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Elsa Klensch, Face of Fashion on CNN, Dies at 89

Elsa Klensch, who for two decades produced and hosted the fashion news program “Style With Elsa Klensch” on CNN, becoming one of the cable channel’s early stars, died on March 5 at her home in Manhattan. She was 89.

The death was confirmed by her friend and lawyer Jayne Kurzman.

Ms. Klensch’s weekly show made its debut in 1980 — on the same day the Cable News Network first went on the air — offering pioneering coverage of designers, models and haute couture runway shows for a mass television audience.

With her signature bob and distinctive native-born Australian accent, she became a familiar figure, reporting from London, Paris, New York and Milan with interviews and video of runway collections. She attended thousands of shows for CNN, and designers like Marc Jacobs, Carolina Herrera, Anna Sui, Karl Lagerfeld and Miuccia Prada appeared regularly on her program.

Ms. Klensch was described in a 1999 New Yorker profile as having “reported on developments in design, on innovations in fabrics, and on mutations of hemlines as soberly as if she were covering the State Department.”

In 1993, when Mr. Jacobs won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Womenswear Designer of the Year award for his now infamous “grunge” collection, “Style With Elsa Klensch” took cable viewers inside the ceremony.

“Her show had a tremendous impact on popular perceptions of the fashion industry,” said Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. “Prior to this, fashion shows were an industry event, or you had to be a private couture client to be seeing it. Elsa Klensch really opened that up to the public.”

Ms. Klensch’s show, which aired mostly before social media, YouTube, fashion blogs and sites like Vogue Runway came into being, chronicled a time when the industry was transforming itself from less a trade than a purveyor of lifestyle and a sector of pop culture. Supermodels like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington became a part of the news. Designers like Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Mr. Jacobs were suddenly in front of cameras in a way they hadn’t been before.

“You could see a wide range of designers and not just know their names but their faces and their runway footage, which is now so ubiquitous,” Ms. Steele said. Ms. Klensch, she added, took on the role of intermediary, between the real world and the fashion world. “She looked comfortable but not 100 percent part of it,” she added.

For some, Ms. Klensch was a guide to another world. “Growing up, I was not surrounded by people who cared about fashion,” said Chelsea Fairless, who co-hosts the fashion podcast Every Outfit, “so Elsa was like a chic aunt with a severe bob who would come visit me on the weekends and teach me about clothes.”

Ms. Klensch in 2010, the year she left CNN after two decades.Credit…Nancy Siesel/The New York Times

Elsa Aeschbacher was born on Feb. 21, 1933, in Cooranbong, a town outside Sydney, Australia. Her father, Johann, was a banker. Her mother, Mary (Miles) Aeschbacher, was a florist.

She studied journalism at the University of Sydney before leaving to work as a reporter for The Daily Telegraph of Sydney. In her 20s she embarked on a succession of journalism jobs, traveling to do so. While working in Hong Kong, she met Charles Klensch, then the Saigon bureau chief for ABC News. They married in the mid-1960s.

The couple soon moved to New York City, where Ms. Klensch launched her career in fashion journalism, writing for publications like Women’s Wear Daily, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

In 1979, she began producing small fashion segments for CBS television, and they caught the eye of Ted Turner, who was making plans for a new cable TV venture, CNN. He hired her to be one of its first on-air personalities.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America recognized Ms. Klensch for her work in fashion television with a special award in 1986 and its 1998-99 Eugenia Sheppard Award for journalism.

She was inducted into the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame in 1990, even though she prided herself on never accepting free clothes from the industry or receiving a clothing allowance from CNN. She had a particular interest in wearing structured jackets.

“Describing the Dalmatian print Geoffrey Beene in her closet, she sounds like a girl with a crush,” Robin Finn wrote in a 2001 profile of her in The New York Times.

Ms. Klensch was the author of “Style” (1995), a fashion advice book that became a trade paperback best seller.

She is survived by a stepson, Charles Klensch; a stepdaughter, Elisabeth Gabriele Klensch; a sister, Pamela Lemon; two step-grandsons; one step-great-grandson; and five nieces and nephews in Australia whom she was close to. Her husband died in 2016.

Production on her CNN show came to a halt the day AOL’s merger with CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, went into effect in 2000, and her staff was laid off along with 400 other employees.

“There were corporate changes; it was a good time to go,” she told The Times, adding, “I always said I’d stay at CNN for 20 years, see out the millennium, then find something else.”

She wrote and lectured on fashion after she left CNN and was the author of several mystery novels about a television news producer caught up in investigating a series of murders.

Retirement was never an option. “I’m so tied up with fashion and design, it almost seems impossible to live without it,” she said in 2001. “It has consumed my life.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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