fashion and fun. Two really simple concepts. But for Bravo, fashion hasn’t been nearly as fun for them as it was in the height of the Project Runway days. Hopefully, they’ve found a winning combination that works, and will give Fashion Hunters and Mad Fashion a chance to grow, while showing a commitment to positive, light-hearted shows (As of press time, neither shows have been picked up for a second season yet).

Whether or not that happens, it’s clear Bravo isn’t done trying to find the next great fashion show. In January, they’ll launch It’s a Brad, Brad World, which centers on the life of celebrity stylist and former Rachel Zoe Project star Brad Goreski. Let’s hope he picked up one thing from Rachel: how to get more than one season.

Mad Fashion and Fashion Hunters