In a fictional town of Harmony, Fancy Crane is the hottest new fashion designer on the NBC soap opera Passions. All the rich and stylish people in Fancy's world would just kill for her clothes.
But network officials are hoping that fans of the daytime drama will spend real dollars on Fancy Crane's flirty collection, which they started selling earlier this year.
It's the first time a soap opera has launched a clothing line, Passions executives say. And some marketing experts are wondering why no one has thought of the idea before.
"It's really smart," says David Melancon, president of FutureBrand, a leading brand development firm in the United States, with clients such as Coca-Cola and Microsoft.
"Think about daytime TV and this whole subculture of people who watch every day," he says. "The strongest way to market is to a group of people who are that tight, because they've already got an identity. The Passions person who knows what Fancy Crane clothes are, that's a person who may already buy in to her lifestyle and identify with it."
Stay-at-home moms, senior citizens and college students identifying with social butterfly Fancy Crane? This is a woman, after all, who lives in a place called the Crane Mansion, has had more than her fair share of "bad boys" and is most often likened to real-life socialite Paris Hilton.
But apparently, soap opera fans are good at suspending reality.
"If you have something weighing heavily on your mind," says Danielle Orsino, owner and designer of DramaQueenStyle.com, a private company out of New York that sells clothes based on characters from ABC soaps, such as All My Children and General Hospital, "it's a really nice way to just lose it for an hour."
And NBC officials know they have such a devoted, captive audience in Passions viewers. That's why they make a point to "advertise" Fancy's line - Crane Couture - during the show.
Sometimes a message will pop up along the bottom of the television screen, alerting viewers to the collection's Web site, cranecouture.com. Other times, Fancy will wear the clothes herself or make mention of the line in a scripted conversation with another character.
The imbedded commercials don't always sit well with all viewers.
"At one point they had a dialogue about the Web site and I thought, 'OK. This is a little cheesy,'" says Clifton Brown III, a student at Morgan State University and an avid Passions watcher.
Brown agrees that Fancy Crane is a very stylish character, always clad in the same sort of trendy clothes he sees girls on campus wearing. (Fancy tends to be in such labels as ABS, Nanette Lepore and LaRok.)
Still, Brown has his doubts that real women will rush to wear clothes designed by a fictional character.
"I know some people who may say, 'That's cute,' or admire it," says Brown, 20. "But I don't know anybody who is going to log on to the Web site and buy it."
NBC is betting that Brown is wrong.
"Fancy is enormously likable," says Passions costume designer Diana Eden, who helps outfit Emily Harper, the actress who plays Fancy Crane. "I think people like to emulate people they admire."
According to SoapCentral.com's careful eye on the Nielsen ratings, during the most recent ratings more than 1.5 million viewers tuned in to watch Passions, ranking the show dead last among nine other daytime soaps. It's a position that Passions has been all too familiar with since it first aired in July 1999.
But network execs say the fashion line is not a ratings ploy. They're more concerned about "growing the Passions brand," says Annamarie Kostura, NBC's vice president of daytime.
"Passions has a strong young viewing audience, and we've had tremendous success with them with other online ventures," Kostura says. "This is about being contemporary and being aggressive with the tools that are out there."
In April, when Crane Couture launched, the Web site had close to 700,000 hits, and the network sold 56 percent of its merchandise, Kostura says.
"And at six weeks in, to have that much of your merchandise sold is really great," she says. "We've already sold out of one of the tops."
Melding television and fashion is a brilliant marketing idea, says Melancon, of FutureBrand.
"Since it has been around, TV has been predicting and leading style," he says. "Think about Mary Tyler Moore and Laura Petrie. She first told women it was OK for them to wear clam diggers around the house. We've always looked for these sort of fashion cues from the characters that we watch. So taking it to the next level and having that character sell a line of clothes is not a huge jump.."
The Crane Couture line is easily salable; it's trendy and fun, stylish but not too serious.
"We're not trying to break the fashion mold here," says Kostura. "We're trying to make a Passions' brand, a Passions lifestyle."
"Fancy has always been quite the fashionista," says Harper, from the Passions set last month. "And I think the clothes are adorable. Some of them you can wear to the beach; some of them you can wear out to the club. All of them have a little glitz, because Fancy is always glam."
The line features four tops and three skirts but will grow to include more pieces, as well as jewelry, this summer. The separates can be dressed up or down, Eden says, and range from $34 to $110.
"There's a black chiffon skirt with sequins on it. It's the kind of thing you can wear with a white tank top and a pair of flip flops and look quite acceptable," says Eden, "or with a bustier and high heels and go out to dinner in it."
The more adventurous soap fans will be happy to know the clothes also are quite durable, Harper says.
"I'm actually wearing the white skirt with the black trim now. We've been shooting in it for about a week," Harper says. "And there's been a cave-in in the catacombs, and a lot of throwing people to the ground, and it's amazingly comfy."
Passions viewers who buy the clothes will more than likely imagine themselves as a catacomb-crawling, nemesis-slapping, Fancy Crane-like fashionista when they're wearing her designs, says Orsino, of DramaQueenStyle.
When she designed and sold a dress based on All My Children's spoiled-brat character Greenlee Smythe, "we blew out of it," Orsino says.
"People told me it was like you were walking around playing Greenlee. I think it gives them [viewers who buy the clothes] a feeling that they're closer to the character," Orsino says. "And in their own way, it makes them feel good and confident."