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Sitting Pretty : For years, Elsa Klensch ruled TV fashion. Now she's got some competition. Is she worried? Not a chance.

August 06, 1993|KATE STAPLES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — It's been more than 13 years since Elsa Klensch and CNN first lit up television airwaves with "Style," a weekly show that covered the "design worlds of fashion, beauty and decorating."

At the time, it was as revolutionary as the network itself--as if Vogue magazine had suddenly become animated, playing out all its glossy drama in America's living rooms.

For most of those 13 years, Klensch was the TV viewer's only comprehensive link to those often rarefied worlds. Morning news programs dabbled with fashion segments and evening tabloid shows aired the occasional expose, but it wasn't until MTV's "House of Style" opened its doors four years ago that Klensch had real competition.

Now, the bandwagon is filling up with comers anxious to muscle in on the growing spotlight: VH-1, QVC, Fox Broadcasting, E-Entertainment Television.

You might think the prospect of Elsa wanna-bes would ruffle Klensch's composed feathers but, contemplating the idea, she is as serene as her on-screen image. "Our show is so different from any of those others because it's news, news, news. We appeal to people who want to know what's going on--we pick only the designers who are most creative or have something to say and we get their point of view across."

As a public relations vehicle, designers couldn't ask for a better forum. Their collections are presented exactly as they intended, editorialized only by their running commentary and Klensch's gentle questioning, and broadcast to millions of prospective customers.

"Designers used to scramble for coverage in the fashion magazines," says Alan Millstein, editor and publisher of Fashion Network Report, an industry newsletter. "Now they would walk on coals to get on Elsa."

Klensch's critics say that too many designer viewpoints and the predictable five segments per show--traditionally three runway pieces, one decorating and a beauty or accessories spot--have made "Style's" tried-and-true format just plain tired.

But it is CNN's format, and Klensch has little choice but to work within its guidelines.

"We can't change CNN," she says. "But we do try to change the pieces as much as we can. When accessories became important, we did more spots on them; we just did a story on how the color black has affected abstract art. We try to make it as glamorous and upbeat as we can," says Klensch, who is in her 50s.

The show's magazine-like composition was derived directly from her background. For 22 years, she worked as an editor or reporter at W, Women's Wear Daily, Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, and when CNN approached her in 1979 with the idea of a fashion/news blend, she says her first inclination was to translate the glossy monthly format into glossy television. But it wasn't quite that easy.

"No matter what anyone says, magazines and television are worlds apart," says Klensch, adding she had a tough time making the transition. "You really have to be there and listen to the tapes, see the shows, find the right angles. Not to mention getting good quotes from the designers. But once I was into it, I said, 'This is the wave of the future.' "

Its impact is undeniable. Donna Karan credits Klensch and her show not only with introducing American fashion to Europe, but with establishing a unit among the international fashion elite--and inviting casual observers to the party.

"It's everywhere you go, whatever country, all over the world," Karan says.

The Australian-born Klensch--who lives in mid-town Manhattan with her husband, Charles, a retired businessman--admits to being stunned when she was asked to sign autographs at the Great Wall of China.

The polite response afforded that perfectly coiffed head and conservatively suited frame are a far cry from the screaming adoration elicited by fans of Klensch's main TV rival, Cindy Crawford over at MTV's "House of Style." But as much as people try to compare and contrast the shows, they are completely different entities, says Alisa Bellettini, producer of "House of Style."

"We're MTV. We do stories on rock stars and how they dress. We don't cover couture. Elsa does a much more straightforward news show."

CNN took its own stab at a sexier image last fall with a Christie Brinkley-hosted style show, but her wooden presentation made it a well-publicized flop, which left both sides bitter.

" 'House of Style' is designed for the MTV audience and is cut like a music video and 'Style' takes itself much more seriously than we do," says FT-Fashion Television's host, Jeanne Beker. "We try to concentrate on features that have longevity to them."

Ratings for the shows are unavailable, but "Style" boasts about 2 million viewers a show and "House of Style's" audience is reported to be in excess of 4 million.

Both Klensch and Bellettini are convinced that there is plenty of room on the airwaves for more style-related shows. "People are interested in fashion," says Bellettini. "The American woman likes to be told what to wear and television is almost better than magazines at that because of the immediacy of it. As long as everyone goes for a different audience, I'd welcome more shows."

"There are obviously huge advantages to television over print, and I'm somewhat surprised that there hasn't been more interest before now," says Klensch. "If there is suddenly a huge rush to start new shows, then good--as long as it improves the quality of life, I'm all for it."

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