As diligently as designer Tommy Hilfiger tries to play the self-assured, charismatic mogul in the premiere of his reality show, "The Cut," he is no Donald Trump.
"The Cut," which debuts June 9 on CBS, applies the premise of "The Apprentice" to the fashion industry. Sixteen contestants live together in a SoHo loft as they compete in assorted challenges for a $250,000-a-year job at Tommy Hilfiger and the opportunity to design a collection under that label. Only a handful of the contenders have any experience in design or retail. Most appear to be either rapacious consumers of designer labels or vociferous primpers not shy about articulating their dislike for polyester.
Rob, a 35-year-old married Brooklyn father of five, has emerged as an early voice of reason. He seems to realize that in reality television, someone has to take the role of the level-headed player, and whoever does gets to go home with his dignity intact.
Felix, also 35 and a professional skateboarder, quickly reveals a chauvinistic streak by suggesting that the women on his team should stay out of the way and let the men do the physical work. And one competitor, Vlada, 24, appears to have been chosen because of her willingness to swivel her hips into NC-17 territory.
As the 90-minute episode begins, the competitors gather at Hilfiger headquarters in Manhattan. The showroom, with its red walls and rows of mannequins, is a shrine to the entrepreneur's modern preppy style but it also bears an uncanny resemblance to the mansion setting of "The Swan." (Perhaps in a later episode someone will win complimentary liposuction.) As soon as Hilfiger arrives, he begins to critique everyone's attire, underscoring the importance of first impressions. He then selects his two favorite "looks" from the group and they are given the task of choosing teams. Since the players have not met, the team captains make their choices based solely on style. This scene sets the stomach churning as the mind flashes back to elementary school gym class.
The teams take a moment to stand around and stare admiringly at Hilfiger, who lacks Trump's brooding pout but whose mop of hair is much more appealing than Trump's Aqua Net comb over. And then Hilfiger announces, with Trumpish bluster, that he will meet the two teams at Broadway and 50th Street in one hour.
As host of "The Apprentice," Trump is acutely aware of his own public persona. He knows that his ostentatious, gilded lifestyle is enviable to the have-nots. He understands that there is a cartoonish absurdity to the supermogul, womanizing, big-shot image that he has carefully cultivated. He can laugh at himself -- if the financial payoff is lucrative enough.
Hilfiger has never been that self-aware. He comes across as the guy who thinks playing air guitar on the dance floor is cool. In the show's opening, Hilfiger says: "If you've ever turned on a television, opened a magazine or gone shopping, you know who I am." No, we don't. People know the brand name, but not the personality, not the face. Who among you could pick him out of a lineup?
Hilfiger's official corporate title is honorary chairman of the board. (There's no swagger in an honorary title.) He showed his first menswear collection in 1984, but it wasn't until the 1990s, when his clothes were embraced by hip-hop performers, that the brand took on iconic status. The company expanded with an initial public offering in 1992 and experienced several years of rapid growth. Last year, the company reported $1.8 billion in sales.
But recently it has also struggled. Rappers have shifted their affection from Hilfiger to their own labels. The company's aesthetic sensibility has become increasingly muddled; new collections have failed to sell. Last year, the U.S. attorney general's office launched an investigation into some of the company's business practices. (If "The Cut" is supposed to give the contestants the sense of living Hilfiger's life in fast-forward, hopefully it will spare them the feeling of having one's company investigated by the feds.)
The first challenge for the contestants is to design and install a Tommy Hilfiger billboard in Times Square, although there is no evidence that any designer has ever had to climb into a cherry picker to mount his own advertisement. Throw in a few hoops of fire and this could have been an episode of "Fear Factor."
In introducing the challenge, Hilfiger recalls his first billboard, on which he favorably compared himself to established American designers such as Calvin Klein. He is honest when he tells the contestants that although he was ridiculed by the fashion industry for his hubris, the billboard raised his profile. What he does not mention is that it took the industry a decade to take him seriously after such ill-conceived chest-thumping.
Hilfiger has emphasized that "The Cut" is not just about fashion. It will focus on the full sweep of popular culture, including music and art. It will be about building a lifestyle, he says. Someday, a splendidly skeptical shopper will note: "I already have a lifestyle, how much for just the clothes?"
But with Hilfiger as its star, "The Cut" can't focus on the clothes because Hilfiger is not a designer. He has always been quick to say that he is editing and marketing ideas. If he is looking for someone to follow in his footsteps, then that person doesn't need to know how to perfect the fit of a pair of trousers or drape fabric on a dress form. There will be technicians who can do that. For the winner, a career in fashion will be a long series of multiple choice questions: Bootcut or baggy? Red or blue? Cotton or silk?
"The Cut" purports to be about finding the next great American designer. No one expects truth from a reality show, but the best of them -- even with the conniving and skullduggery -- are optimistic and ruthlessly simplistic. "Project Runway" is about making clothes. "America's Next Top Model" focuses on pretty girls taking pictures. Even "The Apprentice," with its myriad challenges, focuses on the key elements of running a good business: the idea, the marketing and the money.
"The Cut" may be honest in its assessment that success in fashion has little to do with designing clothes. But then all the viewer is left with is cynicism, confusion and 16 people yelling at each other.