One of the biggest complaints lobbed against reality television is its falsity: fabricated plotlines, ranks of self-serving fame whores, winners that are easily predicted from their first appearance. Even the talent competitions—those neo-game shows whose comparatively higher bar for contestant entry are supposed to put them above the fray of the falsified narratives of shows like Laguna Beach, The Hills, Jersey Shore, or Duck Dynasty—fall prey to producers playing puppet master.
But as much as this constructed narrative can ruin a competition show’s verisimilitude, there’s one major issue to contend: Without producer interventions, these shows would be kind of boring.
That’s the biggest issue with Fashion Fund, a docuseries about the Council Of Fashion Designers Of America and Vogue’s annual award given to prominent up-and-coming designers. The names you hear on the red carpet or see in the pages of GQ? Many of the recent additions have gotten there because of the Fashion Fund. While it may be an interesting topic that could be deserving of the documentary treatment, television probably isn’t the right medium for it. In the first two episodes, there isn’t enough natural drama to make it necessarily worth a season.
Led by a panel that includes Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and legendary designer Diane Von Furstenberg, 10 designers vie for a $300,000 prize and a mentor who will guide their careers as they inevitably blow up. Fashion Fund’s first two episodes create the competition’s first round, wherein hundreds of applicants who have been in business for at least two years submit portfolios. That number is whittled down to 50 semifinalists, and then 10 finalists, who are visited by the judges over four months. Eventually, two runners-up are selected and then one winner is chosen.
The proven success rate of the fund—whose honorees include rag & bone, Alexander Wang, and Thakoon—and its prestigious panel give Fashion Fund a sense of legitimacy that goes beyond that of a show like Project Runway. There’s a guarantee that the winner is not a flash in the pan and will most likely go on to great triumph in the fashion arena. The knowledge that the prize encompasses cash, prestige, and almost-inevitable success is an asset to Fashion Fund. There are genuine stakes beyond a spread in Elle and 15 minutes of fame. The show itself is also beautifully shot and presented, giving credence to the work of the designers and an extra beauty to even the classic talking head subjects.
But Fashion Fund is still structured like reality television. Each visit between the designers and the judges is referred to as a “challenge”; participants are presented as contestants. Because of that legitimacy, these finalists are chosen not because they are TV-ready, but because they are, you know, talented. Wintour, at one point, even pleads the rest of the judging panel for “no more crazy ones.” This lack of characters may work in a contained feature documentary where the subject could make up for it, but there’s a reason that competition series need Wendy Peppers and Santino Rices just as much as they need the talented people who legitimately deserve the “w.” The audience has to spend several weeks with these people, and watching designers stress out isn’t as much fun when there are no heroes or villains to root for and against.
There are opportunities for such personalities to shine. One of the more interesting aspects of Fashion Fund is how designers—like menswear duo Public School, or the sisters-in-law of Veronica Beard—have to work on how they present themselves and their personal brand, and not just their work. But there’s little of that personality allowed to shine through. The already-successful judges are the real characters of the show—Wintour has proven how fascinating she can be to watch in both non-fictional (The September Issue) and fictional (The Devil Wears Prada) milieus—but those aren’t the people who are going on a journey. This isn’t their story.
What really kills the momentum of Fashion Fund is the lack of suspense. The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund was given out in November. With (very little) Googling, the winner is revealed. CFDA President Steven Kolb told the Television Critics Association that the goal was never supposed to be a reality show, saying, “The real story is the process.” In that sense, Fashion Fund succeeds in being a behind the scenes look at an important industry honor. But if the story is the process, why structure the show like reality television? Why keep the audience in suspense about the final outcome when the show’s target audience probably already knew who won in the first place? This is still television, and when it comes to entertainment value, Fashion Fund lacks the pizzazz that is so often the bane of reality competition.
Produced by: Break Thru Films in association with Council of Fashion Designers of America, Vogue, and Condé Nast Entertainment
Starring: Anna Wintour, Diane Von Furstenberg, Jenna Lyons
Debuts: Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on Ovation.
Format: Hour-long documentary series
Two episodes watched for review