Now Even Lacroix Plays in Peoria, Thanks to Cnn's Elsa Klensch

updated 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"He's returned every tie I ever bought him," sighs Elsa Klensch about her recalcitrant husband, Charles. A typical wifely lament? Hardly. Elsa, the style editor of Cable News Network, isn't used to having her fashion advice ignored. Charles may not be listening, but some 40 million people are. For them, Klensch is the giver of the word about what's hot and what's not.

Three months out of the year she is on the road scouting Paris, Milan, London and Tokyo for the newest looks in clothes, accessories and interior design. Back home in New York, Klensch, 50ish, dishes it all out in lively, information-packed, four-minute reports broadcast three times a day on CNN and then compiled into Style with Elsa Klensch, a half-hour weekend show. Style is among CNN's best-known programs and last year won for her a coveted Council of Fashion Designers of America award.

"I show the clothes that international women are wearing. Not many people can afford them," she says, "but they're copied all the way down the line. Wait two months, and you can probably go to J.C. Penney's and buy a copy of a jacket you see on my show."

Klensch's onscreen persona is cool, calm and chic. Off-camera she percolates with energy. This week, just back from reporting on the ready-to-wear collections in Europe, she and her crew are covering the New York shows. The scene is crowded and frantic. Fashion editors and reporters are vying for interviews with the frazzled designers. Klensch plays this game with a calculated mixture of shrewdness and hustle. "I know the back entrance to every fashion building in New York," she boasts as she nabs Calvin Klein for an exclusive post-collection interview. Indeed, by the time the rest of the press shows up, Klensch and her crew have already started taping, forcing the rest to cool their Maud Frizons.

"After a show, the last thing you want to do is to be interviewed," admits Klein, but for Elsa, he says, "The door is always open. People used to say to me, 'I saw your dress in Vogue.' Now because of Elsa, they tell me, 'I saw your collection.' " Fashion's man-of-the-moment, Christian Lacroix, is another Klensch fan. "When she comes to see us, it is a sign something is going on here," he says.

Although her show is relentlessly upbeat ("My philosophy is to be as positive as I can in other people's lives"), it is Klensch's seriousness about her subject that designers appreciate. Unlike the often venomous Women's Wear Daily, Klensch never criticizes a designer's work. "If I don't like the clothes," she says, "they simply don't get on the program." And although she claims to be insatiably curious, her questions rarely stray beyond hemlines, hairdos and place settings. "We never do personality pieces," she says. "I'm interested in design, and I keep that right in front of me."

Klensch didn't start out to be a style reporter. In fact, she says, "I really had always looked down on people who wrote about fashion." A native of Sydney, Australia, Klensch was the daughter of Hans Ernest Aeschbacher, a businessman who died when Elsa was a child, and his wife, Mary Margaret. After studying journalism at Sydney University, Elsa worked in London and then in New Guinea before moving to Hong Kong in 1964 as a free-lance business reporter for Women's Wear Daily. There, in 1966, she met and fell for Charles Klensch, who was on R&R from his job as Saigon bureau chief for ABC. They returned to Vietnam and a day later were married at the Saigon Registry Office. "I never felt endangered," says Elsa. "It was awful because it was wartime, but day-to-day living, there was nothing to do."

When Charles was transferred back to New York in 1968, Elsa went to work first for WWD, then Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. During the 1978 newspaper strike in New York, she did nightly fashion spots for the local CBS affiliate. The strike ended after six weeks, but Klensch's TV career was born; in 1980 when CNN began, executives at the all-news cable network decided that it needed daily fashion coverage and, moreover, her.

Being in front of the camera instead of behind a pad and pencil forced Klensch to make some cosmetic changes. Instead of the more sculptured coif she used to favor, she now wears bangs. "If you're outside and the wind blows, you can still control it," she explains. Her basic style, though, is largely unchanged. Although she loves the bright-colored short skirts and floral print suits that will proliferate this spring, Klensch wears mostly black and says, "I don't go for a look. A great jacket that I can wear with a black sweater or shirt and a black skirt or pants with different accessories—that's me." Her favorites, at least for jackets, are Klein, Bill Blass, Giorgio Armani and Claude Montana.

Despite her professional savvy, Klensch admits that as a consumer she makes the occasional amateurish decision. "I see so many beautiful clothes, and I see them on beautiful models," she says. "They're never going to look like that on me, but you have fantasies."

She's had better luck with the cozy but plush Manhattan apartment she shares with Charles, who is now retired. (They have no children, but he has two adult children from an earlier marriage.) When it came to doing her own abode, Elsa called on decorator Albert Hadley, partner to the legendary Sister Parish. "I went to the best," she says. "If you're going to live with something for 20 years, make the investment."

One investment Klensch has never regretted, in spite of his taste in ties, is Charles. Among other things he has provided her with one of the most memorable names on TV. "Elsa Klensch," she says lovingly. "It has a great, crisp sound to it. God forbid I ever divorce or remarry. I may leave Chuck," she adds with a laugh, "but I'll never, ever leave Klensch."

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