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FASHION ON TV

by Cary O'Dell

Though the world of fashion remains a glamorous (and very lucrative) endeavor, it’s hard not to look back on the late 1990s and early “aughts,” as a sort of heyday. It was, after all, the era of the supermodel (Linda! Naomi! Christy! Cindy!); of “Vogue” and a suddenly resurgent “Harper’s Bazaar” battling it out on the newsstands; of Versace and Lagerfeld both still living and at the top of their games; of Galliano at Dior; of McQueen shocking everyone; of various famous designers like Calvin Klein and Donna Karan still in charge of their own namesake brands, and of such top-tier arbiters as Hilary Alexander, Andre Leon Talley, and Suzy Menkes always making—and giving—good copy.

One of the ways that fashion was especially alive at that time though was via TV’s sudden interest in it.

Not that talk shows and the like had never noticed high fashion before. It had long been a popular topic on the airwaves dating all the way back to the days of short, 15-minute shows hosted by the likes of Ilka Chase, Arlene Francis and others that appeared on the aire in the late 1940s and early 50s. But a full-on focus on the actual world of haute couture and its many offshoots (the modeling industry, high-end photography, read-to-wear, et.al.) was new and came to widespread audiences for the first time via a handful of flashy, snazzy half-hour shows that began in the 1980s and reached their zenith a few years later.

Interestingly, conveniently, almost all of these shows were, at one time, being aired on weekend mornings where the would-be dedicated follower of fashion could tune in provided they had not stayed too late the night before at “da club” and, you know, got the basic cable channels of CNN, E! and VH1. Before the days of “on demand” viewing, this was just about the only way for future influencers to get their weekly “fashion fix.”

Of course, in the beginning there was Elsa Klensch, the elegant host of CNN’s weekly “Style with Elsa Klensch” where the accented hostess focused TV’s first national, all-news channel on, as she always said, “the worlds of fashion, beauty and decorating.” The Australian-born Klensch began in journalism in 1958, moved into fashion journalism in 1966 and into TV in 1978. She joined the nascent CNN cable channel in 1980 specifically to cover clothes and other decorative arts. Her short, taped segments were shown throughout the week on the news channel and then bundled together into one half hour for showing under the title of “Style” on the weekends.

 

Thanks to Klensch’s reputation within the industry, her own journalistic “cred” and CNN’s gravitas, Klensch and her program was able to get excellent access to the sometimes insular world of high fashion. Also working in her and her show’s favor was her show’s strict focus on the clothes, always free of gossip and sensationalism. One magazine noted of her approach, “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.”

“Style” became an institution. It ran on CNN for two decades (1980 to 2000). When Klensch voluntarily retired, CNN took her stepping down as a chance to refocus itself on “hard” news. At the time of her abdication, Klensch was celebrated by “The New Yorker” as the woman who took fashion “global.”

Five years after “Style” launched, “Fashion TV” (often known more simply as “FTV”), with its intrepid host Jeanne Beker, began.

Begun in Canada, “FTV” was a product of Citytv, one of up north’s national TV networks. Beker was a Canadian actress and mime artist who began working in on-air music journalism in 1979 and then moved up to be a regular correspondent for Canada’s version of “Entertainment Tonight.”

According to her 2000 memoir, “Jeanne Unbottled: A Life in Fashion,” when Denis Fitzgerald, station manager of Citytv, brought up the idea of a fashion-centered show, Beker jumped at the chance to host the pilot. She said, “Denis, you’ve got to give me a crack at hosting that show. I’d be perfect. I may not be a model, but I could bring so much more to it. Please.”

Beker would host “FTV” for its full lifespan—27 years! And she became the show’s greatest asset by being down-to-earth and making fashion surprisingly approachable.

“FTV’s” first show featured videos from a recent Ralph Lauren runway presentation, Beker’s interview with acclaimed photographer Francesco Scavullo, and a clip from a brand new, but kind of odd, musical titled “Cats.”

“FTV” always believed in casting its net wide and beyond the runway, regularly doing stories on top fashion models, stylists, magazine editors and other aspects of the culture, both high and low. One fun report was a visit to museum devoted exclusively to bad art. Another had Beker taking notoriously opinionated NY theatre critic John Simon to New York Fashion Week and asking him for his completely honest assessment of everything he saw.

While certainly in love with the world of fashion, “FTV” was never shy about reporting on some of the industry’s foibles and follies including Naomi Campbell’s legendary diva behavior or on the controversy surrounding a flopped collection from Claude Montana, which largely ended his career.

American audiences discovered “FTV” via VH1. The sometime music channel aired “FTV” for many years before the program got bounced over to E!

When “FTV” came to an end in 2012, it was nearly a cause for national mourning for our neighbors to the north. Some Canuck viewers said that canceling it was like canceling hockey night!

The year after “FTV’s” last broadcast, host Beker received the Special Academy Achievement Award from the Canadian Academy of Cinema and Television for Lifetime Achievement.

Hot on “FTV’s” (very high) heels, was the launch of “Fashion File” with its most notable, long-serving host being the debonair Tim Blanks. It, too, was a Canadian import, the product of CBC, another up-north network and it, too, later found a US home over E!. Like “FTV,” “File” was far less formal than CNN’s “Style,” but still had excellent access to all the big annual fashion shows and wasn’t afraid to report on the news behind the collections and larger industry trends like the first rumblings of Thierry Mugler being pushed out of his own design firm in the early 2000’s.

Blanks ably hosted the show until he left in 2006 (to run the website The Business of Fashion). He was replaced—after an on-air talent hunt/reality show—by Adrian Mainella. She hosted until the show ceased production in 2009.

Of course, never one to miss a trend, MTV jumped into the TV-fashion fray in 1989 when it launched its show “House of Style.”

Hosted by certified supermodel Cindy Crawford, “House” was a hit thanks to its ability to attract both female and male viewers; Crawford had recently been seen in a pictorial in “Playboy.” While “House” certainly had its share of fluff—Duran Duran go at Sears!--sometimes the show got serious, for example a look at Lucy Grealy’s powerful 1994 memoir “Autobiography of a Face.”

After Crawford left the program in 1995, “House” got remodeled with two new hosts, fellow supermodels Amber Valletta and Shalom Harlow. They handled the show until 2000. Later, “House” became only the occasional special with names like Bar Rafaeli and lady rapper Iggy Azalea taking on the hosting duties.

The hunger for on-air fashion became so strong for a time it eventually lead to the launching of its very own network. A spin-off of E!, the Style Network existed from 1998 to 2013, though near its end it was mainly the home to reruns of “Super Nanny.”

Over the years, there have been a few other fashion-oriented shows. In the 1980s, USA aired a weekly, half-hour show titled “YOU: Magazine for Women” hosted by one-time “Mademoiselle” editor-in-chief Edie Locke. And there was “VideoFashion,” that was on E! (and usually paired with “Fashion File”) during the 1990s and 2000s.

For a time, E! kept the style parade going. But with the end of E!’s “Fashion Police” (largely ceased after the unexpected passing of Joan Rivers in 2014), Fashion (fashion with a capital “F”) largely departed from the airwaves.

But, today, the would-be fashionista can turn to Youtube and, of course, the web, to get their style tips and their runway itch scratched.

But this might change sometime—after all, the only thing that changes faster than fashion is TV tastes.

 

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