Caryn Franklin is absolutely striking – but that’s beside the point. In 2013 she was appointed MBE for her services to diversity in the fashion industry in the Queen’s New Year honours list. Her journey towards diversity in terms of gender, age, size and ethnic background within fashion has been a long one, and is nowhere near its destination. Over a hot Bombay Omelette at Dishoom she details the start and evolution of this odyssey. She’s fierce but exudes warmth when she speaks, and while sipping her fresh mint tea she warns me: “I’m not everyone’s cup of tea – I’m a very transparent person, and some people might say I overshare…”
In 1982, after finishing a BA in graphics at Kingston and a postgraduate in advanced typography and photography at CSM, Franklin went to i-D for a job interview. After a few quick questions founder Terry Jones asked her to look after the office phone for the day, and take over where he’d left off with his Fiorucci art direction projects. i-D was still in its infancy, and the office basically consisted of Jones’ bedroom loft. He stayed away till 5pm and offered her a job when he got back. She stayed there for six years, and in that time i-D grew beyond all recognition.
Part of her job was going to four or so clubs a night and documenting the young, penniless and full of promise – unheard of in a time when most publications only featured the rich and famous. From ’83 onwards there was increasing worldwide interest in London as a fashion centre, and i-D began to attract TV attention. Japanese camera crews would frequently barge through the door, and everyone in the office automatically pointed to the back, where Franklin was seated. From there she sort of seamlessly rolled into the world of TV.
“I began thinking in a much more inclusive, expansive way once I encountered ordinary women with ordinary bodies up and down the country.”
After some doubts – and initially kindly declining the offer because it was too mainstream – Franklin took on the job of presenter on The Clothes Show. From 1986 to 1998 she was educating the country about the fashion industry on prime time TV: explaining what a catwalk show was, why it happened six months in advance, and what happened in the six months after the show. They’d follow John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier in the run-up to their shows, and in the very same episode they’d be filming a housewife who had a tiny cottage business that she ran from a shed. “The joy of The Clothes Show was that it was always very democratic, and for me that was a big education. ’Cause having come from i-D, where everybody was very individual – and although not conforming to trend, they were very niche – I began thinking in a much more inclusive, expansive way once I encountered ordinary women with ordinary bodies up and down the country.”
When at one point she was thinking of stepping away from the TV programme – she was fed up with the BBC’s tried-and-tested formula and didn’t have the power to change the show where she felt fit – speaking to John Galliano changed her mind. “He told me ‘What’s really great about The Clothes Show is that I can now get in a cab and the driver will immediately recognise me and talk to me about fashion, and we will have a conversation that we never would’ve had before.’”
By this point Franklin was public property. With only four channels on TV, The Clothes Show had a 13-million audience every week. With it came a responsibility. People didn’t have access to fashion editors, and didn’t always know what they looked like. “But they knew what I looked like. I could be anywhere: I could’ve just had a tearful argument with my partner or I could be consoling my small child about something, and people would just step up to me and go ‘You know, I’m really sure my daughter’s got an eating disorder. What do I tell her when she says she wants to look like a model?’” She began to absorb the issues that were affecting her biggest audience, and the one that repeatedly cropped up was body image.
“You know, nobody pays you a whole load of money for activism.”
Over the years she’d also worked more and more with Fashion Targets Breast Cancer and Beat, the eating disorder association, and had began to see “the power of fashion as a vehicle to promote messaging that is pro-social.” It was the start of a mission.
In 2009 she co-founded All Walks Beyond the Catwalk with Debra Bourne and Erin O’Connor: a non-profit organisation that fights the unachievable body standards and the lack of age and race diversity that exist within fashion and advertising. They’ve worked with government and MPs educationalists, designers, photographers, and various body image and wellbeing organisations, as well as lecturing at universities all over the country. Their yearly Diversity NOW competition saw 37 different universities take part in 2015.
Last July Franklin stepped away from All Walks. “When you’re doing something that you passionately believe in, and you’re doing it on no money, with volunteers, it becomes very exhausting. You know, nobody pays you a whole load of money for activism. I was burning the candle on both ends, getting up at 4.30am on a regular basis and doing 16-hour days. I was trying to be supportive of other team members too, and I was doing way too much. And I obviously had to earn a living alongside campaigning.” On the side she’d do public speaking and writing as well as running her own consulting and live events company. “I began to break down: everything fell apart for me health-wise.”
“And my daughters were absolutely sick to death of me trying to save the world. So I thought the only way I could save my own life here was to pass the baton – just ’cause I had a good idea with my co-founders, didn’t mean I had to die trying to keep it going. It really was a huge life lesson.”
“Consumerism puts up a false self. It’s natural for us to want to engage with idealised selves: it’s how we motivate ourselves.”
But this is not Franklin losing her dedication to diversity – quite the contrary. Last year Franklin started a Master’s of Science in Applied Psychology in Fashion at London College of Fashion. She felt she needed psychologically backed-up proof of what was behind the body image distress that is prevalent all around. She’ll be graduating next year and has already found a deluge of body image evaluations pertaining to mass media and fashion, and lots of psychological information confirming that a broad variety of people respond very positively to diverse body imagery. “Fashion has always gone ‘It won’t sell!’ Well, there are scientific evaluations to support outcomes that it will.”
Halfway through our breakfast Franklin tells me about the now signature Dove Real Women campaign. She and her All Walks co-founders spoke to the female executive who tried to get it off the ground for ten years. In the end she looked at the (mostly male) board who were to approve the ads and asked to film their daughters. “They said they were going to do something else, but they got them to talk about body image.”
Franklin stops and stares at the table. She’s clearly upset. She keeps silent for a few seconds before continuing: “So these young girls were talking to their dads, effectively, about the body image distress they were feeling, and it was within their dad’s power to help them. For me that is really quite moving. The executives at the top didn’t connect with what was really going on in so many women’s lives until the film of their own daughters forced them to. Then they created a better campaign and increased their sales. And I did not expect to be so moved when I told you that – I think it’s having daughters…”
“Fashion finds it hard to show women other than hyper sexualized femme fatale or glamourous passive child.”
She’s made it her life’s work to bring up her two daughters to value themselves through other means than their appearance and to avoid body image anxiety. She used many platforms to teach them – including her own body, never criticising herself physically and always doing joyous things with it (when her daughters were younger they’d all do naked dancing together). “I thought that by example I would show how happy I am with myself and never ever find myself not good enough. You know, I’m healthy – what’s not to love?” From day one she also taught them how to deconstruct fashion and look at how clothes have features to serve you – not the other way around. “They both say that they are very happy in their bodies, and they’re both amazingly statuesque women. And they love clothes.”
“We were also helped, if that’s the word, by the fact that Mateda’s father (the father of Franklin’s first child, ed.) was dying. And I can say that dispassionately, because it took a long time for his body to give up.” He had a very malignant form of MS, needed 24-hour care from the time their daughter was a baby, couldn’t speak, see or move and was fed by a tube. “For 22 and 15 years respectively Mateda and Roseby saw a body that didn’t work, a body that needed to be medically managed to do anything. So I used that to our advantage. Put simply, after each visit I encouraged them to compare their own bodies to his and value every aspect of their health. It came with all kinds of complications, as it is very difficult to visit someone so ill for 22 years, but we live in the first world – we have food on the table, and we must see life through our privilege.”
But finding authenticity, valuing what’s inside as opposed to appearance is hard in a world of consumerism. “Consumerism puts up a false self. It’s natural for us to want to engage with idealised selves: it’s how we motivate ourselves. We aspire upwards and we also need to socially compare downward for good mental health. We want to know where we fit in, and fashion creates falsification around the veneer of the idealised self. The veneer is also only a small part of a potential idealised self. What about what we stand for, who we are, our achievements, our beliefs? Fashion finds it hard to show women other than hyper sexualized femme fatale or glamourous passive child.”
“To a certain extent the fashion world even locks down emotion: the models walk like they’re not feeling or thinking anything, even though they will have been standing backstage, fitted into garments and shoes that don’t necessarily fit them. They’ve got to pretend they’re not in pain when they step out onto the runway. You know, fashion people mostly don’t deal with true emotion. It’s all about ‘I’m doing great, I’m not going to tell you the real deal, everything’s fabulous darling.’”
“When there is a connection between mass media imagery, depression, anxiety and eating disorders, you might see a speeding up of fashion imagery regulation.”
The other day she went to see a presentation on how we process ‘the image’. Images elicit emotions in ways that words don’t – and younger generations are much more used to engaging with the image rather than the word. Fashion has really benefited from that. “We see between 2,000 and 5,000 images a week, and we do all of this processing without being hyper-vigilant about it. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t reach full maturity till the mid-20s. So the promotion of the ideal appearance is entering an emotional level in the growing brain when it’s not yet able to assess or evaluate it. This has huge implications for the mental health of young people. As we become more and more visual, young people are registering more and more distress about body image pressures and success pressures… It’s early days for psychology and the gathering of evidence. Even when we have educated viewers, any alternative viewpoint will have an uphill struggle against consumerism.”
She is optimistic though, comparing this journey to the massive turnaround in cigarette advertising that’s happened in her lifetime: from the glamorous cigarette ads of her youth to cigarette packs being covered by curtains in many UK supermarkets today.
“Of course the NHS was paying for treatment of lung cancer, so when there is a connection between mass media imagery, depression, anxiety and eating disorders, you might see a speeding up of fashion imagery regulation. It’s going to take a while…”
Is that one of her goals for the future, to get some sort legislation in place for fashion imagery?
“MP Caroline Nokes, chair of the APPG on Body Image, is on it. And I can make a contribution. You find me as dedicated to diversity as I ever was. But I have reached a certain level of humility: my internal voice tells me to be content with smaller changes. When we’re younger, we’re all fired up about changing the world, and I was no exception. But since my recent ill health, I do not underestimate small change. Because if everyone was making a small change, it would still amount to an enormous breakthrough.”
Words by Julia van IJken
A special thank you to Dishoom!