By Jan Paschal
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lights, camera, accessorize!
"Project Accessory," the latest spinoff of the long-running hit reality show "Project Runway," pits 12 unknown designers against each other for a shot at becoming the next big name in fashion.
It debuts on Thursday on the Lifetime television network.
"This is the biggest money maker in fashion," executive producer Rich Bye told Reuters of the accessories business.
"When they came to me with this idea," he added, "my first thought was: 'Why hasn't anyone done this before?' It seemed like a 'no brainer.'"
Bags, belts, jewelry and shoes are among the mainstays of the accessories business, which rakes in an estimated $30 billion a year in the United States alone, according to the Accessories Council. The New York-based nonprofit group represents designers, retailers, publications and suppliers in the accessories, eyewear and footwear industries.
"Project Accessory" gives TV audiences a close-up glimpse of what goes into making those items that "can make or break a look," said Ariel Foxman, editor-in-chief of InStyle magazine and a judge on the show.
The winner of "Project Accessory" will get an InStyle feature spread and $100,000 from eBay Fashion for startup.
Bye contends that the prospects all add up to even more exciting television than designing clothes.
"In terms of the creative process, it's much more visceral, more workmanlike, kind of gritty," he said. "There's drills, saws, soldering irons and hammers -- all these machines just to make the stuff. It's like going to the back room of Tiffany or Saks to see how they set the stones" for jewelry.
THAT'S SHOE BIZ
Actress and model Molly Sims, who hosts "Project Accessory," said the show "gives an insider look at how designers create their whole look -- the bags, the shoes, the jewelry."
The competition is so "hands on," she said, adding: "Imagine making a pair of shoes in two days."
Sims, who launched her own jewelry line, Grayce, last year so she knows something about the business, said the competition forced the aspiring designers out of their comfort zones.
"They learned very quickly to ask questions, to get help."
Eva Lorenzotti, the CEO of jewelry, fashion and gifts company Vivre, who mentors the contestants, noted that "accessories require amazing know-how."
"If it's well made, it will last forever. It's iconic. Fashion is no different than great architecture. When it's really good, it stands tall. It stands apart," she said.
Even before the cameras rolled, Bye and the "Project Accessory" team logged marathon sessions with artisans and other industry experts in New York, where the show was filmed.
"Shoes, oh my God, we spent a couple of months just talking to cobblers and getting the right kind of last," (a key shoe component) said Bye, who also was the executive producer of "Project Runway" for its first five seasons on Bravo.
Designer Kenneth Cole, a "Project Accessory" judge, told Reuters that "shoes are absolutely the most difficult accessory to bring to market. There's more than 100 operations that go into bringing shoes," from initial sketch to retail.
Most important, shoes, more than any other accessory, affect how a person feels, not just how they look, Cole added.
Asked about the show's appeal at a time of economic turmoil, Cole said "Accessories are critical. In a difficult economy, no one looks to start from scratch."
So when times are hard, people look to accessorize what they already own -- whether "last year's dress, a different pair of shoes, or last year's suit, a different tie."
Timing, and an act of nature, also played a role as the show wrapped its eight-episode shoot, Bye recalled.
On what was supposed to have been the last weekend of filming in New York, Hurricane Irene bore down on New York and "the mayor's film production office pulled all the permits."
But Irene mostly gave Manhattan the slip, and "Project Accessory" wrapped without incident.
Sims said she became emotional while filming the final episode, when the winner was chosen.
"We found someone we think is fantastically talented ... who can oversee an accessory line."
And perhaps, she added, give some competition to fashion's leading lights -- maybe the next "Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors or Rachel Roy."
(Reporting by Jan Paschal; editing by Chris Michaud and Bob Tourtellotte)