Saturday Mornings with CNN Style’s Elsa Klensch
It was the 90’s and Supermodels reigned supreme. Coined The Trinity, The Big Five and then the Big Six (to welcome Kate Moss), they wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000. When industry domination wasn’t enough for these leggy clothes horses, the one-named wonders began to squabble publicly over the “Original Supermodels” title. They were the faces of a generation. Bombshell alert: I wasn’t one of them.
But I did worship style. Every Saturday morning, I sat on the faded hardwood floor of my Chicago apartment watching CNN’s Style with Elsa Klensch, taking notes as if there’d be a quiz post-show. A born perfectionist with a fashion fixation since in utero, it’s no coincidence that my blood type is A+. There’s no doubt I would have aced the test; what I was failing in love with was glamour. While the supermodels I adored wouldn’t budge without their bankroll, my ancient television required pliers to change channels and its antennae wore an aluminum foil headdress. I was broke. I worked in advertising, where the culture was more playground than corporation. The more fun the agency, the less you were paid.
What I lacked in designer goods, however, I made up for in grooming, ironed clothes and polished shoes. I was the only girl I knew with starched Gap khakis. I lived in Biore Pore Strips. I didn’t branch out from my inexpensive mainstays: uninspiring trousers and blazers from The Gap and Banana Republic. These bland brands suited my Account Executive agency job, until sales for Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album escalated. When Grunge took a chokehold over style, I added thrift store Levi’s into the mix. The denim on heavy rotation was slightly cropped and had a remarkable imprinted circle on the back, right pocket thanks to the previous owner’s fierce Skoal® habit. I also succumbed to floral dresses from Anthropologie — which, at the time, felt more refined than Urban Outfitters — and wore dark lipstick from Mac Cosmetics. No lip liner, thanks. But it was the lace-up Doc Marten boots that I most adored. Before long, I was wearing them with wide-leg trousers and under bridesmaid’s gowns; fitting, as I was in my late 20’s and everyone but me was getting married. I, on the other hand, was committed to figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up. When the era of grunge ended, I was honestly relieved. Beyond slovenly, it was not a good look on my just over five-foot frame. Doc Martens, however, became a forever shoe — and still sit pristinely patinaed in my closet today.
Elsa garnered a devoted following, and I was one of her unwavering subjects. Every weekend, her in-depth profiles of design legends, as well as up-and-comers like Todd Oldham, Patrick Robinson and Helmut Lang, were delivered from on-high, all in a darling yet raspy Australian accent. Having started her career with Vogue and other fashion titles, Elsa Klensch sported fashion editor hair: the trademark bob and bangs that have long since become synonymous with the world’s most (in)famous Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour. Despite my fashion aspirations, I planned to preserve my Sarah Jessica Parker (AKA Robert Downey Jr’s girlfriend), long curly hair.
I was front and center from the start of each Style episode, regardless of what time I went to sleep on Friday night. I hated to miss the runway montages blended with classical music that kicked off each half-hour of fantasy Elsa streamed into my living room. Her show propelled me to imagine a life in New York City, working in fashion. She was considered the “Grand Dame,” having invented fashion television, whereas I, at age 28, had only succeeded in creating a system for keeping college t-shirts in order of date received — Spring Fling 1989 never sat in its neat, Gap-style folding stack above 1990 Winter Formal.
I’d Loved Fashion Since in Utero
Decades before I could be found lovingly stacking my t-shirts in chronological order, I had a penchant for clothing design. My mother claims my fascination was obsessive.
I loved getting dressed in the morning, and often changed mid-day on weekends.
There was a jumper that had to be worn for school pictures. Two years in a row. To ensure visual differentiation, the second time around I accessorized with a new fire engine red pussy bow blouse.
I cuffed my denim pants for several seasons. I called my clothes “my wardrobe” before I really knew what that meant. I had heard an older friend of my mother’s say that, and thought it sounded sophisticated.
I wore orange trousers habitually one summer. I was a walking Clementine, my citrus legs snugly fitted in high waters à la Thom Browne’s designs decades later. A swim team friend sang, “…and a bright orange pair of pants” (from Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock n’ Roll to Me”) each time she glanced my way.
It was important for me to stand out from the Garanimals crowd. The Preppy Handbook was my Bible when it was released in 1980, but I strove to distinguish myself from the Middle School Muffy’s, as I found head-to-toe pink and green gauche. I longed for button-downs in neutral tones, Add-a-Bead necklaces and a Bermuda Bag without the overt Nantucket patterns.
My favorite store was called “Daddy’s Money,” yet it was so high-priced I could never afford it, no matter how many hours of babysitting I accrued, or how much I begged my father. I would walk through and finger the Dean’s sweaters, imagining what it would be like to wear the fair isle wool. Despite my commitment to prep, and popping my collars, a more monochromatic color scheme spoke to me, even as a 12-year old. I had never heard the word minimalism before, but believe it was my innate style. Of course, I still bought the colorful string barrettes friends made and sold. I was charitable, and I needed to fit in. I wanted an identity through what I wore, but not at the risk of being an outcast.
Given my childhood fascination, I was born to watch Elsa weekly. Her Saturday morning runway shows were the ultimate escape for me—especially those by designers like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein who created empires not based on fabric but dreams.
I didn’t need to live in Ralph’s Montauk home to feel less trapped by my 500-square foot apartment, riddled with a dorm size, under-the-counter refrigerator, but seeing it — the compound previously owned by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, in all its pristine white — was enough to thrust me into the dream of a new life.
I knew I had a calling but was still watching ample Oprah to get enough courage to take a leap. She swore her inner voice, and subsequently following her intuition, led to success. “Every day, your life is speaking to you, telling you exactly where you should be going,” Oprah would assert on my VCR recordings. My own inner voice was more of a faint whisper; my intuition had been trained from an early age to use an indoor voice.
I learned through Elsa that designers also feel the runway is an escape, an outlet to reveal their art. Despite enormous pressure to sell clothes, they often send unwearable, sculptural pieces that will never get produced but showcase their talents down the catwalk.
In the best of circumstances, these displays of creativity are not so technical that they can’t get morphed into something that can actually go into a Macy’s. Or worn by a Kardashian. Because it’s all about a sale and good press.
I adored the way Elsa balanced her reveling of art and commerce, treating designers with the respect they deserved. Having gone off the air in 2001, she missed the awkward debacle of “front row casting” — where who was in the audience became more important than the fashion itself. And don’t even get me started on celebs who sat courtside for shows and then later could not find it in themselves to wear underwear when being photographed getting out of cars. It was a low chapter in fashion history.
Most Saturdays, I was clad in Gap pajama bottoms and a white men’s shirt with rolled cuffs and popped collar, a look I stole from Carolina Herrera. I could never afford her brand but admired her immensely. She gave me hope. Because she didn’t launch a fashion career until after age 40, I still had time. To find myself. To make my dreams a reality. Despite the expensive collection sent down the runway, she wore a uniform of a white shirt with a popped collar. And that I could afford.
“You Don’t Think You’re Going To Be A Model, Do You?”
While immersed in Elsa’s recounting of Ralph Lauren’s 1997 Fall show, which opened with a white deep cut men’s shirt before leading into peasant looks, my boyfriend wandered into my apartment. Brian, an art director I’d met at my advertising agency job, knew more about the making of claymation movies than he did about relationships, but he was adorable and made me laugh. It was just what I needed. With one shoe (my Doc Marten) in my 20’s and the other (a Steve Madden kitten heel) tiptoeing into my 30’s, I was currently paralyzed. I did not feel like an adult yet nor had I made significant inroads to what I wanted to be when I grew up. A fun, lighthearted relationship helped derail the mounting pressure of proceeding on my lifelong journey.
After a quick peck so as not to disturb my concentration, Brian’s cheek grazed my starched collar as he peeked into my notebook. I proudly showcased my Helvetica-like handwriting meticulously lining the blank pages. He found my OCD charming; it was still early in the relationship.
“Do you iron those shirts yourself?” he once asked, realizing how often I wore a white men’s shirt. I could only smile. I wasn’t ready to let on how much joy ironing brought me, how cathartic it felt to have the rising steam hit my face, or confess that I went out of my way to get lavender-scented spray starch.
But that day, instead of asking questions about Elsa’s interview or finding my fashion research habit charming, he looked at my notes, looked at me, then said, “You don’t think you’re going to be a model, do you?”
Silence eroded the already diminutive living room. Even Elsa’s oration about Lauren’s genius muted. Perpetually loquacious me was rendered speechless. But this was the opposite of a mic drop. There was no triumph here. We were supposed to be in the honeymoon phase of dating, having been together a few short months, when you adore each other exactly as you are. Before someone stops putting the seat down or refilling the ice trays.
We were creative kindred spirits, I thought, finding each other’s habits — my writing and his drawing — admirable and sweet. Just the weekend before, we’d bicycled north of the city limits to spend hours laying on Northwestern University campus’ plush green lawn. While lingering in each other’s presence, discussing books, movies and talking ad nauseam about ad campaigns from our world-renowned advertising agency where we met, I felt a shift. Amongst the spread of Snapples and tuna fish sandwiches, I thought I could talk to him about anything. We were more than spending time together; we were forging a future.
Where a week ago I had felt seen and happy, I now felt judged. And clearly misunderstood. As if standing just over five feet tall on the most positive of posture days was not enough of an indicator, having read the past 144 issues of Glamour, W and Vogue (among other fashion titles) taught me more than 50+ ways to tie a scarf and the true purpose of skincare toner.
I had a clear takeaway that I was not model material. Not even strip-mall, JC Penney winter coat modeling. Being blessed — or cursed, depending on the angle— with Barbra Streisand’s nose didn’t help matters. In fact, I was already one and a half rhinoplasties in, and seeking out a new surgeon. I was cute at best. “I am many things,” I thought to myself, “but a wannabe model is not one of them.” I was floored by his crassness and hurt by the way he mocked me, as if I was not allowed to have dreams outside of the advertising world he cherished.
Not understanding my silent treatment, Brian plopped onto the floor and began flipping through the thin January issues of Vogue, Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines. There had to be an article in one of those about dating an asshole boyfriend, but it was too late for him, and he probably wouldn’t have taken the hint anyway.
With my hand shaking from frustration, I clutched the pliers to turn off the TV before taking a deep breath. I had watched enough Oprah — and have a phenomenal, headstrong mother who raised me well — to know that to be loved, you have to be known. Fully. I may have been immature, but I had developed enough to know that being honest about who you really are is the only way to true intimacy. I knew then that this was just an affair, not a love affair. This wasn’t about modeling clothes. It was about being naked. Being who I am. Or rather, who I was dreaming to become. I had no idea at that moment if my dreams would become a reality, but I adamantly believed I deserved someone by my side who would not shut them down before I could even try. Better yet, I deserved someone who cheered me on as I took on the challenge.
Until then, Brian had been a lot like a wardrobe staple I was donning daily: the slipdress. They were both easygoing, forgiving of flaws and worked well with my lifestyle. It wasn’t Elsa’s 1990 interview with a young Anna Wintour, replete with a cropped bob yet shorn of her signature glasses that sold me on the slipdress. Anna’s comment, “The whole concept of innerwear as outwear is revolutionizing” paralleled the views of every designer of the era.
It was my utter infatuation with Calvin Klein publicist Carolyn Bassette Kennedy, who was said to be the most famous slipdress advocate of the era, according to fashion industry icon and former Vogue Paris Editor-In-Chief Carine Roitfield. Carolyn proved the garment was more prude than provocative, a clean slate to showcase her individuality as she wore them pared back and with understated accessories like her “power headband.”
Likewise, I felt my knee-length black bias-cut slipdresses were a canvas for my budding personality—worn everywhere and with everything neutral, from cardigans and pullovers to men’s shirts tied at the waist and blazers. Unlike Carolyn, I owned a limited amount of apparel, had no expendable income and often waitressed on weekends in the same clothes I wore to work at the ad agency. She may have been of great interest to the public and paparazzi, thanks in part to her incredible style, but I was the best dressed bar waitress in Lincoln Park at the time.
With the model inquisition still hanging in the air, Brian had begun to lose his luster. He had no idea how much his words hurt, and as I sat staring at the chipped paint on my ceiling’s crown molding, I knew I had a choice. I could learn from this moment — which was not just humiliating but also illuminating — and end the relationship in order to find a partner, not just a coworker-turned-companion. Or I could speak up and try to move the relationship forward with honesty.
Tugging at my cuffs, I knew that I was in part to blame as I had not shared enough of my true self. And I knew I had big dreams that did not include him. Like the obvious cracks appearing through the spackled white walls of my Old Town apartment, I could now see this relationship for what it was. A fun trend. I had not watched all of the 40,000 fashion shows Elsa covered but had learned when she said, “Real luxury is beauty and love.” The inevitable breakup happened one week later, the day after Halloween. He was a fantastic art director after all, and I wanted a spectacular pumpkin carving.
A Calvin Klein Executive On The Rise
Years later, I was clicking along the anthracite concrete floors in the current season’s five-inch heels to meet the Calvin Klein women’s wear accessories designer on the third floor. Dark grey suede with a minimal t-strap that buckled around my bare ankle, they were no Doc Marten’s but were relatively comfortable and easy to maneuver through the office. I had shimmied out of characterless slipdresses long ago and into fitted trousers and cashmere crewneck sweaters — all Calvin, all black. I’ve read that color psychologists believe people who wear all black are “subconsciously trying to protect themselves from feelings they think they can’t control.” In addition to being slightly neurotic, they also choose monochromatic colors to “deflect what we look like in favor of who we are and what we are trying to accomplish in life.” Busted.
Brian came to mind that day, as I breezed past the single orchid positioned squarely on the lobby’s stainless-steel table, the crisp white walls that were repainted weekly and a lineup of lithe models buried in their books and blackberries. We were casting for the Fall shows. The girls looked so young and incredibly bored. I wondered if they’d ever had a boyfriend challenge their modeling pursuits. Or on the flip side, if their boyfriends had ever caught them taking notes while watching CNN and asked, “You don’t think you’re going to be a writer, do you?” When I finally pressed “down” on the sleek Calvin Klein elevator, I thought to myself — my inner voice now prominent and clear — Thank God Elsa’s voice was there to drown out Brian’s on that day all those years ago. I was no model, but I had arrived. And I had only just begun.