The Simple Things
“Take what you are good at and use it to involve other people. Work out what skill you have to just make a tiny change”
A doer as well as a dreamer, Caryn Franklin’s career has changed perceptions as well as lives. And, as she tells Frances Ambler, she’s only just getting started
“In my day, I’m pleased to say – although it sounds really old school – we didn’t say ‘I want to be famous when I grow up’, or ‘I want to be a celebrity’, we said what we wanted to do.” Broadcaster, commentator and Kingston University’s professor of fashion diversity, Caryn Franklin is talking about the early 1980s, when she really fell in love with fashion. The twist is Caryn did become famous, best known for presenting the BBC’s long-running The Clothes Show. But it’s that ‘do’ that’s been crucial. Caryn’s used her position (to quote her website) to “activate, commentate and motivate”, or (to quote her directly) to “be gobby” on topics ranging from fashion’s lack of diversity to sustainability. Even in the kitchen of her London home where we’re sitting, the fridge is accessorised with cut-out articles on issues ranging from air pollution to pressures on young Hollywood stars.
Over a pot of Earl Grey, served in vintage china cups, and a homemade spelt loaf, Caryn shares some of her motivations, which have been informed, she believes, by two values instilled by her parents: honesty and service. Early on, she developed the habit of calling
things out when they didn’t seem right. Aged 17, she wrote to a commentator, complaining he’d patronised the Grand National’s first female rider. When he replied to justify himself, “it kind of encouraged me”. Even now, her business partner sometimes has to nudge her under the table to shut her up. Things may have been different if, as initially planned, Caryn had joined the army. Given the pride she took in being sent home from her London comprehensive school for flouting the uniform rules, her dad suggested she may not fit in with military life. So she went to art school, at Kingston University and then Central Saint Martins. Something clicked when she came across the style magazine i-D, which launched in 1980. It felt like her world so, after graduating, she rang up and “invited herself in”. Terry Jones, the magazine’s founder, left her minding the phones for a few hours, and she stayed, going on to be fashion editor and co-editor. “If I’d gone, ‘sorry, can’t do it’, it wouldn’t have happened.”
It was an exciting, inspiring time. Caryn had the King’s Road as her catwalk. She’d leave the magazine offices, looking for people to photograph for i-D’s signature ‘straight-up’ street fashion portraits, herself dressed in attention-grabbing style. In 1984, Channel 4 asked her to research upcoming designers for its programme Swank – she ended up on screen. The invitation for The Clothes Show followed.
Rather than wanting fame (she thought the show too mainstream), she eventually said yes to get i-D’s name onto TV but, more significantly, stayed because – six months into their relationship – her partner had been diagnosed with a severe form of MS, making Caryn both his carer and the main breadwinner. It was a situation that reached crisis point after the birth of their daughter. Caryn took just two weeks of maternity leave in the middle of a series, returning to set as a single mother with her newborn, along with her own mother for support. She later married filmmaker Ian Denyer, with whom she has a second daughter. While she’s still processing the complexities of that earlier relationship, she knows it taught her, in comparison to many women, “complete respect for my body – I don’t think I’ve ever been in a changing room with a woman who doesn’t apologise for her body,” she says. Although an extremely hard way to learn it, “I now have nothing
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a changing room with a woman who doesn’t apologise for her body”
but gratitude for my health. I don’t self-objectify or view my body as an exterior that doesn’t come up to scratch because I don’t look like a supermodel.”
Being on a primetime show was its own education. Caryn, wearing anything on screen “from a rubber dress to leather chaps”, would be approached by women, telling her, “‘I wish I could dress like you but I don’t have the confidence’. It got me thinking about how fashion gave people a sense of self – or not.” That’s been a thread throughout her career. In the 1990s, Caryn produced a documentary about the trend for thin models, which led to her becoming a patron of the Eating Disorders Association. “We now absorb 2,000 to 5,000 media images every week,” Caryn says, “of course we’re susceptible to internalising the status afforded to glamourised, thin, young, white and often sexualised bodies.” In 2009, she co-founded All Walks Beyond The Catwalk, an organisation promoting positive body image by introducing diversity in age, size and race. It has taken her to Parliament, and beyond. Four years ago, she was awarded an MBE for services to diversity in the fashion industry.
Her approach hasn’t always made her popular. “I’m the lippy one who doesn’t get invited to the party,” she admits, “I’d just always rather do it my way.” Case in point was when, in her early 30s on The Clothes Show, she was told to dye the white streak in her hair to look younger. Caryn refused. Instead she emphasised it by colouring the rest of her hair darker ( her hair is now fully and magnificently grey). Caryn tried to push other boundaries, too, such as putting hip hop artists on mainstream television when no one else was. But she always felt she could do more.
Today, she says, a digital platform lets her “talk to audience members about important things I couldn’t get on the BBC.” And she utilises the medium wholeheartedly: look up Caryn’s impassioned article about the menopause for the website Refinery29.uk and you’ll see why it’s her most-commented-on piece. It’s written from her personal experience. “Going into the menopause, I was unprepared – it isn’t discussed. Online,” she continues, “we can be more collaborative, and pass on information that’s meaningful.”
As the article attests, Caryn, at 58, is embracing her “tribal elder/grandmother/crone” life stage (“I love those labels.”). She’s open to sharing her experiences, from the personal to the political. “If every purchaser of clothes saw what I’ve seen,” she says, referring specifically to trips she’s taken with her friend Safia Minney, founder of Fair Trade clothing company, People Tree, where she’s witnessed the treatment of garment workers first hand, “I like to think more people would buy differently.” Anyone who buys clothes, Caryn emphasises, is a stakeholder in the fashion industry: “People have enormous power – look what happened 15 years ago when people said that they didn’t want animal testing for cosmetics. With fashion, people can say ‘I’m going to buy less, and it’s going to be a garment that satisfies me that’s not been made by people who’ve been exploited.’” She shops differently now, “I scan the label for information; I talk to the person who has it on the rails – ‘who made this?’”
Perhaps that’s Caryn’s key belief: we all have the power to inspire change. “All you can do is take what you’re good at and use it in some way to involve other people,” she believes. “Work out what skill you have to just make a tiny change.” And this is where fashion can be a way of “broadening the narrative. Fashion creatives can have the best ideas in the world.” Take for example, Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, which she has co-chaired with the designer Amanda Wakeley since 1994. Breast health was virtually undiscussed when it launched but, helped by Caryn’s dedication, the campaign recruited the likes of Kate Moss in its
first year. It has not only raised awareness but millions of pounds, funding Britain’s first dedicated breast cancer research centre. It underlines Caryn’s belief that, “when fashion decides to do something, it’s amazing.”
ACHIEVING FEELGOOD FACTOR
That applies on a personal level, too. Thanks to fashion, she’s seen “people completely fall in love with themselves at the mirror for the first time – or all over again.” An MSc in Psychology of Fashion has recently underlined Caryn’s interest in how what we wear makes us feel. Despite lecturing throughout her career and her professorship, she’s never considered herself an academic and tackling her first assignment brought major self-doubt, “I thought I’d made a terrible mistake”. With completion has come new confidence and Caryn is excited about what she can do with her new knowledge, whether that’s “looking a CEO in the eye and being able to cite studies about how imagery affects self esteem”, or helping the Women’s Equality Party wording specific aspects of its manifesto. “It’s really thrilling,” she says.
The thrill of gaining her Master’s followed a particularly tough year in which the amount she’d taken on was having serious consequences for her mental health. Her daughters intervened, telling her she needed to stop ‘martyring’ herself to projects. “I was ready to hear it,” says Caryn, “I’d ridden myself too hard. Everyone has to learn that they aren’t Superwoman”. She’s emerged with a new understanding of how she works: “I have to do my projects in a way that makes me feel good about what I’ve done that day.” When it comes to her daughters, she says couldn’t have wished for more. “They’ll quite happily say ‘put a sock in it, Mum’!” Caryn laughs. “I love that feisty, clashy kind of femininity we’ve had around the table.” But beyond the kitchen table, where we’ve now spent the best part of the afternoon, the place she feels happiest is the garden, whether here, at her sister’s allotment, or her own place in Suffolk. “I probably have a different life as a result of being a digger and a grower. There are only filthy Wellington boots and jeans there, and no mirrors,” she says. “That gives me a good grounding.” As to what’s next… “The only ambition is to feel good about whatever I’m doing. I’ve fought hard to achieve balance and put a lot of work in to sure up my own sanity and my motivations.” Then, of course, it’s back to the ‘doing’. “And, now I know more about myself, I’m in a stronger position to be more effective.”