House of Style And The Changing Face of Fashion Media

’House of Style’ host Cindy Crawford in 1991.
Photo: MTV

If you’re too young to remember House of Style, you may not remember the fashion news show Style with Elsa Klensch that ran on CNN from 1980-2001. Elsa Klensch was this awesome native Australian with a somewhat severe countenance and blunt bangs. She loved a bold blazer with a statement necklace and delivered the goings on within the industry with a gravitas that allowed fashion coverage to appear completely at home on a news channel. She had a fashion media pedigree that was rigorous, with editorial stints at Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily and Harper’s Bazaar. In many ways, Elsa legitimized high fashion and made it “high brow.”

And that’s exactly why House of Style had to exist. We all loved Style… on CNN and even Canada’s Fashion Television (with the formidable Jeanne Beker) but intellectualizing the narrative behind fashion can make an already inaccessible industry seem even more daunting despite the plain fact that every single one of us wears clothes. Young people who couldn’t pronounce haute couture let alone afford it needed an accessible, non-judgey place to learn about self-expression and experimentation and that’s where MTV came in.

Cindy Crawford interviews designers Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce in 1992.
Photo: MTV

We had Cindy Crawford, who was beautiful, ambitious, glamorous and at once goofy. She pulled us backstage to fittings with Dolce & Gabbana and interviews with Jean Paul Gaultier. And then we had Todd Oldham—a real-life fashion designer—who taught us how to thrift shop, hem our pants, cut our hair, and teach us (with the help of John Galliano no less) about the bias cut. This stuff was crucial and revolutionary back then. You just couldn’t get that high-low hodgepodge any place else. Nobody made the connection of how those poles worked together and it was during a time when fashion coverage was absurdly balkanized.

In those days, MTV was different. The Internet was a zygote then. If you can imagine such a dark, cold, lonesome time, this was the era before Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, etsy, eBay, Pinterest, Skype, and YouTube. Not to sound all hoary and self-aggrandizing but there was a time when teens in flyover states had to rely on television for their information and a ton of them relied on MTV. The producers of House of Style felt responsible for transmitting a message of fashion democracy. They made a mission of talking about lowbrow fashion and legitimizing what you could buy at the mall, not only through easy-to-understand vignettes of “things that were cool” and “things that sucked” but by conscripting your favorite pop stars (like the Spice Girls) to model cute stuff from Contempo Casuals.

Victoria Adams, Melanie Chisholm and Emma Bunton of The Spice Girls go shopping in 1997.
Photo: MTV

Fashion media in the ‘90s was highly controlled. Fashion magazines were for people who were way older than you. You had teen magazines, and they were great for a round-up of back-to-school togs or prom duds but they generally disregarded what was happening on the runway and treated the fashion world as this discrete other that had nothing to do with young people. (This is not the case now, I realize). I imagine the intentions were good but I definitely remember feeling patronized. If you were a budding fash-nerd, your inputs in general were highly limited. Sure, it was peer-based in that kids will always be influenced by what their friends are wearing but before the Internet your “friends” were people that you actually knew IRL or AFK and you talked to them on the phone.

They lived in your town or you met them at camp and they read the same magazines as you and shopped at pretty much the same stores. You weren’t exposed to how your Twitter friend from Tokyo layers their tops and there wasn’t countless user-generated galleries of cute girls and boys doing weird and exciting new things to their hair and nails. There was no such thing as YouTube instructional videos of every braid ever. And you couldn’t just buy inexpensive versions (or even the real thing) of the backpack that your IG friend from Mexico City copped. It’s thrilling that creative kids whose brains are mapping what they want to look like have every inspiration to draw from. We have roving robots with cameras ON MARS. Technology is so awesome I could cry.

Designer and ’House of Style’ correspondent Todd Oldham creates back to school accessories in 1993.
Photo: MTV

As such, I’m saying that House of Style inspired the entire Internet. JKJKJKJKJK. What I will say though is that House of Style was remarkably prescient in thinking a jumbled grab bag—a mood board with old stuff, new stuff, louche stuff, and broke stuff—was way more exciting than picking your clothes from a tidy selection of stuff all from the same place.

Smash cut to now. So, the Internet is a boon, rife with a staggering number of biographies, magazine scans and instructional videos. Plus, it’s this gorgeous Kumbaya thing that you can share everything you’ve gathered with your friends instantly. Everyone can appear well-versed on any subject because you have a universe-sized encyclopedia at your fingertips at all times. Aaaaaaand that’s where all this becomes a crutch. There are times when it’s just too accessible. I don’t long to return to a time where we all had to worship at the church of high fashion with hyper-controlled, agenda-filled dispatches from a tight cabal of industry kingmakers but those people did know a whole lot about where those trends were culling cues from and which designers learned what from whom.

It’s sort of like how we don’t memorize phone numbers anymore. I’m not going to get into how technology has “changed the way we [insert verb]” but the one concern I will raise is that I worry that if an 11-year-old comes across the most beautiful photograph of the dreamiest 10-year-old fashion editorial on the web that regardless of their appetite, or the length of the Internet worm hole they fall into, they may never be able to find out what magazine it came from or what the fashion credits were or what brilliant human was responsible for making such a treasure and where they cut their teeth and who they apprenticed under.

That Google’s query algorithm and a page’s SEO ranking might dictate what a fash-curious kid will come across about an undervalued designer or niche craft chills my blood. There’s also this thing going on where the sort of fashion coverage that lives on the Internet with any real production value relies heavily on e-commerce as a business model and that’s cool but we want to try something a little different and I hope we pull this off.

Since we’re going to live on the Internet, the team behind the new House of Style just wants to adopt a mile of the information super highway so that it will capture the intrepid spirit of the original show with a sense of accessibility and accountability for people who are excited about this fashion thing, regardless of how much they know about it already.

We want to run a dragnet through weird and exciting segments of what constitutes fashion, report what it has become in contemporary terms, add as many footnotes as we can and organize the piles for whoever comes next. I’m not saying we’re here to fix it all. Or that we’re “rescuing anyone from the state of anything.” This is not a criticism against fashion bloggers who aggregate news. Nor a diatribe of what’s missing from larger fashion media brands who do their own reporting.

The new House of Style just aspires to become a voice of authority somewhere between Elsa, Jeanne, Cindy and Todd. We want to be your Internet fashion sherpa who you can actually, you know, relate to. Totally 100% easy peasy and manageable, right?

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