NEW YORK — The stakes are high. The judges are brutal. The challenges are difficult. And the contestants are determined to be the next Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren.
NBC's "Fashion Star," a reality TV show that debuts at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, is similar to Lifetime Television's "Project Runway" except that the wannabe designers won't have to wait until they make it big to get their creations into stores. Some of the fashions will be on sale at Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's and H&M the day after each pre-recorded episode airs. The winner will get a total of $6 million in orders for their designs from all three retailers.
"This is not just a competition where you win and you don't know what to do next," said Nicole Christie, spokeswoman for H&M's North American division and one of three judges on the one-hour show. "Every week we're creating brands."
"Fashion Star," which is hosted by lingerie designer and former model Elle Macpherson, comes at a time when it's particularly difficult for unknown designers to get their clothes into stores. In the weak economy, aspiring designers have found it more difficult to get loans to start their collections. And retailers have been relying more on big-name designers with deep pockets that can split marketing and other costs associated with carrying their clothes in stores.
The 14 contestants on "Fashion Star," who were chosen after a nationwide search, have a range of experience. Among them, there's a former teacher. There's also an Australian born former model whose clothes already are sold at Barney's. And then there's Lizzie Parker, a former Microsoft software engineer who lives in Sammammish, Wash. and sells her women's knitwear designs at a nearby store she owns.
"The attention of the big stores is something that every designer wants," Parker, 42, said.
Each week, "Fashion Star" contestants make a different article of clothing, like a gown or sport jacket, in three variations using different fabrics, patterns or design techniques. During the first episode, for instance, the designers' task is to make something that defines them. The designs include a men's sports jacket in a pea coat style and another with a stand up collar.
The contestants get advice from a panel of mentors that include singer Jessica Simpson, whose eponymous fashion business generates $1 billion in annual sales; Nicole Richie, whose fashion business includes a new clothing line bearing her name for QVC; and men's wear designer John Varvatos. The panel offer advice on the designers' work by pushing them to be more original, for instance, and steering them away from using certain fabrics.
Retail executives from each of the three retailers — Christie from H&M, Macy's vice president and regional planning manager of women's apparel Caprice Willard and Saks' Executive Vice President and Chief Creative Officer Terron E. Schaefer — bid to purchase and exclusively carry the work of one or more of the designers. At the end of each episode, one designer whose creations weren't picked is eliminated from the show.
During the first episode, more than half of the designers didn't get offers from the stores. And the store executives offer sharp-tongued criticism for some of them.
"We're not a charity," Schaefer, from Saks, said while mulling over the fate of one contestant. "It's a business."
The show was taped six months ago, so shoppers will be able to buy the winning designs online immediately following each episode. The designs, which will be sold under the "Fashion Star" brand, will be in stores the next day. Saks will carry them in all of its stores, H&M in 100 of its 236 U.S. stores and Macy's in its flagship location in Manhattan.
The show's creators, James Deutch and E.J. Johnston, said they hope to make "Fashion Star" into a franchise that will become the incubator for fashion talent just like Fox's "American Idol" did for the music industry. They formed EJD Productions in 2008 to focus on making fashion TV shows and this is their first one.
"Fashion could be as big and interesting as 'American Idol,'" Deutch said. "The big victory for a designer is when a store orders your clothes."
Alison Jatlow Levy, retail strategist with consulting firm Kurt Salmon, said the show will likely be popular among viewers interested in learning about the fashion business. But whether shoppers will want to buy the designs in stores remains to be seen.