TV preview

'Kell on Earth' exposes fashion's ugly underside

COLOR HER NASTY: At one point, Kelly Cutrone, right, tells her workers, "Fashion is a war. That's why we take no prisoners."
COLOR HER NASTY: At one point, Kelly Cutrone, right, tells her workers, "Fashion is a war. That's why we take no prisoners." (David Giesbrecht - Bravo)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010

Even though the backwaters of cable television have done everything they can to familiarize us wretched non-New Yorkers with the gritty details of the fashion industry -- especially as regards the advanced rocket science it takes to pull together a runway show of next season's designs -- viewers of "Kell on Earth" can be forgiven for never quite figuring out what Kelly Cutrone actually does for a living, except to spread bitterness and ill will.

In the morose premiere of Bravo's new reality show about Cutrone's Manhattan fashion PR business (airing Monday night at 10), we learn much about what fashion is not: "It's not a [bleeping] joke," Cutrone snarls. "This is not dress-up. This is not Barbie."

So stipulated. If the meanness in Cutrone's workplace -- called People's Revolution -- is going to cause you tears, then take it someplace else. "If you're crying, go outside," she tells her beleaguered underlings. "Fashion is a war. That's why we take no prisoners."

Why does a people's revolution always end up with a Stalin? For some reason, this show makes me think of those poor Triangle Shirtwaist Factory ladies who leaped to their deaths to escape an actual hellfire in a 1911 fashion disaster of a whole other sort. Who would subject themselves to such misery unless economics and misfortune had placed them there?

"Kell on Earth" is set mainly in the cramped People's Revolution offices, where a bevy of exhausted young women and gay men sit around an enormous table littered with spent Starbucks cups and cords snaking from their Apple laptops and BlackBerry chargers. They are miserable, always, yet it's hard to discern what's so hard about their jobs. Before everything was made in China, New York's garment district used to be filled with real-deal sweatshops. Now all that's left is a PR sweatshop. The PR clipboard -- not the sewing machine -- signifies modern oppression.

Although Bravo has given us a raft of contemptible characters (Jeff Lewis of "Flipping Out" or Patti Stanger of "Millionaire Matchmaker"), it was also the network that used to make fashion and New York look like such fun, back in its "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Project Runway" halcyon days. With "Kell on Earth," the producers have instead zeroed in on fashion's insipidness and cruelty.

Cutrone and company simply assume you know what People's Revolution does; how could you not? You're also supposed to know your designers: David Delfin is the most important young designer in Spain -- you should know. Chado Ralph Rucci is the most important couture designer in all of Fashion Week -- you should know that, too. And you should know about Cutrone because you caught glimpses of her riding roughshod on the dimwitted lasses of MTV's "The Hills" and "The City."

Best I can tell, People's Revolution is mainly hired by designers to send out invitations to fashion shows, then list who will and will not attend. As the deadline approaches, RSVPs and the simple use of Microsoft Excel overwhelm Cutrone and company. They labor over the devil's work of sorting who is important (front row) and who isn't (third row). A computer glitch messes up the spreadsheet hours before the Rucci show, and Cutrone breathes fire.

While it's true that they work in fashion, Cutrone and her staff are a pathetic collection of puffy eyes, bad skin, runny noses, rumpled hair and stressed-out slouches. One is so busy fulfilling Cutrone's every whim that she hasn't had time to find an apartment; she is living in a cluttered hidey-hole behind a rack of ready-to-wear dresses. They have all bought into Cutrone's egomaniacal management style and sense of utter self-importance.

"You say I'm a bitch like it's a bad thing," beams employee Emily Bungert, espousing a People's Revolution motto.

No, I'd say you're a bitch like it's a sad thing.

Kell on Earth: (one hour) premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on Bravo.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company