Pioneer Fashion Newscaster Dies

Obituary | Before social media and livestreaming, Elsa Klensch and her namesake show in the ’80s brought designer fashion to the masses

Elsa Klensch on Style with Elsa Klensch. Screen grab: YouTube

CNN announced this morning (our time) that their pioneer/former fashion newscaster Elsa Klensch has passed away in New York. It is not clear if she was in a hospital or at home at the time of death. Ms Klensch was reported to live in West 54th Street, Manhattan, in an apartment that overlooks the Museum of Modern Art, after her namesake show, Style with Elsa Klensch, on CNN was cancelled in 2001. Although originally from Australia, Ms Klensch had been based in New York after joining the network in 1980. No cause of death was given. She was 92.

Prior to the advent of digital broadcasts and livestreams by fashion brands, Style with Elsa Klensch, was the only TV show at that time to bring viewers to the front row and backstage of the four major fashion weeks. It was described as a “groundbreaking” show, even today, broadcast in 142 countries then, including ours. Ms Klensch was a powerful, much-listened-to voice, way before the influence of the KOLs of today. Vanessa Friedman described her via Twitter, shortly after her death was announced, as “among the first of her kind”. Entertainment Weekly wrote in 1993, “And there’s Elsa (everyone knows her as Elsa): impeccable in a Sonia Rykiel jacket, thick gold necklaces, and glossy black bobbed hair.” And that “clipped, fashion-magaziney inflections of her Australian accent softened by more than a quarter century in New York”.

She was born Elsa Aeschbacher in 1933, in the town of Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia, originally land of the aboriginal people known as the Awabakal, to Johann Ernst and Mary Margaret Aeschbacher. Little is known about her German family, except that she grew up in the Blue Mountains, about two hours by car from Sydney, and that her father died when she was very young. Her family managed to get by with an inheritance from her grandfather, but they did not lead anywhere near a lavish lifestyle. In her late teens, she left for Sydney, where she wanted to be a political journalist. As she told The New York Times in 2001 after she left CNN, “I’ve always been fascinated by power.“ But it would be the power that fashion and its players wielded that would later determine her career path.

The unmistakable title design of Style with Elsa Klensch. Screen grab: YouTube

She pursued journalism at University of Sydney, during which she started her chosen profession at the Sydney Daily Telegraph, using the byline Elsa Barker because her surname was difficult for people to pronounce and remember. But her career really took off in London in the Swinging Sixties. She reported for the London Star and London Sunday Express. London may be where the ‘Youthquake’ was, but returned to Sydney she did, continuing her work in journalism with the local media there. In 1966, she moved again, this time to Hong Kong, where the city’s famed Trade Development Council (HKTDC, organiser of Hong Kong Fashion Week and also Gifts and Premium Fair, among many) offered her a position as editor of their trade publications. It was in Hong Kong that she met her husband, Charles Klensch, a Saigon-based, “Brooks Brothers type” news bureau manager for the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), who, at that time, was on leave in the Fragrant Harbour. They married that year in war-time Saigon. Ms Klensch was later appointed senior market editor for Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), a position she held in Hong Kong until the couple moved to New York not long after their marriage.

She was always proud of having worked with the big names of fashion journalism of that time, including WWD’s irascible John Fairchild; June Weir, the “tough and tender” fashion editor also at WWD and, later, at W (“I learned it all at Women’s Wear Daily,” Ms Klensch told Time in 2004); as well as two other formidable editors (one textually, the other visually), Grace Mirabella and Polly Mellon, both from Vogue. “I worked with all those people,” she said, “I knew one hell of a lot about fashion, so my reports were more in-depth because I really understood.” Many stories on Elsa Klensch fail to mention a little-known career detail: that she was fashion editor with the just-as-unfamiliar New York magazine Savvy, but her tenure was short-lived, and the person who replaced her in 1980 was, according to Jerry Oppenheimer in his book Front Row, none other than the “ambitious” Anna Wintour, who also omitted this part of her professional life in her public image.

After Savvy, Elsa Klensch joined CNN to host and produce Style with Elsa Klensch, with which she became the first TV journalist to bring fashion to the small screen and, as she frequently recalled, to have “had Halston, Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol and Martha Graham on the first day”. The show, televised on weekends, would become CNN’s highest-rated show of their weekend programming, with 200 million households tuning in worldwide at its peak. So successful was Style (as it was commonly referred to) and its host that the network organised a celebratory bash for Ms Klensch at New York Public Library on the show’s 15th Anniversary in 1995, just before New York Fashion Week, then staged in tents at Bryant Park on 42nd Street. Style had by then become five three-to-five-minute daily news features that were then compiled into half-hour programs for the weekends. Designers, once video-camera-shy, by now had no qualms guesting on the show and offering the appreciated bon mot.

With Bill Blass in 1987 at the CFDA Awards. Photo: Getty Images

Style was, however, never an NYT piece in video format; its host never controversial or provocative as she brought viewers around the world to see beautiful clothes and, later, interiors. So deferential she was to her interviewees and so deliberately amiable that she was referred to, flatteringly or not, as the “Robin Leach of fashion television” (fans saw her as Walter Cronkite). In fact, so serious she was at what she was presenting—from skirts to skirtings—that in 1999, The New Yorker wrote that she “reports on developments in design, on innovations in fabrics, and on mutations of hemlines as soberly as if she were covering the State Department.” Beneath her on-screen smiles and chumminess with designers, Ms Klensch was also known to be tough to work with. A former staffer described her to WWD as “very strong-willed”.

Although she was noted for her “insightful reports”, Ms Klensch was not exactly the go-to for her illuminating commentary. On Bill Blass’s spring/summer 1993 collection, she said it was “upbeat and colourful, made for modern women… The shapes are simple, made to reveal a woman’s figure”. Not exactly Pulitzer Prize-winning stuff, but she was speaking to those who, “every Saturday morning, would plunk down on the couch with a bowl of Fruity Pebbles to watch (her) thoughtfully dissect the runways of NY, London, Milan, Tokyo, and Paris—an American “fashion follower” shared. Or those, as Tampa Bay Times more cruelly put it, on “an unknown frontier of pizza-stained carpet and nubby nightgowns: the American living room”.

Her own style was strictly less Saturday-morning-out-of-bed. Perhaps the definition of tasteful, or what tasteful was back then. A sharp jacket with pronounced shoulders was almost standard (Sonia Rykiel, it bears repeating, was a favourite), even when she championed Giorgio Armani’s far more relaxed silhouettes. The pile-on jewellery on the neck (rarely, if ever a single strand or chain) was just as synonymous, possibly to reflect her enthusiasm for how Karl Lagerfeld, who regularly appeared on her show, transformed Chanel in the ’80s. Her make-up was intensive (she was lucky that shows then were not broadcast in 4K!), while her lips were almost too thickly defined. The hair, too, was unmistakable: that longish bob, with the dense bangs. While such a straight hairstyle would come to define Anna Winour, it was Ms Klensh who made it acceptable while most of America was enamoured with the bouffant of Krystle Carrington.

Elsa Klensch in her post-broadcasting years. Photo: Getty Images

The impeccable turnout, it seemed, was achieved at her own personal expense. According to her, she received “zero” clothing allowance at CNN in all of her 21 years with the network. To intensify the constriction, she was not allowed to accept free clothes from designers because then objectivity could be compromised. As she told NYT, “You wouldn’t want to feel an obligation to anyone.” She admitted to the Los Angeles Times in 1989: “Clothes are so expensive. You’ve got to know what you want, what suits you and do different things with them.” What suited her were suits, and the different things were the accessories. While she hit the big time during the rise of the Japanese designers in Paris, she never appeared on television in those inky, forward clothes. One co-worker said that “the worst thing for us is an all-black show in an all-black room” even though Ms Klensch was fascinated by the extreme creativity of the Japanese and interviewed designers such as Yohji Yamamoto. In 1990, despite the veritable conservatism, she was inducted into the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame.

Style was considered the only TV show on fashion that mattered. Elsa Klensch’s only competitor at the that time, dare we say, was Jeanne Beker of the Canadian-produced Fashion Television (aka Fashion TV) that came five years later (and would last for 27). Initially a local production for Toronto before it was syndicated and aired on the American Style Network, and then others, Fashion Television adopted much of what Style had done earlier. Fashion broadcasting in the those years was dominated by the two women who did not sound American. The reportage on TV then was straightforward, but it was Elsa Klensch who dialed up the glamour, even when that eventually fizzled out as the 2000s approached. Her influence spawned not just the imitation from America’s northern neighbour, but also from within, such as MTV’s lamer House of Style, hosted by posey models, not experienced journalists; first Cindy Crawford and later, Daisy Fuentes and Molly Sims. Elsa Klensch also appeared in the fluffy, 1994 Robert Alman film PrêtàPorter, in which Kim Basinger played the TV fashion journalist Kitty Potter, widely believed to be based on Ms Klensch. This predated 2009’s The September Issue: until then, the public knew not of Anna Wintour or how she looked like. Elsa Klensch was already a recognisable face, so much so that, as she liked to regale, she was asked to sign autographs on the Great Wall of China.

In a report by the now-defunct weekly The New York Observer, Ms Klensch’s parting with CNN was described as “a civil but rather unceremonious end”, vaguely recalling her previous boss Grace Mirabella’s fate at Vogue in 1988. In November 2000, two months prior to the end of Style, talk emerged that she would be “terminated” and that some industry individuals had been reached to interview for what they had thought was Ms Klensch’s position. Officially, the reporter had resigned because her show was cancelled, but the chatter was that she was fired following a change in programming after CNN was bought by AOL Time Warner in 2000, despite the mere two years left in her contract. She later told WWD, “I can confirm I have been asked to leave the network”. She also concluded, “I don’t think any ending is exactly as one envisions it, but I was very happy with the way it all ended.” Perhaps, that was all that mattered, 21 years of Style and a purported 40,000 fashion shows later.

French Luxury Brands React

At last. A week after Russia invaded Ukraine

A current Cartier street installation, The Reflection Garden, in Tokyo’s shopping district of Omotesando. Photo: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD

Russia attacked Ukraine last month under the guise of sending “peacekeepers” to their Western neighbour, with president Vladimir Putin announcing two hours before the first strike that he had “taken the decision to carry out a special military operation” targeted at the Donbass and eastern Ukraine. This shocking (although predicted) incursion was in the middle of Milan Fashion Week, on the third day, eight hours before the Prada show. In Italy, little was said among Italian fashion brands and cognoscenti to publicly condemn the unprovoked attack on Ukraine. The fashion week would go on. Only until Giorgio Armani’s deliberately music-less show, preceded by an unambiguous announcement, was there a vestige of denouncement. Over in Paris, no news emerged of brands taking a stand against the invasion in the northeast of Europe. Paris Fashion Week (PFW) would go on too.

Not long after the attack, some consumer brands, such as Apple, Nike, H&M, and Ikea, announced that they would suspend their business in Russia, but no such swift corresponding action was declared by any luxury brand or the conglomerates that owned them. A week after their show, Prada finally announced on Instagram that “the war in Ukraine is very worrying and a source of great concern”. It added that it had donated to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). But, nothing was said in opposition to the war or about store closures in the country of the attacker. Three days ago, Fortune reported that luxury brands Cartier and Bvlgari “(were) operating in Russia amid the country’s invasion of Ukraine”. Business was good, it was shared, as the oligarchs and their wealthy families spent on watches and jewellery to “hedge against inflation” during the dramatic and inevitable plummet of the Russian ruble (last March, ₽100 was about S$1.80, today it’s S$1.10) as a result of Western sanctions against the combat-bent country, devised to restrict its war chest and batter its economy.

In the present century, it is hard to say that fashion and the brands that promulgate their own compelling “stories” are not tethered to the stories of the world, whether the #metoo or BLM movement, or the storming of sovereign states

Despite calls by some segments of the fashion community, including LVMH-owned Business of Fashion’s Imran Ahmed (who wrote in an editorial, “surely, the industry can’t continue as if things were normal. We have an important role to play in standing in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and in isolating Russia to exert pressure on Putin to end the war”), luxury brands went on with business-as-usual hum. LVMH’s Dior, opening PFW, showed their offerings—feminism, as usual, glaring, but anti-war sentiments dim. The shows by other houses went on unperturbed, on the surface, by the incursion into Ukraine. In the present century, it is hard to say that fashion and the brands that promulgate their own compelling “stories” are not tethered to the stories of the world, whether the #metoo or BLM movement, or the storming of sovereign states. Consumers want to know where luxury businesses stand.

Fashion brands run by the likes of LVMH and Kering position themselves as global businesses, and yet what they offered were not quite a global response to an inequitable invasion played out for the whole world to see. Money and profits are, of course, at stake. But if, according to analysts at Morgan Stanley, sales in Russia and to the Russians who shop abroad are “relatively immaterial” (purported to be less than 2 per cent of overall revenue at LVMH, for example), why are brand owners dragging their feet in affirmative action? Or, are statements of support and sympathy on social media (momentarily) quite enough, just as influencer apologies on the same platforms for any online/offline faux pas are also, in practice, adequate.

The SOTD anti-war message. Illustration: Just So

This morning, ten days after that fateful morning in Ukraine, news emerged that the bigwigs of French luxury fashion have finally agreed to halting sales in Russia, for now. According to the BBC, “LVMH, Hermès, Kering and Chanel have decided to temporarily shut their shops in Russia”, after Ukranian high-end department stores urged these retailers to “stand up” against their nation’s aggressor. One local fashion executive told the BBC that luxury brands must “choose humanity over monetary gain”. Two days earlier, LVMH announced on IG that they made “a first emergency donation of €5 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross. A day before that, Kering announced on IG that they “will make a significant donation to the UNHCR”. For some perspective, LVMH’s main man Bernard Arnaud donated €200 million to the rebuilding of the Notre Dame Cathedral damaged by fire (no one died) in 2019, while rival Kering’s Francois-Henri Pinault contributed €100 million.

Joining the above companies are Richemont, owner of Cartier, and the Swatch Group, owner of Harry Winston. Cartier, a favourite name in Russia, has not, as far as we are aware, announced a statement about the ongoing war. Have they been too busy with their lawsuit against Tiffany & Co for “stealing trade secrets”, as reported by Reuters four days ago? Concurrently, Cartier has an on-going street installation in Tokyo’s luxury shopping district Omotesando, called The Reflection Garden (top photo). Although no message about the Russo-Ukranian war was seen on site, the call to reflect is a timely one, even when the theme of the exhibition is regrettably named “Love is Red”.