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VH1 Fashion Awards Turn a New Leaf

VH1’s awards show gets fashion cred from new partner Vogue magazine, but is it a good fit?

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Five years ago, when the VH1 Fashion Awards premiered, its debut was about as well-received as Monica Lewinsky’s new handbag line. The idea was smart: Take what everybody really loves about the Oscars—let’s see what the celebrities are wearing—and subtract the Oscars. The execution of the show, though, was terrible, from Milquetoast host Steven Weber down to the painfully uninformed style patter. ”It was a bit of the outsiders looking in,” says Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue. ”The world of fashion thought, Who are these guys coming in trying to tell us our business?”

In the span of just four years, however, the VH1 Fashion Awards—which air live from New York City Dec. 5—have gone from amateur hour to prime viewing. Throw together a little music, some pretty girls, ridiculously expensive clothes, arbitrary awards to stars for dressing well, and a few very funny short films and, poof, voilà, a critical and commercial success story emerges. The fashion world now thinks the show is as hip as a Fendi baguette bag. The ratings are as high as Vivienne Westwood’s platform shoes—5.3 million viewers watched last year, compared to 1996’s 1.2 million. And with this year’s show set to reap an estimated $24 million in ad revenues from eight sponsors, this is one clotheshorse that’s also a cash cow.

In fact, the show has become such a must-be-photographed-at affair that the haughtiest fashion magazine in the biz, Vogue, has come in as a partner. According to a source close to the show, Vogue was willing to pay up as well, agreeing to shoulder the show’s entire production costs, a not-so-paltry $2 million. Renamed the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, this year’s broadcast boasts Heather Locklear and Sean ”Puffy” Combs as hosts, with a lineup of musical performances by TLC, Beck, Jennifer Lopez, and the Foo Fighters. ”Every star wants a ticket,” says Combs. Adds Talk magazine’s Gabe Doppelt, the show’s former coproducer, ”People just love it. It’s eye candy. It’s nothing more.”

Perhaps. But just as Seinfeld was really about more than just nothing, the Fashion Awards are often about more than the emperor’s new clothes. There’s a secret to the show’s success: It taps into America’s love-it/hate-it relationship with fashion. Over the years, the awards have walked that line perfectly, alternately applauding designers and their creations and poking merciless fun at them. ”We never took it too seriously,” says former producer Joel Gallen, president of Tenth Planet Productions and creator/producer of the MTV Movie Awards. ”I was always told the fashion industry has no sense of humor—and by the way, that’s probably still true. I said, ‘I don’t care. We’ve got to make fun of them anyway.”’

If everything goes as planned, 1999’s broadcast, with Vogue‘s resources and savvy behind it, could propel VH1 into the top tier of awards shows. But there’s also the danger that this marriage between two companies with very different sensibilities won’t come off. Already, by all accounts, VH1’s TV nerds and Vogue’s fashion snobs aren’t always seeing eye to eye, disagreeing on everything from who’s hip and what’s funny to details as small as whether golf carts will be necessary for transporting celebs from the awards to the off-site press center. (Stiletto-shod Vogue editors are used to them. VH1 execs don’t see the need.) ”Fashion is all we breathe,” says Candy Pratts Price, the show’s creative director and former Vogue accessories editor. ”We talk a Galliano suit and they don’t.” Counters VH1 senior VP of programming (and the show’s exec producer) Lauren Zalaznick: ”We think they don’t get it and they think the same about us.”

It was hard enough putting on the show when there was just one chef in the kitchen. Although lambasted for their first effort, VH1 was encouraged by the solid ratings for the show—which had, after all, been conceived as a vehicle for advertising—and they decided to ignore the critical drubbing and try again in 1996. ”Women’s Wear Daily‘s review was mean, and we didn’t even know enough to care,” says Zalaznick. ”We were so happy with our ratings and ad sales was thrilled. Four months later we realized we had to do it again and we needed the fashion people.”

Good luck. Year two of the awards, the fashion flock stayed away in droves. ”We were boycotted by most of the supermodels. They all thought year one sucked,” says Doppelt, a former Vogue editor who was part of a new team brought in to rescue the show. ”There was no way it could get any worse,” says Gallen, who also came in year two as a coproducer. While Doppelt put together a voting council of fashion critics, editors, and photographers to give the show credibility, Gallen enlisted the likes of Ben Stiller, Kathy Griffin, and Andy Dick to humorously puncture the proceedings. To everyone’s surprise, the 1996 show was a success. The New York Times went so far as to call it ”the most important mass-marketing vehicle for fashion since the invention of the runway show.” Years three and four were even more successful, luring bigger stars like Jim Carrey and Chris Rock and generating a ratings increase of more than 50 percent between 1997 and 1998 alone.

So why tamper with success? The question looms over a planning meeting at VH1 seven weeks before the show. Twenty-five people are gathered around a conference table with the no-nonsense Zalaznick at its head. At the other end is styled-to-the-hilt Price—who replaced Doppelt as the show’s internal voice of fashion—surrounded by a brigade of pashmina-clad assistants. While VH1 has let Vogue take the lead in choosing the show’s models, Zalaznick is concerned that the mag is making some decisions without consulting her. Oops, the seams are beginning to show.

While both VH1 and Vogue have the same goal in mind—producing a funny show that promotes fashion—it’s clear both sides have different agendas. ”Vogue is bringing a strong sense of fashion,” says Price a few days after the meeting. To that end, the magazine lobbied for each of the designers nominated for Womenswear Designer of the Year to have his or her own runway segment during the show. The fashionistas also enlisted Isaac Mizrahi to consult on set design and Mark Morris to choreograph a dance number showcasing the nominees for avant-garde design.

VH1, on the other hand, has its own concerns. They want to preserve the show’s irreverence. But Vogue isn’t exactly known for wacky humor. ”If I had to pitch the idea of Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander to Anna Wintour…it would’ve been met with a resounding thud,” Zalaznick says of Stiller’s hilarious 1996-97 male-model send-up. Instead, she says, ”I didn’t pitch specific ideas and basically ended up saying ‘trust us.”’ VH1 also wants to maintain the show’s broad-based appeal; Vogue‘s ideas tend to be more class than mass. VH1 execs, for example, hoped to book supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Christie Brinkley as presenters. Vogue vetoed the pair as being, well, out of vogue. On the other hand, Vogue favorite Hilary Swank, the actress who’s dripping with Oscar buzz thanks to Boys Don’t Cry, was nixed by VH1 for not being recognizable enough. ”We keep explaining we don’t have a what’s-hot-and-new-and-upcoming area on our show,” says Zalaznick. One thing the two sides have agreed on is the hosts, Locklear and Combs. ”The idea was, opposites attract,” says Zalaznick.

She better hope so. Zalaznick claims the differences between Vogue and VH1 were to be expected, and that the show’s basic formula hasn’t changed. ”In past years, we’ve always had to get our fashion reaction secondhand,” she says. ”As painful as it is, getting it firsthand is actually better.” Adds Wintour: ”So far, it’s great. We’d love to sit down to talk about doing it again. There’s a lot of respect.”

Respect, sure, but how about a wardrobe war? This year, in addition to the show’s usual mix of models, rock stars, designers, and celebs, viewers will be treated to a sartorial battle between its hosts. ”I’m going to try to out-dress Heather,” boasts Combs. ”She is not going to blow me away.”