Illustration by Joseph Larkowsky
If Fashion with a capital F seems to exist for a chosen few lucky enough to occupy the narrow intersection of wealth and malnutrition, then TV is fashion’s antithesis, designed for the everyman, fundamentally populist, and all-embracing. Long happy to burnish its art credentials — think of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute — high fashion has been less comfortable with settling in on, say, NBC prime time. Yet here we are in 2015, and the priests and priestesses of high fashion are hardly off our screens.
What began as a trickle with Michael Kors, a designer who supersized his empire thanks in part to his role as a judge on Bravo’s Project Runway, has become a raging torrent. Kors left Project Runway in 2012, after ten seasons, only to be replaced by Zac Posen, a design prodigy who is so highly lauded that his first gown secured a place in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Now wrap dress queen and CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg has followed suit with a show of her own. Simultaneously, high fashion is plundering reality TV in the opposite direction — viz the example of Keeping Up with the Kardashians’s Kendall Jenner, whose whirlwind rise from reality TV star to bona fide supermodel has turned her into one of the most visible faces in fashion.
Pop culture junkies have always had a facility for tapping into the zeitgeist, but what’s driving this new bond between fashion and reality TV is old-fashioned salesmanship. It’s no coincidence that Jenner has 20 million followers on Instagram — she merely has to post a selfie, dressed in Marc Jacobs, for the photo to get 600,000 likes. (By comparison, old-school model Kate Moss eschews social media. “I couldn’t think of anything worse than people knowing what I’m doing all the time,” she told The Times in 2012.)
Co-opting reality stars is one way to magnify a brand; becoming a reality star is another. In the case of Kors, it was his magnetic personality that became the breakout of Project Runway. As a result he became famous — not just name-on-a-clothing-tag famous, but household name famous. His luxe, jet-setter aesthetic suddenly found its best spokesperson in the designer, and everything from creamy, four-figure, gray cashmere sweater sets seen on his runways to the more affordable, logo-emblazoned bags that became ubiquitous parts of his empire, a chance to get closer to the man on the screen. His wildly popular initial public offering in 2011 turned him into a billionaire.
With her royal pedigree, exotic demeanor, and voluptuous purr, Diane von Furstenberg is a readymade star. She launched her own reality competition show late last year for E! called House of DVF. Von Furstenberg, who is rumored to be taking her company public in the near future, is the central figure of her show, in which she inculcates a group of girls with her business ethos before choosing one as “brand ambassador.”
Although these may be the most high-profile examples, they’re far from the only ones. Fledgling network Ovation has The Fashion Fund, which follows Vogue editor Anna Wintour as she presides over the long-running competition hosted by her magazine to help up-and-coming designers. There’s Isaac Mizrahi, hawking his wares on QVC with upbeat banter into the wee hours. Hollywood stylist Brad Goreski rates celebrity ensembles on E!’s Fashion Police. Tyra Banks’s modeling competition is entering its 22nd season (or “cycle”).
All of which is to say that as fashion’s cultural cachet continues to rise, reality TV is merely another outlet to maximize visibility. Brands need to find new ways to engage with their customers. Designers recognize that there’s no room for snobbery in a culture where success and visibility have become one and the same. In an increasingly crowded market, everyone is forced to raise his or her voice. You don’t wait for customers to find you; you go to them, wherever they are. Increasingly, that’s on screens, like phones and tablets, and yes, the television set glowing warmly in the living room.