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The secret history of Fashion Television

Host Jeanne Beker offers an oral history of the show that caught the biggest designers long before their first catwalk bow

In 1985, the fashion world was all about glamour. Versace, Thierry Mugler, and Azzedine Alaïa reigned supreme in all their opulent decadence and gold safety pins. The clothes were designed for fierce Amazonian superwomen, not the average shoulder-padded Brenda. But one show was intent on bringing a sliver of that glamour to the people. Fashion Television, hosted by the brassy and boisterous Jeanne Beker, cut through the fashion industry’s pretension and acted as a tour guide to this strange and glamorous world. Over the phone, Jeanne Beker tells me she always felt like a “stranger in a strange land” while reporting for the show, but that insider scoop was part of the show’s appeal. “We were opening a window onto this world and looking through it in awe and wonder as well."

The show’s unassuming attitude is more Canadian than coloured money or Beaver Tails (which for the uninitiated, are oblongs of warm dough smothered in butter and cinnamon sugar), and also perhaps the secret key to the show’s longevity. It lasted 27 years, from 1985-2012, and Jeanne Beker has become Canada’s version of Anna Wintour – the most recognizable and influential fashion personality in the entire country. Let Dazed take you on a tour of some of the most memorable and important moments captured on the cameras of Fashion Television.

1985: CityTV starts producing Fashion Television, and a 33-year old intrepid music reporter named Jeanne Beker is tapped to host the show. The former host of a show called The New Music (see her dealing with Iggy Pop in an early clip, below) Beker remembers “going on the road with rock stars, traveling on smoky tour buses and going into the studio with [musicians]. When we started Fashion Television it was to expose the designers behind the labels in the same way I exposed the musicians behind the records. We weren’t going to talk about silhouettes and hemlines and fabrications – I didn’t care about any of that.”

1986: In the show’s early years, Jeanne schleps all the way to an industrial garment factory on the outskirts of Toronto to meet an up-an-coming designer from New York named Marc Jacobs. He had “hair down to his elbows” and had just graduated from the fashion design program at Parsons. Jacobs was only 23 at the time and didn’t hide his irreverent attitude and dirty sense of humour from Fashion TV’s cameras. As Jeanne Beker fingers an acid pink latex skirt from the collection, she says, “This is really kinky. Do you sweat in this?” Jacobs replies, “You perspire like crazy. You sweat like a whore in church, as they say.”

1992: The Fashion Television crew captures a young Kate Moss with the face of a Caravaggio angel backstage at a fashion show during her New York debut. Kate recounts the tale of how she was discovered in JFK airport at age 14, then slips to the cameras, “I’ve never done runway before. This is my first season in runway.” Moments later, the camera pans to British fashion critic Hilary Alexander who says, “She’s barely 5”7, chest like an ironing board, but she seems right for this floaty, wafty new look.” Kate went on to cavort alongside a white briefs-clad Marky Mark in an iconic Calvin Klein ad campaign, date Johnny Depp, and become one of the most sought-after and enduring models in the fashion industry.

1993: Jeanne Beker is invited for an intimate interview inside the office of newly-instated Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Dressed in an impeccable Chanel suit, Wintour was already sporting her trademark razor-sharp bob, but hadn’t yet adopted her face-obscuring, lemur-eye sunglasses. “I didn’t realize the icon she was to become so [the interview] wasn’t that daunting,” says Beker. “I remember her being quite friendly and forthcoming.” During the interview, Wintour proves that she is forever and always above the haters by divulging; “There were a lot of people who felt that it was time for Vogue to make a change and they welcomed it. Maybe there were a few catty remarks in the back, but one just learned to live through it and get on with doing the job.”

1997: A 27-year-old Alexander McQueen has just presented his first collection for Givenchy haute couture and bombed spectacularly. Jeanne Beker pays a visit to his London studio and remembers, “Here was this 27-year-old kid basically in tears. The slings and arrows of the fashion world are pretty intense.” But despite a tough go from the fashion press, Beker and McQueen’s camaraderie is palpable. “You really do piss people off she says,” and they both erupt into laughter. “I always adored talking to McQueen. He was such a sensitive artist and really had a great great sense of humour,” Beker tells me. Almost a decade later, McQueen expresses a similar anti-establishment sentiment in another interview with Fashion Television; “Fashion is a big bubble and sometimes I feel like popping it,” he says.

2010: Fashion Television runs a retrospective profile of John Galliano. It includes a clip of the leprechaun-like designer screeching “I’m a dressmaker, what you want to be like? I make dresses, what’s the big deal?” then pretending to devour the microphone. Whilst his words are earnest, they drip with smug sarcasm. One year later, he is caught on camera slurring anti-semitic statements in a Paris bar and his career collapses. We should have taken his ill-advised dreadlock hairdo in 1995 as a sign…

2010: Fashion Television introduced viewers to a new intrepid reporter – the pint-sized fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson. At only 13 years old, Tavi was definitely the youngest reporter on the couture beat. “It was certainly a curiosity, to see someone that young with an astute point of view,” recalls Jeanne Beker. Fashion Television was one of the first established media outlets to throw their muscle behind the teen phenom, and she soon made the transition from flavour-of-the-month to bona-fide celebrity. In an interview with Beker, Tavi displays a self-awareness beyond most adults; “If I’m fourth row next season, it’s okay. The clothes are the important part. The parties and everything else is just fog.”

2012: On April 11, 2012 Fashion Television quietly ceased its production. “It was really sad but I knew the show wasn’t getting the kind of ratings, conventional television was changing,” says Beker. Fashion Television wasn’t the edgy, trailblazing show it had been in the early days, and was becoming more and more expensive to produce. The production company no longer wanted to shell out for the high cost of sending a crew to cover couture shows in Paris. “Everyone was cutting budgets. I knew the end was nigh. Of course we didn’t know when. They marched in one day and cut everybody loose but me,” says Jeanne. “It was certainly the end of an era,” she sighs.