Elsa Klensch, who was a pioneer in bringing fashion to TV screens with her show, “Style With Elsa Klensch,” died Friday at the age of 92 in New York City.
Her show, which was an institution on CNN from 1980 to 2001, featured weekly reports covering the global fashion industry and put designers such as Miuccia Prada, Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerfeld on TV screens. For two decades, Klensch provided video coverage of the runways in New York, London, Milan and Paris and during that time, few had the reach or viewership that she built up over the years. At that time, CNN was delivered to more than 200 million households and it became one of the highest-rated shows of CNN’s weekend programming.
Klensch was born in Sydney and studied journalism at the University of Sydney. She began her career in London in the ’60s, and over the years worked for WWD, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in New York. She joined the Cable News Network in 1980 — “Style With Elsa Klensch” made its debut the same day CNN went on the air — and hosted and produced the program until 2001, which was dedicated solely to fashion news and put fashion trends into context for a mainstream audience. For the first five years, she was the only TV crew at the fashion shows, which completely changed in later years.
In an interview with WWD in 2000, Klensch, a self-proclaimed workhorse, discussed her frenzied schedule, pointing out that she had done five stories every week for 20 years. She said the best part of her job was the designer interviews, and she had interviewed them all from Azzedine Alaïa to Yohji Yamamoto.
Klensch managed to wrangle interviews with Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Martha Graham and Halston for her very first program, and broadcast a Halston runway show. However, she recalled that in the beginning, bringing a bunch of bulky cameras to the show was a tough sell.
“I had to argue about getting space for the crew,” she recalled in the 2000 interview. “We used to have to take up room where the buyers were sitting at the end of the runway. And asking someone to move four chairs was a bit difficult. I was quite well-known, but a lot of designers just didn’t understand what I was doing.”
She said over the years, the reverse became true. “They do rather expect me backstage. To some of them I’m a good luck symbol and if I don’t come backstage before a show, they can become quite upset,” she said in 2000.
Fern Mallis, creator of New York Fashion Week and host of conversation series, “Fashion Icons,” said Saturday, “I’m sorry to hear Elsa Klensch has passed. She was tough but fabulous. I loved her ‘Style With Elsa Klensch’ show and hardly missed one. It still stands as the best TV reportage of fashion and design.
“I think of her often while doing my ‘Fashion Icon’ interviews. When I started at CFDA and was sent on an exploratory trip to Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks to study how they did their shows (research for the tents), Elsa was the most generous person to me and made sure I got into shows I couldn’t get a ticket for. She swept me in with her gang, and I remember an inspiring Thierry Mugler show among others. At the tents, which soon after got built, she could be demanding but her coverage was worth it.
Klensch would travel twice a year to Europe to cover the ready-to-wear collections, as well as cities such as Tokyo, Sydney, Havana and Rio de Janeiro and would also do interior design stories about some of the designers’ beautiful homes. In addition to designers, she would profile hair and makeup artists, jewelers and supermodels, and report on art exhibitions around the globe.
Some of those she worked with said she would definitely fight for them and CNN to get into the shows and get the best vantage points to shoot them. At first, she would demand that she speak to a designer before the show, so her cameramen would know what to shoot at the show, and then it became regular practice. “She was very strong-willed and fought for her team,” said one person who worked with her. Because she wouldn’t critique the show, but was explaining the designer’s work to a global audience, designers welcomed her backstage before the show. Her show developed a cult following and became appointment television every Saturday morning at 10 a.m.
Never controversial, the program always focused on high design, whether it was designer clothes, exotic travel spots or beautiful homes. In 1995, she told WWD that she wanted to see a little more drama on the runway.
“Once Kenzo put on a show in Paris, and he brought horses out onto the runway,” she said. “The editors were complaining that they couldn’t see the clothes, but it was great fun. I think we’re in a down cycle right now compared to the ’80s. There’s nowhere near the same sort of flair and drama. I do like a little bit of drama. I must say. It makes a good show. The worst thing for us is an all-black show in an all-black room.”
Karen Altman, a senior producer for “Style With Elsa Klensch,” said Saturday, “She was a lot of different things — a great mentor and a great woman who had incredible endurance and perseverance. She was a woman who rose in her field and became a pioneer in the world of fashion.” She said Klensch opened up many doors to designers to show their talent and creativity.
“She was really an encyclopedia of the fashion industry and its evolution. She knew all about the fashion houses and had an incredible sense of world history and world politics and all the things that enhanced the show. Under CNN, a news organization, you didn’t get the fluffiness of covering fashion,” said Altman. She noted that Klensch had many different sides and she wasn’t always the easiest person to be with and get along with, “but you had to respect her.
“She was very much well-respected and loved by her team. She was very determined to put out a good product. Designers trusted Elsa, and that was really important. Elsa gave them access to show their creations and have their voices heard,” said Altman.
The success of “Style With Elsa Klensch” brought other cable fashion shows to the scene, including MTV’s “House of Style,” “FTV Fashion Television,” a Canadian-produced show seen on VH-1, and “E! Entertainment’s Fashion File.”
But Klensch never felt the competition was crowding her. “I really feel they’re rather separate from me,” she said in the 1995 interview.
Klensch’s tapes are on view at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When she stepped down from CNN, she told WWD in 2001, “I can confirm I have been asked to leave the network. I want to spend less time traveling, and have more time with my husband [Charles Klensch] and friends….I’m interested in new opportunities.”
In 1987, Klensch was awarded by the Council of Fashion Designers of America for “consistently bringing international fashion to the largest audience in the history of television,” and for consistently “getting the story first and getting it right.” In 1999, she received a second CFDA Award for “career achievement in fashion journalism.
Designers were saddened by the news Saturday.
Having met Klensch early on in her tenure at WWD in the ’60s, Stan Herman said everything changed in her life when she understood that fashion and television “could make a perfect marriage.” Klensch epitomized being “in the right place at the right time with the right answers for the people who were searching,” he said. “She was our first television superstar.”
As “an iconic representation of fashion to the masses,” she had to develop a level of trust with enough designers for them to allow her to go into their houses and show them off as something as more than dressmakers, Herman said. That said, Klensch was not known to be “an easy person. She was a difficult person,” he said. “That kept her in good stead. She knew what she wanted. She was always on top of what she was doing. Her mind was very secure in where she wanted to go with her words for fashion.”
Years ago, when New York Fashion Week was staged in tents in Bryant Park, animal rights activists splattered red paint on Klensch in the front row at a runway show. While escorting her out after the incident, Herman said she could not have been “sweeter.”
“There was a part of her that when push came to shove really had sweetness. But from a business standpoint, that was not easy for her to show,” he said. “When Diana Vreeland and other editors lost their mojo with magazines, Elsa picked it up with television. She’ll be remembered as the person who really planted fashion into the world of television,” Herman said. “I can tell you many people thought of Elsa Klensch when they thought of fashion,” he said.
Diane von Furstenberg said: “I loved her…did not realize she was that old. She was a pioneer in bringing fashion to television with CNN. She was an important fashion journalist.”
Dennis Basso said he connected with Klensch when she RSVP’d to his first runway fashion show in 1983. “I just couldn’t believe that she was coming from CNN. She was interested because I was a brand new company and in my late 20s. We created a friendship from that point on,” he said.
Getting Klensch’s stamp of approval was essential in the fashion industry, especially for young designers, Basso said. However, the show’s premise of democratizing fashion for the masses was “frowned upon by some people,” Basso said. “But in the end it was for the best. In the end, she was a pioneer because that’s what it’s all about. She was really seeing something at the time — the public’s interest in fashion — that no one else saw or only a handful of people saw,” he said.
Klensch understood that “people were interested in the world of fashion and not necessarily designs,“ Basso explained. While people might not care about the rise and fall of hemlines, they were intrigued in the behind-the-scenes coverage of the weekly CNN show, the designer said. “The back-of the-house was just as important to her as the front of the house,” he said.
As a boy growing up in Nepal, Prabal Gurung said watching “Style With Elsa Klensch” each week fostered his interest in fashion and Klensch had a “huge, massive impact” on his life. Klensch was one of the reasons he decided to pursue fashion and become a fashion designer. In Nepal at that time, there was no access to information about designers or role models, he said.Watching her show for the first time — a segment about Yves Saint Laurent and Romeo Gigli — Gurung said he was “completely wide-eyed and fascinated by what he was watching.” Her storytelling, coverage of the shows and designer interviews made him “completely smitten, blown away and hooked,” he said. “That’s when the bug of fashion got to me.”
Gurung said he still references Klensch in his New York studio. Her show piqued his curiosity in fashion magazines and learning more. Growing up in a place where “fashion did not exist,” Gurung said the show made him feel seen.
“As a gay kid in Nepal, I constantly felt alone and couldn’t find my tribe or my people. That show gave me a beacon of hope that there is a community that feels about fashion or art the way I do. It really gave me hope and put the bug in me to leave Nepal. I didn’t know if I was going to New York or where, but I knew I had to get out of Nepal to pursue my dream,” Gurung said.
After leaving CNN in early 2001, Klensch started writing again and created a monthly jewelry column for Gem.net and wrote articles for Elle Decor, House Beautiful and Architectural Digest. She also began writing novels in a deal with Forge Books, a division of the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, who signed her to write a series of four mystery novels featuring TV news producer Sonya Iverson as an amateur sleuth. Her first one, “Live at 10:00, Dead at 10:15,” was published in 2004, followed by “Shooting Script” in 2005, “Take Two,” in 2007, and “The Third Sin,” in 2014.
“I can’t say every character is a touch of somebody on Seventh Avenue, but they are blends of characters,” Klensch told WWD in 2004.