HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Next in Fashion, reality TV’s very real moment


Netflix’s Next in Fashion is the streaming service’s latest Project Runway derivative offering. But in many ways, it’s everything Project Runway isn’t.

It’s relatable, it leaves regular plebs like myself feeling like people in the fashion industry are actually quite nice, or can be. They’re just normal people, who have insecurities, aren’t immediately unlikeable and are very, very nice and relatable.

The show’s hosts carry the same sentiment. Tan France (of Queer Eye fame) and Alexa Chung (British TV presenter) are as warm and sweet as a comforting cup of tea. Very unusual on any kind of television show whose centre piece content is the fashion industry.

The contestants participate in run of the mill challenges through each episode, from having to design red carpet dresses to active wear. It’s just hearty fun. There are dashes of drama without the diva-ness, a lot of entertainment and a genuine investment in each participant’s ability to conceptualise and create.

As a viewer, I found myself really wanting to see people do well, you know? None of that schadenfreude stuff I experience during Project Runway where people are so horrible as humans that I unashamedly find myself hoping for some sort of mishap just so that they can come back down to earth.

Next in Fashion also contains very little “staging” – or, it’s done so well that it does not have the eye rolling “obviously the producers told them to do that” effect that plenty of other reality shows have. Everything about it just seems quite authentic in the same way the characters seem quite authentic.

This is a reality show without the proverbial conflict. The contestants aren’t turning on each other, the producers aren’t feeding anyone storylines, the plot is thin, simple and pure. And that’s why the show had a moment. A very real, a very authentic and a very brave moment – which I am sure happens all the time in reality TV, we just don’t get to see them.

Because no one who makes or watches reality TV actually wants anything real, like say, for example, to be caught knee deep in the politics of the race in the fashion industry. Which is exactly what happened on episode 4, and it was beautiful.

The contestants were asked to design two streetwear looks which would be judged by both hosts as well as Pyer Moss label founder Kerby Jean-Raymond – a young talented man from Brooklyn. Among the contestants are Farai and Kiki – a duo from Brooklyn who wet their feet in street fashion, particularly Kiki, who worked on street brand Fubu when they had just launched in Queens many years ago – the hot bed of street fashion.

Post runway show, the judges were at loggerheads about their designs. The hosts were adamant that Farai and Kiki had produced something that was just not their cup of tea, while Kerby was steadfast in his belief that these were the only two designers who had a real sense and understanding for street fashion (which is completely understandable since Kiki is a legit streetwear specialist).

In all other episodes, following and preceding this one, the judges had come to a fairly easy unanimous decision, but during this instance, something wonderful was brewing. Discord was being stitched into the fabric of the fashion industry by not only a judge who refused to flinch from his strong opinion that these two women were on the right track when it came to fashion forward streetwear, but also by a spirited Farai (originally from Zimbabwe) who stepped forward and made a political statement never before seen on a bubblegum reality fashion show.

Farai defended the uniqueness of their work and went on to imply that the fashion industry usually only had one voice – the implication was that she was tired of having the voice of black women silenced and underrepresented at this level, especially since these very designs, like so many others, would be co-opted by bigger fashion houses, making it hard for people like Farai and Kiki to break into the industry with ideas that were originally theirs.

Kerby was sympathetic. He noted that many of his own designs had been stolen by Louis Vuitton. There was a critical discussion about the politics of fashion happening on television. For once, an argument – among so many others – that actually happen in real life, was happening on reality TV and people, not just the contestants, but the actual judges, were taking a stand. So much so, in fact, that toward the end of the judging, Kirby openly expressed his disgust with the decision the judges had come to and walked off stage refusing to return.

It would have been easy to cut this out. It would have been easy to edit out the reality of real life from this “reality” show, but Next in Fashion didn’t. Instead, they chose to portray the tapestry of human emotion. Every passion, every opposition and every empathy.

A couple of minutes later, Tan walked back solo toward the contestants who had been left hanging and broke down in tears. The effect was that of a person, in the real world, struggling with a decision he had to make as part of a team of people who were so different, so opinionated and all so right.

We deal with these emotions every day. It’s an existential crisis before our eyes in a place we would least expect – a reality show about what seems to be the most fickle theme of all, fashion.

Few people will openly admit to gorging on reality TV for hours at a time with little consideration about what the world thinks about their secret pop culture consumption behaviour.

Yes, we’re all privy to a little Survivor, The Amazing Race and the odd episode of a Big Brother-ish type series, but really, we’ll hardly catch ourselves at a party amongst strangers gushing forth about our obsession with My 600 lb Life or the latest episode of Botched. We’re far too afraid of falling victim to the generalised critique of reality shows and their viewers. And I get it. No one wants to be called ignorant or “dumbed down” at their office meet and greet.

The onslaught of reality TV is not new, it’s just not going anywhere. And yes, it can be argued that there is nothing real about reality TV. Very view programmes accurately portray any kind of believable authenticity and any viewer with a smidgen of critical thinking can immediately detect when situations are artificial, editing has been used to mislead audiences and participants have been coached, coerced or even slightly scripted ahead of time.

Reality TV is very much staged. Yet we persist. Week in and week out we all diligently take our seats in our chosen museums of social decay where we’re likely to sit in awe of absolute nothingness and maybe, quite possibly, hate ourselves while doing it.

Sometimes, many times in fact, the joy we feel while observing is pure schadenfreude. The pure pleasure we feel at seeing other people move through their lives nestled in a healthy blanket of conflict and confrontation.

But even with all these memorable “incidents”, nothing tangible ever happens. There is never a moment on reality TV that ever truly portrays a moment in actual real life, where you, as the observer, or as someone directly engaged, can walk away from and go, “something happened here today” – and truly think on it for a bit. Until, Next in Fashion’s episode 4.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.