Two years ago Daniella Kallmeyer walked into the audition for the inaugural season of Bravo’s The Fashion Show: Ultimate Collection as if she was about to sit down for a job interview at a fashion house.
A grad of The London College of Fashion, the 24-year-old describes herself as a “grab-life-by-the-balls type of person.” She had the portfolio to back it up: her final year’s collection was selected by a panel of industry judges to feature in a show at London’s Royal Academy, Vogue.com called her “one to watch” and she interned for the likes of Proenza Schouler, Sari Gueron and the late Alexander McQueen.
In the end, Kallmeyer believes her youth sealed her fate as a contestant. When the casting directors realized how much she’d accomplished at a young age, she noticed a change in their demeanor.
“They hadn’t put two and two together that I had just gotten out of school,” she says. ‘I saw in their faces when I said, ‘I just turned 22,’ and they were like, ‘You’re a shoo-in.’ That was it. They wrapped up the interview and handed me my plane ticket to LA for the final casting.”
Kallmeyer is what a network exec would call a “multi-hypenate” – a contestant with a mix of talent, youth, beauty and credibility. In the past year, top fashion competitions such as America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway have partnered with increasingly high-end fashion brands, tweaked formats and embraced new platforms to attract an audience just like her: educated, engaged and influential.
Since Top Model premiered in 2003, fashion-based reality programming has flooded the small screen and accrued a dedicated fan base that has grown up with the genre. The Fashion Show, in its second season, filled a void on Bravo’s slate when Project Runway split for Lifetime Network. (Legal wrangling with Bravo parent NBC Universal put the show on ice until Runway owner The Weinstein Company settled with the net.)
The Fashion Show has since undergone a few changes to give it a more realistic feel. Supermodel Iman signed on to co-host with designer Isaac Mizrahi, replacing singer Kelly Rowland. Producers have stressed the conceit of dividing teams into competing “houses” to more closely mirror the industry’s collaborative working process. Many other changes came from Iman and Mizrahi, who also act as creative consultants.
‘We gave them creative input because they had such strong opinions,” says Bravo executive vice president of original programming and development, Andy Cohen. “They wanted the accessories to be better, they wanted the styling to be better, they wanted the shows to look better… They were just so concerned about the look of the show - that it looked brighter, that it be more elegant.”
Fashion remains a core focus of Bravo’s 2011 development slate (along with food and family). The net also produces The Rachel Zoe Project and next year it will launch The Chris March Project (w/t), which follows the Runway alum as he designs creations for A-listers like Madonna and Meryl Streep.
Bravo execs call the target demo for these shows “affluencers:” influential pop culture junkies that aspire to the upscale. “Over the years, we’ve seen this pool of fashionistas increase as fashion has become more of a central theme across our lifestyle through celebrity,” says Ellen Stone, senior vice president of marketing at Bravo.
To give The Fashion Show added credibility the network looked to partner with a brand with a like-minded audience: glossy consumer mag Harper’s Bazaar. Its special projects editor appears as a judge on the program and its editors took part in casting.
Non-fashion brands also want to get their products in front of style-conscious eyeballs. Season eight of Project Runway featured a major paid integration with Hewlett-Packard. In one episode, contestants had to use HP computers to design a pattern.
“Fashion is a really big umbrella,” says David Hillman, VP of reality programming at Lifetime. “Whether it’s hair, beauty products or accessories, you have a lot of opportunity.”
Runway’s past season averaged 3.3 million viewers in Lifetime’s key demo of women between 18 and 54, lower than the average four million it racked up during its last season on Bravo, but enough to claim the “number one competitive unscripted program on ad-supported cable in 2010″ title.
Lifetime and new producers Bunim-Murray Productions (who replaced Magical Elves) have also tweaked the format, relocating from New York to Los Angeles and back again. Execs extended the run-time to 90 minutes and added new segments such as the “Designers’ Lounge,” which gave viewers insight into the elimination round. Guest stars included milliner-to-the-stars Philip Treacy and designer Naeem Khan, who counts First Lady Michelle Obama among his couture-conscious, impeccably dressed A-list clientele.
“You’re always looking for the next new up-and-coming individuals - people who you maybe heard about peripherally who you can get on this platform,” says Hillman.
A strong indication that the upper echelon of the fashion establishment is warming up to reality was Top Model’s partnership with industry bible Vogue Italia for cycle 15, which finished airing on CW in November.
The deal, to continue on cycle 16, resulted from host, EP and veteran model Tyra Banks’ relationship with editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani. Her involvement attracted photographers Patrick Demarchelier and Matthew Rolston, designer Zac Posen and most importantly, gave the winner a plum prize: the cover of the mag’s Beauty in Vogue insert.
“Many fashion insiders, including some of the biggest photographers, designers, stylists, et cetera, have secretly - or not so secretly - been fans from the beginning,” says Top Model EP Laura Fuest. ‘And many of the models and other young influencers who are emerging today grew up watching the show.”
Despite such moves, some corners of the fashion industry remain standoffish. “That is mostly from a fear about ‘reality TV,’” Fuest adds. “Many designers and photographers are actually rather private people and not used to working with a camera on them.”
Fortunately for designers and models fearful of reality, there’s a new platform that observes their industry with a more restrained, documentary-oriented eye: Sundance Channel’s Full-Frontal Fashion, a multi-platform fashion initiative that combines TV, original web series and editorial content.
Launched during New York Fashion Week in September, its programming slate included Loic Prigent’s feature doc Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton and his four-part series The Day Before, which follows designers for three days prior to a runway presentation, and Girl on The Run, a news show hosted by dogged correspondent Mademoiselle Agnes that moves at a music video’s frantic pace.
“Fashion has had this really interesting explosion of mixing high and low,” says Sarah Barnett, EVP and GM of Sundance Channel. “Interest in couture connects with a very individual street way of putting together an identity. Ours are the kinds of viewers who are just ahead of the curve in terms of leading these sorts of trends, so we think this is a good point in time where we can really deliver something of value.”
In 2011, Barnett hopes to capture a broader audience with All on the Line starring Elle magazine creative director Joe Zee, last seen on MTV docu-soap The City. Zee will provide struggling designers with tough love advice to get their lives on track. The show aims to turn Zee into a trusted personality like Tyra or Project Runway “mentor” Tim Gunn.
While Barnett will announce more shows in the first quarter of this year, fashion is not a core focus of Sundance’s business. “We’re not dogmatic about having a certain quota to fill that needs to be fashion,” she says.
A popular test of a fashion competition’s credibility among pundits is how the triumphant contestants fare in the real world. Daniella Kallmeyer didn’t win The Fashion Show but her final collection received “Judge’s Choice.” She added Harper’s Bazaar editors to her Rolodex and the exposure has helped her get important media coverage.
Though she says she can’t watch reality fashion shows after starring in one, when asked if credibility is important for the format’s future, she answers like a producer.
“Look at Jersey Shore: that’s not a talent-based show but they’re massive because the show is massive. They do press tours because the show does amazing amounts of press,” she says. “Ours didn’t, so I was only as big as my show. I was only as big as the [number of] people who watched.”