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Style savvy: How to look good

TV’s first style guru Caryn Franklin tells us why bringing back the eighties is about more than leggings and lamé

The current crop of fashion media darlings owe a lot to industry grande dame, Caryn Franklin.

Long before Gok et al cut their styling teeth, Caryn was bringing high fashion to the masses and showcasing the best of up-and-coming designers on prime time TV. She’s been at the cutting edge of British style for over 25 years – most famously fronting The Clothes Show – and with her trademark streak of silver hair is a bona fide fashion icon.

But despite her dauntingly super-chic credentials, in person Caryn is disarming, friendly and funny, too. On the day of our interviewher look is perfectly groomed and understated – all beautifully cut blacks and dark neutrals in a mix of textures. Her home is, as you’d expect, stunningly decorated, but in an inviting, lived-in way – think floor to ceiling bookshelves and copious cushions. She’s easy to chat to, and were it not for her illuminating insights into how fashion and fashion media have changed over the last twenty years, it would be easy to forget what a big deal she is in the industry.

Stylish beginnings
Caryn earned her fashion stripes at legendary cool bible, i-D magazine, after training in graphic design at Central St Martins. ‘I’d always been interested in fashion and had opinions about it,’ she says. ‘As a graphic designer I was always in the fashion department so I went to i-D to try and do more of the same but at street level. I was there for six years and just loved it. I loved the experience, the excitement and it wasn’t really like a proper job. It was all about finding out what my friends were doing – who’d all gone on to be known designers – and going to clubs, reporting on what people were wearing. That was my start really.’

But how did she make the move into TV? ‘Well what was interesting was that around the time of the early eighties London was a real hotbed for creativity,’ says Caryn. ‘So we had lots of journalists – Japanese journalists, American journalists going: “London fashion, it’s obviously a happening thing you know all about it – tell us.” On television we had programmes like The Tube, South of Watford and Juice that were all asking me to recommend young designers or come and talk to them about design. Then The Clothes Show started on the BBC and I was asked to do it.

It was much more mainstream than the other shows and we decided it would be great for me to do it so I could promote i-D. I did both for two years before making the choice to move over. By that point I thought I was really ancient and that at 28 I should be doing a proper job. But I also had a much more pressing need – my daughter’s father, who I was with, had been diagnosed with MS and needed a lot of treatment. i-D wasn’t a job that I was in for the money and the BBC offered an opportunity to earn more money to spend on Harley Street treatment.’

Runaway success
The show went on to become a TV phenomenon and national institution, spawning the Clothes Show Live and inspiring a generation of wannabe fashionistas. But Caryn never imagined it would be such a success. ‘I had no idea what I was actually getting into,’ she says. ‘It was a big culture shock for me because I’d gone from a very underground world in a sort of cult magazine into massive corporate culture and being recognised in the street. Remember there were only four channels back then and fashion on TV in a mainstream way was big news.’

The transition wasn’t all plain sailing for Caryn. ‘I was a journalist not a presenter,’ she says, ‘and I kept thinking where’s the entertaining lessons, where’s the presenting tips? It was a baptism by fire, but what I realised was that I just really loved people. I loved the interaction with women all over the country that you just don’t get working in a magazine. The fashion industry generally doesn’t get that either – designers are in their own little world, designing for quite a controlled environment, for models who have bodies that fit into the clothes they design. And the catwalk itself is a dangerous place for clothes because you don’t run for a bus, you don’t hail a cab, you don’t even sit down. Clothes take on a kind of art form rather than a realistic space and in a way on The Clothes Show we were moving right out of that space and taking fashion into the mainstream world.’

Looking back
Most of the eighties and early nineties were the heyday of aspirational fashion and this was reflected in the positive messages put out by the media – women really could have it all. But, as Caryn laments, this has changed in recent years. ‘The relationship between media and fashion has changed a lot and in doing so it has, I think, had quite a damaging effect for women,’ she says. ‘The media now uses the fashion industry to brighten up the crime statistics. Pictures from the catwalk used to be trade images and only very occasionally would something leak out into the mainstream. Now we are shown images all the time of young, thin women on the catwalk, and women have incorporated that as a feminine ideal and a prescription from the fashion industry.

‘We now have the situation where the imagery that’s coming out of the fashion industry is not adjusted to the fact that everybody’s looking at it,’ she continues. ‘Young women are looking at it and measuring themselves against it. Added to that we have a gazillion fashion magazines all dedicated to getting the right look – and the assumption behind that is that there’s a wrong way of doing it. When I started in fashion, it was all about being your own personal stylist – just enjoying it. We all made our own clothes because there wasn’t the high street in the way there is now. We had fun and we didn’t feel judged, whereas now women feel judged at every turn because we have a media that assesses and values them only in terms of their appearance. For me, that’s gone horribly wrong.

‘Celebrity women in some ways have provided a slightly more realistic and slightly more varied approach to wearing the look. Models look very clone like these days. In the old days we had Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford – a kind of ripe womanhood that was about personality. But now there’s a culture of very anonymous women and you don’t really engage with them. Celebrities can offer up a little bit more personality and a lot more story. But what seems to happen is that celeb women – who feel judged themselves because the media is saying look at her cellulite, look at those lumps and bumps – start squeezing themselves into an idealised look in order to wear the clothes.

‘We’ve seen lots of celebrities – I’m not going to name names because it’s not about persecuting those women – who’ve hit the limelight and lost weight in order to do the designer look. And for me that’s part of our media’s attack on women. The whole thing is not what I envisaged when I began in the eighties against a backdrop of post-feminism. Fashion then was about expressing who you were and having fun on your way to a life full of achieving things, and the achieving aspect has just disappeared completely. The only reason we see women in the media now is to be critical of their appearance, and I just tear my hair out.’

Winds of change
But what about Agyness Deyn, Daisy Lowe and the rest of the new wave of models who are eschewing catwalk-drone anonymity in clashing colours and mismatched outfits that shouldn’t work but do? ‘The fashion industry on the whole is really embracing the eighties,’ says Caryn, ‘and this autumn/winter we can look at a catwalk full of designs in the spirit of that decade. If some of that eighties attitude comes with it, then I’m over the moon. The irreverence, the I am an individual, the I’m not going to conform attitude that a lot of women back then held. I thought that we would all progress from there and that as women we would enjoy complete equality, but instead it’s regressed. So if some of that attitude could come back I think it would be fantastic.’

Does Caryn hold out any hope for a better relationship between fashion and the media? ‘I would just say replace most tabloid editors and magazine editors with editors of intelligence. The problem that we have is that it’s all about how much you sell because it’s all about how much advertising you can bring in, and advertisers only care about your sales. So stories of Kylie Devastated Shock Weightloss sell so much more than Kylie Very Happy, and we as the consumer engage in that – we’re responsible. We’re part of that process, so we get the media we deserve because we encourage them to do more by buying it.’

Education, education, education
Caryn believes that to break this vicious cycle it’s important to target young women. ‘The answer might be to educate our girls as early as primary school about body confidence and also media sassiness,’ she says. ‘I’ve done talks in schools to teenagers and I’ve exposed the way the media works and talked about all the smoke and mirrors, all the airbrushing that goes on. And I’ve seen what I consider to be media savvy teenagers kind of go, “really? Does that really happen? You mean we’re not being told the truth?” And it’s across the board, I mean how do teenagers stand a chance if grown women don’t stand a chance when it comes to things like beauty advertising.’

So is it the duty of media to take responsibility over the messages they’re perpetuating? ‘As a journalist it is my duty to be factually correct,’ says Caryn. ‘But I don’t think that a lot of journalists even think that’s part of the job.

It’s also important to have an agenda, to push things, to actually be thought provoking. But we come back to corporate culture which says sell, make profits and you’ll be rewarded for that only. That’s capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t have any other agenda than expansion.’

Caryn regards the current cult of disposable fashion as a natural extension of this profit-centred society. ‘I’m ambassador of the Centre of Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion and in fact it was my suggestion that it should be in place,’ she says. ‘As educators, I believe we should be giving the next generation of designers the tools and understanding to practise sustainable fashion. I don’t want anyone to lose their home or to suffer, but this whole recession has stopped the fashion industry in its tracks and said this fast turnover sell, sell, sell is really not working. It’s not working for the planet and I don’t think women are happy with cheap and fast – there’s just no gratification in that. The end process of fast fashion is landfill. A garment can go from design to landfill within a matter of months but it’s in landfill for hundreds and hundreds of years. When we as consumers buy it we’re part of the process as well.’

Besides her presenting, and work in education, Caryn has a hugely successful website which advises women on dressing for their body shape ‘Fashion magazines front trends,’ she explains. ‘I don’t talk in terms of must-haves. There’s a whole lot of fashion babble that I just don’t enter into. What I really wanted to do was create a site where women can have their fashion queries answered. I’m often asked questions in the street – curvy women might want to know where to find a wide fit shoe, or a bra that’s an HH cup fitting. In the end, I couldn’t hold all the information in my head any longer so the site started off as a directory. Then we’d have women asking advice and instead of repeating the same things over and over, I put it all in an ebook. I love the format because we’re not talking about print using paper or ink, we encourage women who buy one just to keep it on their laptop, we can get it to someone the other side of the world without any postage costs. It wasn’t a big drive to do something worthy it just sort of built quite nicely.’

And then there’s Caryn’s charity work. ‘I’m doing an event called All Walks Beyond The Catwalk,’ she says. ‘It’s a high end event in which we’re matching cutting-edge designers with women who have a variety of body shapes – all models – so that we can get them to make really high quality fashion for women who aren’t just young, thin and tall. It allows us all to see that a 65-year-old women – Valerie, one of our models – looks sensational in a really edgy piece of design. The age of our models ranges from 17-65, sizes from 8-16 and obviously we have racial diversity in that. It’s going to happen during London Fashion Week so it’s effectively a trade event, but in the same way that all the catwalk footage comes out and everyone sees it, we want this to come out in the media so that we’re expanding on the imagery that’s around.

‘The event’s endorsed by the British Fashion Council and it’s inspired by Beat, the eating disorders association with whom I’ve worked over the years. I’ve always given them my support. I think that as someone who’s at the height of the fashion industry it’s really important that they can get to me and ask questions, and that I can reach them. They’ve educated me, I’ve educated them – we are in many ways working to the same end. I’m not in conflict with them and they also recognise that the fashion industry is not directly responsible for anorexia and bulimia but that it is a huge influence on what women think of their bodies. In terms of being an educator, I want students working in the fashion industry to take that on board – to understand the influence that they have when they are designing.’

Personal taste
Caryn has inspired women from all walks of life for years but who is her own ultimate fashion icon? ‘Vivienne Westwood,’ she says without hestitation. ‘I’ve always loved her since the punk days. She’s an individual, she doesn’t really tow that corporate look or speak that fashion speak. What she creates has longevity – I’ve got lots of Vivienne Westwood stuff that I bought when I was a student in sales because I couldn’t afford it and it’s really stood the test of time. Her clothes are so classic that you buy it and you know you’ve got it for a long time. She’s just a great maverick spirit.’

But it seems that as much as fashion is an integral part of Caryn’s life, she’s equally at home throwing on old clothes and getting her hands dirty in the garden. ‘I have a house in the country and I know my neighbours there are desperately disappointed with me because I’m always dressed in daggy old clothes, doing the garden or relaxing with my family,’ she says. Mum of two – Mateda, nearly 17 and Roseby, nine – Caryn seems to have got it right. She’s living the dream that she and her fellow fashion journos espoused in the eighties – fashion is still about having fun, not conforming, and it doesn’t dictate her life. She’s proof that women can have it all – a fabulous career, a wonderful family, and a kick-ass wardrobe, too.

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