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TELEVISION REVIEW

The new model

With 'The Fashion Show,' Bravo unveils a knockoff - with a few twists

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / May 7, 2009
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In order to fully enjoy "The Fashion Show" - and there is plenty to enjoy in Bravo's new reality contest - you have to resist the urge to keep comparing it to "Project Runway." To excise all memory of Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum from your brain. To forget you ever heard the words "auf Wiedersehen."

Except that we all know that's impossible. In all likelihood, "The Fashion Show" wouldn't exist if "Project Runway" hadn't decamped from Bravo to Lifetime - its sixth season premieres on the women's channel in August - and from New York to Los Angeles.

Producers of "The Fashion Show" seem acutely aware of their challenger status; they load up the premiere with glamour shots of New York as if to remind us that, regardless of where Klum happens to live, the fashion world starts and ends in Manhattan. Bravo has gamely tried to play up other "Fashion Show" innovations, such as a "mini-challenge" at the start of each episode (similar to the one in Bravo's cooking show, "Top Chef") and the fact that each episode's runway show is attended by an audience that gets to cast a vote.

Still "The Fashion Show" feels nearly identical to its predecessor, and to every copycat talent contest that "Runway" has inspired. We get relentless product placement, a bank of sewing machines, a sense of cattiness and bravado. We get 15 designers of varying stages of self-promotional weirdness, from James-Paul, who declares that his work is inspired by squares and rectangles, to Merlin, who spends much of the episode in a bright red cape and a hat with a massive feather.

The most striking differences are the judges and hosts: Without Klum, Gunn, and the walking quote that is Michael Kors, "The Fashion Show" will have to find its own chemistry. Sharing hosting/judging/mentoring duties here are Destiny's Child singer Kelly Rowland - who clearly loves clothes and cameras, but lacks Klum's ice-queen haughtiness - and designer-cum-TV-personality Isaac Mizrahi. Mizrahi, in particular, is fun to watch; he's not a born teacher and father figure like Gunn, but he carries the likable air of a summer-camp counselor, and he knows how to channel emotion.

Sadly, the emotions he most exudes tonight are fear and disappointment: The clothes in the elimination challenge, with two notable exceptions, are atrocious. And not in that couture-is-hard-to-sell-to-the-masses way. These designers, pedigreed as they are, apparently think that ill-fitting harem pants constitute a "must-have" item, and some of them manage the impressive feat of making runway models look fat. The colors they choose are bland; the sewing is sloppy. As tall women in tight tube skirts hobble down the catwalk, we can hear the audience's polite but stunned applause, and we can practically smell the beads of sweat on Mizrahi's face.

He's right to worry. One of the things that made "Runway" a hit was the tremendous talent on display every week - the fact that, in surprisingly short time, designers were able to come up with beautiful, well-constructed, often-innovative clothes. "Runway" has always made an argument for fashion as art, and nearly every contestant's work has been passably impressive. "The Fashion Show," so far, makes the opposite argument. If this is the future of couture, I'll gladly start shopping at Kmart.

To be fair, tonight's challenge isn't likely to bring out the best in anyone: The designers are assigned to work in teams of five, which maximizes conflict and minimizes creativity. There's reason to hope that the clothes - and, hence, the satisfaction - will improve in the coming weeks. It's a matter of letting go: The producers must have studied "Runway" closely enough to know that when you put a group of insecure fashion designers in a room and give them a tight deadline and access to scissors, the drama will come naturally.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to www.viewerdiscretion.net

THE FASHION SHOW On: Bravo

Time: Premieres tonight at 10