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 Prêt–à–Porter, 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.