Rachel Zoe, ‘Project Runway Junior’ Lead the Fashion TV Charge

project runway juniors tim gunn hannah
Courtesy of Barbara Nitke/Lifetime

“America’s Next Top Model” is soon going off the air after 22 cycles, but the fashion television genre will be in style for seasons to come.

Tyra Banks’ modeling competition debuted on UPN 12 years ago, launching the high demand for high-fashion unscripted TV, before moving to the CW, where it will finish up its final runway walk in late 2015 — the same quarter Banks launched her new syndicated daytime talker “FabLife,” a lifestyle show that covers the mainstream fashion conversation on a daily basis.

The year after “Top Model’s” 2003 premiere, Bravo introduced viewers to “Project Runway.” Now on Lifetime, the show is in its 14th season, and has spawned five spinoffs. Ratings for the Heidi Klum-hosted designer competition are up 10%, and the show has been Emmy-nominated for best reality series every year since it’s been eligible. With nearly 60 nominations and a major win for the supermodel as best host, the only diminutive element of “Runway” is its teen-themed follow-up, “Project Runway Junior,” which bowed this month.

“I think ‘Project Runway’ succeeded because it was the first show that really pulled back the curtain on the creative process, and allowed viewers to see the artistry, the skill and the meticulous amount of work that goes into creating a single piece of clothing,” says Eli Lehrer, senior VP and head of non-fiction development at Lifetime. “Fashion is obviously something that everyone can relate to, because we all engage with it, but most people, prior to ‘Runway,’ hadn’t been let into the creative process.”

Though “Runway” and its fan-favorite spinoff “All Stars,” which was renewed for a fifth season by Lifetime, have put
out a collection of episodes big enough to fill the seats at a major Fashion Week show (including its own, which is taped for the finale episode every season), not every aspect of the franchise has worked.

“Under the Gunn,” hosted by Emmy winner and “Runway” star Tim Gunn, wasn’t a hit, and neither was 2011 offshoot “Project Accessory” or “Project Runway: Threads,” another younger version of the flagship, which lasted only one short season after its October 2014 premiere.

“We thought there was some- thing amazing about teens who were almost like fashion prodigies,” Lehrer says, admitting that the show didn’t click because the cabler shifted away from

the “Runway” formula, having three new designers each week, rather than watching the same team throughout the season. With “Junior” coming up, Lehrer explains the network is excited at the prospect of a teen show that can work. “There’s something about watching them on a journey, as opposed to ‘Threads,’ which was standalone, so you couldn’t invest in the characters emotionally,” he says.

This fall, Lifetime is capitalizing on a proven entity, with the addition of a weekly fashion panel show hosted by celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe, who’s known to TV audiences from her former Bravo docuseries “The Rachel Zoe Project,” which brought her unique one-liners into the pop culture zeitgeist. On her new talk show “Fashionably Late With Rachel Zoe,” she welcomes her well-dressed A-list friends, including Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Alba, to discuss the week’s style highlights.

“I think people are really interested in the intersection of celebrity and fashion,” Lehrer says about the new late-night talker. “You only have to look at the front of any magazine to know that people are fascinated with how celebrities wear clothes.”

Zoe’s show draws similarities to E!’s “Fashion Police,” which endured major changes and talent woes, following the sudden death of Joan Rivers. Currently hosted by Rivers’ daughter Melissa, E! personality Giuliana Rancic and stylist Brad Goreski — who also toplined his own reality series, “It’s a Brad, Brad World,” on Bravo, home to the early 2000s’ fashion-inclusive “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” — “Police” has found its niche again.

“‘Fashion Police’ has incredibly loyal viewers from all around the world who want the show to go on, and love that we can have fun with fashion and not take ourselves, or Hollywood, too seri- ously,” Rancic told Variety when the comedic show returned with a revamped panel on E!, which also airs Diane von Furstenberg’s sophomore series “House of DVF.”

Though fashion has made its mark in the unscripted space — from TLC’s makeover pro- gram “What Not to Wear” and wedding dress staple “Say Yes to the Dress,” to NBC’s Jessica Simpson vehicle, “Fashion Star” — the genre is also on sale on the scripted side.

The success of some style-inspired shows could be attributed to characters and storylines — not just the designs. Series like “Sex and the City” have proven that both broadcast and cable audiences have a keen eye for high-fashion visuals.

Following the HBO megahit, the CW launched a spinoff, “The Carrie Diaries,” which brought the world of ’80s fashion to modern viewers. Long before “Sex” made it to air, long-running soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful,” set at the Forrester fashion house, premiered in 1987. David Spade’s hit NBC comedy “Just Shoot Me!” took a major network inside the halls of a fashion magazine, much like ABC’s Golden Globe-winning “Ugly Betty.”

And though it wasn’t a big hit, NBC also had dramedy “Lipstick Jungle” on its schedule for two seasons. CW found success in the high-society style aisle with “Gossip Girl,” and fellow younger-skewing network ABC Family greenlit “Jane by Design,” though it lasted only one season.

Networks are still interested in the genre, with two fashion-based projects in development at NBC. The network recently bought pitches for “Icon,” a light drama about the modeling wars in the 1980s from exec producer Cindy Crawford, and an untitled fiction series, loosely based on the life of Cosmopolitan magazine editor Joanna Coles and her editorial staff. Over at ABC, Felicity Huffman is behind a fashion house dramedy, “House of Moore,” which is in contention for the 2016-17 season.

With the growing television business in a state of flux, one type of content is still on-trend: fashion.

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