Caryn Franklin: I am a Disruptive Fashion Lover

I’ve looked up to Caryn Franklin since the days of The Clothes Show, one of the most iconic TV shows of the 1980s and early 1990s. Confident, clever and oh-so-stylish, she has always oozed charisma and I was thrilled to get the opportunity, courtesy of Funzing, to hear her talk about being a Disruptive Fashion Lover.

Franklin can be intimidating, a fact that she acknowledges. “Tonight, I’m going to have a bit of fun”, she beamed. “I won’t be stern”. And we couldn’t help but smile when Franklin showed us one of her favourite childhood photos: “You can see I was showing early promise with the hair accessories”. The eldest of five, Franklin was inspired to make her own clothes thanks to her mother. And yet, the teenage Caryn dreamed of many different paths: “I was a gymnast, an athlete, a punk…but what I really wanted to do was join the army. That changed – after I saw their shoes”.

She enrolled at college, Franklin told us, “On a whim” – and to this day loves “putting things on my head and under my arm”. Franklin’s career evolved from art school “where clothes were the supporting art” and where she began liaising with i-D; this is where Franklin found a sense of belonging. She went to clubs and photographed the likes of Steve Strange: “I learned how to put people at ease and get them to do what I wanted.” And oh, the clothes. Franklin showed us a stunning photo from 1987 of her wearing a Vivienne Westwood outfit: “…just a typical day at the office”.

From 1984, Caryn found herself in demand on TV: Network 7, South of Watford and SWANK– and then, of course, ‘The Clothes Show’, which at its height attracted an audience of 13 million. “I went all over the world, promoting British design and interviewing people like Leigh Bowery.”

Franklin’s career took a different turn during the 1990s, as her work took on a philanthropic aspect. Visiting Bosnia in 1993, she found herself dodging snipers’ bullets as she transported clothes to a Serbian refugee camp: “It was an amazing experience, seeing the joy on people’s faces when they received the clothes: particularly the young men, whose own clothes had been taken away by the army”.

In 1996, Franklin began co-chairing, with Amanda Wakeley, ‘Fashion Targets Breast Cancer’. This formidable charity has built, and maintains, Britain’s first-ever dedicated breast cancer research centre – “…and I am proud of the good that fashion can do”.

2005 found Caryn Franklin and The Clothes Show back on TV: “By then, I understood how I could use TV as a platform” – this change in mindset leading to 2007’s How to Look Good, which focused on women with fuller and pear-shaped figures. This was followed by All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, which aimed to show designers what the buying public really looks like: “Not everyone is young, thin and white”.

In 2011, Franklin launched Diversity 2011, supported by Jo Swinson, who was “very accommodating” and aided by the then Minister for Equalities, Lynn Featherstone. The campaign, whose Diversity Network Director was Mal Burkinshaw, wanted to undo the teaching happening in universities, so that undergraduates understood what was required of them.

Describing herself as “naturally opinionated and gobby”, Franklin has continued to stick her neck out, particularly in corporate settings. She remains an ardent supporter of other women, reminiscing fondly about last year’s 60th birthday, which she celebrated with eight female friends: “I tried to thank them, but couldn’t get the words out. I had to e-mail them instead!”

Recent years have brought yet more success: in 2013, Franklin was awarded an OBE: “I got to tell Princess Anne how sexy she looked in her Guard’s uniform!”. By 2015, however, Caryn found herself wondering “What else do I need to learn?” Accordingly, she decided to study for a Master’s in Psychology, on top of earning a living and running a charity working with three different universities.

Life ticked on, with Franklin working, parenting and partnering – until she reached a point where she “…just broke. I couldn’t sleep, and then I couldn’t eat. I’d ignored the warning signs, which were my body telling me to stop. You think you’re Super Woman, and you don’t listen.”

And then, Franklin was “…really, really ill”. There’s lots of talk around what we’re asking ourselves to do, she says, but it’s for us to see what we can contribute. Franklin describes the mental health issues she suffered as “a gift”: she was able to spend time with herself, and understand her limitations.

Caryn Franklin remains involved with many projects. These have included the ‘No More Page Three’ campaign – all conducted on social media – during which she wore its t-shirt wherever she could.

Moving on to a different subject and “It turns out we get older”, Franklin stated, dryly. Refreshingly honest, Franklin informed us that she began going grey in her 30s. Asked to dye her hair – “because you’re looking old” – she refused. “Today, I’m very happy to be grey and have been outspoken about it. And it has led to Newsnight!”

“I like being old”, Caryn continued, “and I like being unrepentant about being older. Age is the one commonality we all share”. Wise words, which we should all heed, although I disagree that 61 is old.

This brought Franklin on to another subject close to her heart: the fashion industry’s quest for, according to a recent Guardian headline, “unattainable thinness”. The Women’s Equality Party is demanding changes, including a minimum BMI for models, and Franklin herself was very vocal about the “hideous” Beach Body Ready campaign. Commenting that it only takes one complaint to bring down a multi-million pound campaign, Caryn admitted she was disappointed that didn’t happen with Beach Body Ready. She urged us all to be vigilant in voicing our objectives to the ASA but admitted, ruefully, that many of the fashion industry’s companies are not diverse.

It’s tragic that the fashion industry has such a dark underside. Franklin has encountered her fair share of repellent individuals, but was nonetheless “horrified” when she saw the images that Terry Richardson, who she’d been challenging since 2011, had posted on Instagram. “He spent so much time with young women and was very coercive. On a shoot, these women were given beautiful make-up and hair styling – but no clothes. They were then coerced into sex.” Due to legal restrictions, Franklin was allowed to say little publicly, so she resorted to visiting art editors she knew to ask why they were working with this man. “I was given all sorts of reasons. No-one wanted to be the disruptor”.

In 2017, Caryn Franklin found herself embroiled in a dispute with The Sunday Times, who told her she didn’t know what she was talking about. In response, she posted a blog post explaining her actions. An unprecedented reaction followed: “I now know what ‘going viral’ means!” Until now, it had seemed that when women do speak up, the powers-that-be don’t listen. However, within the space of one week, Terry Richardson was sidelined by mainstream fashion brands and media.

Not, alas, because of the vile way in which he had treated women, but “because fashion doesn’t like a nasty smell”. However, that particular scandal did lead to Mario Testino’s and Bruce Weber’s nefarious activities being exposed; other exposés followed, all drearily familiar.

We receive information from a position of hierarchy, Franklin concluded. Quite often, we discard our own knowledge. A disruptor, on the other hand, stands up and dares to disagree. Admitting that you don’t necessarily have the answer, or know what the future holds allows other people to stand up and agree. Urging us all to create our own definition of success, Caryn Franklin concluded: “The Power of One is YOU”.

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