Pret-a-Prime Time: Fashion shows are suddenly chic

From cable to networks, programs about designer clothes are proliferating as fast as Naomi Campbell‘s ex-boyfriends.

Come October, E! will debut a 24-hour channel devoted solely to style. In November, AMC premieres a 13-episode series about glamour at the movies called The Hollywood Fashion Machine. VH1, which just did one-hour documentaries on Campbell and Calvin Klein, is gearing up for its fourth annual Fashion Awards. More surprisingly, at least one network is taking its first baby steps down the runway. ABC recently aired a two-hour prime-time special, hosted by Anne Archer and Isabella Rossellini, on Paris’ recent couture shows. Although the show finished 79th for the week, ABC execs are encouraged. ”It’s too early to say whether we’ll do this again, but we do know we’re going to do more fashion,” says Michael Davies, an ABC executive VP.

Credit this explosion in fashion programming to early pioneers like MTV’s House of Style and, especially, CNN’s Style With Elsa Klensch. Just a few minutes of listening to Elsa’s no-nonsense approach to fashion can turn anyone into an expert. ”The networks often look to cable to see what works,” says Marta Tracy, E!’s head of style programming.

Since these shows reach audiences who are already fashion conscious, they’re instantly popular with high-end advertisers. ”It doesn’t need to be such a hard sell,” says Michael D’Arminio of Calvin Klein Cosmetics. In fact, the producers of ABC’s couture special signed up Revlon as a primary sponsor before they sold the show to the network.

But is fashion really ready to be a prime-time player? Almost. To go completely mainstream, the fashionistas might have to start caring about what people are wearing in Peoria as well as in Paris. As ABC’s special in some cases demonstrated, impossibly thin models in wildly imagined couture gowns may be too goofy for the average viewer. ”People I never would have thought watched the special, like my landscaper,” says Todd Oldham. ”It was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. To them, it looked like insanity.”