If there’s one thing streaming services might have been expected to leave alone, it’s competitive reality TV. Unlike a thriller, or a drama, competitions suit a weekly rollout. You spend a while getting to know the contestants, so you can really root for them, and it’s far easier to be forgiving of the necessarily repetitive nature of the format when it is spaced out in the right way. It’s hard to imagine The Masked Singer, say, working in a dumped block of episodes, because few could stomach it all in one go. But in its bid to be all things to all people, Netflix keeps churning out competitions, in baking, cooking and even glass-blowing. And, in part thanks to big names and seemingly big budgets, they keep on working. Next in Fashion, a take-me-seriously-but-not-too-seriously update of Project Catwalk/Runway, is not about to break that pattern.
Over 10 episodes, Next in Fashion sets out to find a hot new designer. But these are no amateurs. Each of the 18 contestants has considerable experience in the industry. Some have worked as “ghost designers” for celebrity labels, others for established names, and some just never quite got the break they needed. Only one does not have their own label yet. As is the way with Netflix competitions, the contestants are international – from Mexico, the US, the UK, India, Italy, South Korea and plenty more. This is one of the best aspects of this new glut of reality: why make several localised versions, when you can just mix the competitors in one?
If 18 sounds like a lot of people to remember, well, it is. But for the first six episodes, the designers work in pairs, coming up with looks on a certain theme, from red carpet to lingerie to suits to patterns and prints. At the end of a genuinely tense catwalk show, judged by a crop of stylists and designers, one pair is sent home, and it empties out the competition surprisingly quickly. The overall prize here is no measly concession to the fact that someone must be rewarded. It’s a $250,000 (£190,000) investment in the designer’s brand, and the chance to be sold through Net-a-Porter. A victory has the potential to be life-changing.
The hosts, Alexa Chung and Tan France, chivvy proceedings along with a lightness of touch, but they know what they are talking about, and Next in Fashion is so serious about fashion that looks judged to be too “of the moment” are critiqued harshly, for not being forward-looking enough. Phillip Lim, Tommy Hilfiger, Prabal Gurung and Christopher Kane pop up as guest judges, as do a rotating cast of stylists, all of whom appear to have dressed Michelle Obama at some point, and the creations, while knocked up under pressure in just a day and a half, are far from fast fashion.
It works a treat. It’s just tense enough, and just gripping enough, to warrant a binge-watch. And after a dizzying first instalment – 18 contestants really is a lot of people – it starts to settle, and we get the back stories of the participants, and their reasons for being where they are today. Some of the women put their careers on hold because they had children. Some of the men have struggled with difficult family backgrounds. It is never overcooked or cheesy, and, even by the finale, I found it hard to choose a winner because I liked everyone so much. There’s nothing like a strong work ethic and an eye for whether satin and leather work together (spoiler alert: probably not) to show someone in their best light.
As you might expect from a show about fashion, there are sufficient moments of drama, embellished with glee. When the Netflix age rating warns of “bloody injury detail” prior to one episode, you wonder whether it has all gone full Neon Demon. But the (over-)reactions to a nasty, if minor, accident are excessive. Similarly, a disagreement over who will leave at the end of one episode leads to a walk-out and Tan tearfully addressing the contestants about how much he and Chung care for them. It is outrageously over-the-top. I loved it.
Despite these big flashy moments, though, this is as elegant as some of the designs the contestants come up with, and its respect for the work is clear throughout. It refuses to be gushy in a way that some reality shows can be, particularly American ones, which seem to swing between wallowing in soft-focus, Oscar-acceptance-speech sincerity, or doling out brutal roastings. Having Tan and Chung in charge tempers everything and ensures the tone is just right. Netflix really is starting to get the hang of this kind of show.