'Fashion Star': How Does It Compare to 'Project Runway'?

Rachel Stein

After seeing the pilot episode of NBC's "Fashion Star," we cannot remember what expectations we had of it, other than we thought it sounded vaguely like a "Project Runway" rip-off. Don't get us wrong -- it kind of is one, but we think it missed the mark so badly that we've gone beyond the wannabe zone and straight into the disaster phase. Here's why it can't possibly stack up to the O.G. of fashion shows:

On 'Project Runway': 15 or so contestants compete with one another to design, execute, and style the best clothes under various restrictions in time, materials, and theme. Their designs are judged by a panel of experts, and one or more designers are eliminated each week.
On 'Fashion Star': Instead of a contest to make the "best" garments, the challenge is to make an arbitrarily decided three-piece collection that retail buyers from Macy's, H&M, and Saks Fifth Avenue think will sell the most to a mass market. There's also a slew of celebrity mentor/judges such as Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie, and John Varvatos, who basically do diddly-squat. Each week, designers who do not sell any of their items to the buyers will be up for elimination; also -- for some reason -- the celebrity mentors will be able to save one of the designers from the chopping block. Confusing enough for you?

[Video: Jessica Simpson Fights Back Against a Sexist 'Fashion Star' Contestant]

On 'Project Runway': On a typical premiere of a new season, we meet the designers (most of them, anyway), learn the challenge, and then watch the designers construct their garments and style their models. Then we have a runway show with the judges and competitors, and the judges pick one or two contestants to cut.
On 'Fashion Star': Before we even learn what the grand prize is, "Fashion Star" immediately starts the series with runway shows, skipping over many contestants (and the models, obviously) and explaining the actual setup between individual mini-shows, often only by playing talking-head interviews with contestants who explain the rules of the challenges in their interviews. Many designers get skimmed over, all are haphazardly pitted together with no explanation, and (spoiler!) it doesn't become any clearer in the second episode, either. Even worse, "Fashion Star" is so lazy about the actual quality of the reality game that nixed contestants are told: "You're not our Fashion Star. You're going home."

Product Placement
On 'Project Runway': The challenges, studio, accessories, and tools for the designers have shown more branding over the years, but at the end of the day, it's about the clothes. Occasionally, contestants are rewarded when their winning designs are selected for mass production and sale, but it's by no means the norm.
On 'Fashion Star': This show is essentially a commercial for H&M, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Macy's, who are constantly revered as the most forward-thinking, universally loved brands in fashion. Succeeding on this reality show involves convincing one of the buyers to offer you a contract with their store for $50,000 to $100,000. If you don't get a bid, you're up for elimination.

[Photos: Jessica Simpson and Nicole Richie's Biggest Style Flops]

On 'Project Runway': Big names will come in to judge or host a challenge, but "Runway" lets the designs speak for themselves.
On 'Fashion Star': Because this series doesn't think the average viewer can handle any sort of cohesive setup, we're bombarded with sometimes-live performances of blaring pop while models walk the runway, fireworks explode, and dancers (sometimes they're girls in bikinis on motorcycles!) rock out on the sidelines, all in front of a screaming studio audience. We're not exaggerating -- every single mini-show is essentially a three-minute clip of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show as we're told over and over again that what we see today, we can buy in stores tomorrow. When contestants learn that they've made it to the next round, it's because one of the buyers enters a number representing a large sum of money on a giant blue screen. We're somehow supposed to understand the context of this, and presume that it could turn into a bidding war. And don't get us started on the theme song.

On 'Project Runway': This show has been on forever, and though it lost its edge there for a while (when it jumped networks and moved to Los Angeles), this current "All Stars" season has proven there's real talent on display week to week. Some of the designs -- especially in the more avant-garde challenges -- are truly works of art to the point that the fashion community still has respect for the reality series, generally speaking.
On 'Fashion Star': The designers don't actually construct or sew their own clothes (at this point, anyway), making their skill set that much less impressive. Simply put, "Fashion Star" spoon-feeds stupidity. Instead of allowing designers to think for themselves and come up with unique and risk-taking designs, contestants are challenged to create clothes that can be marketed to the masses -- and as viewers, we're supposed to love this.

"Fashion Star" airs Tuesdays at 10 PM on NBC; "Project Runway" airs Thursdays at 9 PM on Lifetime.

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