Meet Fashion’s Real Stars: Retail Buyers Take The Stage In “Fashion Star”

Called “dream makers” by Fashion Star‘s creators James Deutch and E.J. Johnston, buyers from Macy’s, H&M, and Saks will shine while contestants vie to get their designs sold in stores.

Meet Fashion’s Real Stars: Retail Buyers Take The Stage In “Fashion Star”

A lot of people have had a run at wresting the reins of fashion trends from the manicured hands of magazine editors. But a reality show concept from James Deutch and E.J. Johnston may upset that sartorial apple cart for good.


When Fashion Star premieres on March 13 on NBC, viewers will be treated to all the familiar drama that bubbles up when 14 contestants vie for a grand prize and their 15 minutes of fame in front of celebrity judges. There’s a supermodel host who speaks with accented English (Hello Elle McPherson) and a panel of celebrity/designer judges. But that’s where Fashion Star’s similarities to Project Runway and others end and Deutch’s and Johnston’s proposed disruption begins.

Nicole Richie, John Varvatos, Elle Macpherson, and Jessica Simpson

As veterans of the fashion and production industry–Deutch as VP at Hearst Entertainment in charge of developing and producing TV programming for Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, and Seventeen and Johnston at IMG, producers of Mercedes Benz Fashion Week–the two observed that reality was missing from TV’s fashion competitions.

The spotlight often shines on Anna Wintour and the cadre of fashion cognoscenti in the front rows of designer runway shows, but there are other, equally important tastemakers in the adjacent seats, Deutch explains. “We really felt that the [retail] buyers were the stars behind the scenes figuring out what people wanted to wear.”

A designer’s career is sealed when a store actually places orders for their creations, Johnston maintains. “Getting anointed by Anna Wintour is a prelude to that moment to when a buyer says I am going to take a few pieces,” he adds. “It’s entertaining and educational.”

And it’s just the beginning for the contestants and the viewing and buying public. Fashion Star’s featured buyers hail from H&M, Macy’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Not only will they select a winning piece at each episode’s end, but those pieces will be available for sale in those stores, the next day.

Deutch and Johnston confess that there were no secret statistical analytics used to get competing retailers on board. Each committed about $3 million a piece to orders that exceed the average buy and the number of outlets that carry it for an unknown designer. “It is about passion,” Deutch says. “E.J. and I always believed what stores do is really interesting and that came through.” Fashion Star will illuminate how the business works “In a way that’s not a snooze,” he says. What’s more, it showcases how a potential designer relates to the buyers. “We look for that interesting real-world business synergy.”


It’s also about retail strategies, something that each of the featured chains has been tweaking to increase market share. H&M’s long-standing commitment to designer collaborations is now legendary (think Madonna, Lanvin, and now, Marni). Macy’s followed suit by heavily revamping its young women’s apparel departments and signing up sartorial stars such as Karl Lagerfeld to create mid-priced capsule collections. Saks did its part by jumping into the flash sale game. But it takes more to capture the consumer by her purse strings and each is betting that viewers will vote for their favorite designer with their wallets rather than their phones.

Featured buyer for Macy’s Caprice Willard says this will add a layer to her responsibilities. As vice president/regional planning manager for Women’s Apparel for Macy’s Southwest Region, Willard asserts, “We always stay focused on the hottest new things to bring to our customers.” But she adds, Fashion Star will raise the level of expectations. “We now are balancing an assortment that the customer loves such as Michael Kors with a new vendor or designer that they never heard of. So it’s up to us how we strike the balance with the customer.”

Featured Saks buyer Terron Schaefer says, “As retailers, we attend shows and rely on this type of coverage in order to make our buys. Having access to news that quickly allows Saks to be strategic with the market allows us to be able to offer our consumers the best choices in luxury fashion.”

When the season ends, the winner will have their collections debut in all three chains–with a dedicated line for each brand. Johnston says this too, will change the status quo. “The traditional ways of getting discovered are still going to be there but this will be a new way to do it.”

Johnston says another show mentor, designer John Varvatos, sees it as a new opportunity to have the designer and their personal story connect with potential buyers. Like art collectors who often base purchases as much on the piece as the artist’s background and influences, Johnston says this will allow the designs to be as elevated as works of art while bringing the story behind each garment to the masses.

Willard agrees. “We are kind of breaking the mold to find a designer. I’m always amazed at how many talented people are out there. You never know when you are going to come across someone who will change the fashion industry.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.