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Jeanne Beker: “Be an original”

April 7, 2017
By Darina Granik
Photography by Tara West
Make-up Artist: Amy Pigeon and Fatemah Wadi, Cru6 Beauty
Hair: Dylan Dias, Cru6 Beauty

One spring afternoon, our team was invited to the home of Jeanne Beker. An entire Canadian generation grew up watching Beker on TV, while she covered fashion events around the globe and interviewed countless legendary designers, models and celebrities. She has become a Canadian legend herself, honoured with a star on the Walk of Fame.

Beker’s cozy city home reflects her joyful character and fascinating personality. Framed photos of her family and various celebrities, along with art pieces and a portrait of Yves Saint Laurent—her fashion icon—adorn her living room. In this comfortable setting, we join Beker for an exclusive interview in which she shares amusing and personal stories, expresses her feelings about the Canadian fashion scene, and opens up about her next adventure.

Canadian fashion icon Jeanne Beker is on the cover of The Spring Isssue this month.

DARINA GRANIK: You started your career in acting. What creative elements from that profession have you been able to translate into your work as a fashion journalist?

JEANNE BEKER: Everything! Acting is about theatre, fashion is about theatre. Acting is about moving through the world and the way you appear to others and express yourself. And that’s what fashion is about.

That whole idea of having to be very nimble and having to react quickly really served me well during my days covering fashion in backstage situations. I studied improvisation for a long time, and I think that really helped me just to be ‘in the moment’, and be open to change what’s coming next.

As a fashion icon, you are constantly interviewed by publications all over the country. What are the questions that you dislike being asked?

OK (laughs), thank you for asking because that means you won’t ask them. I hate when people ask, “What’s the best interview that you ever did?” or “Who is your favourite designer that you’ve ever interviewed?” or “Tell me an anecdote, something crazy that happened backstage?” Argh! There are so many of them, you know, and I could never pick just one designer. And “Who is your favourite designer?” Designer for what? To have a conversation with? To stage a runway show? Thankfully, my history is so rich because I’ve been around for so long and had a chance to be exposed to such fabulous stuff. I hate narrowing things down in that way.

I also don’t really like people asking me—and that’s on a very superficial level—about the trends. I know some women really crave that trend direction, but that’s a very old-fashioned way of analyzing fashion. I’m a style editor at The Shopping Channel, and we do rely on that trend-speak a lot because we want to make things easy to understand. We really want to dissect fashion for women, so that they can relate to it, but I personally don’t like that. I think that—especially these days—anything goes. What are the trends this season? A lot of the trends that I saw last season, five seasons ago and 20 seasons ago!

I’m so glad I don’t have any of those questions!

(laughs)

Many people see you as an inspiration to follow a career in journalism or fashion. How do you feel about that?

I feel very proud. One of the greatest things you can do is be an inspiration to other people. Not that I ever set out to do that; I just lived my life as authentically and as fully as I could, and I try to continue to do so.

The most important thing that young people have to realize is that everybody has their own path. I’m driven a little bit crazy by those who come up to me and say, “I want your job” or “I really want to be the second Jeanne Beker.” People have actually said that to me. Are you kidding me? Get a life. You should be the first in whatever you are. You have to be an original! In any business, to succeed, you’ve got to create your own [path].

Wow, Harry Rosen said the same thing.

Yes, it’s true. There are too many people out there aspiring to be like somebody else, and I think that is horrible. I would never want that even for my own children, I always dissuaded them from following my footsteps. I wanted them to blaze their own trails, and they do. That’s what everybody should aspire to.

You look at people who really inspire you and understand how they lived their lives, or how did they rise to the level they are at. A lot of it had to do with bravery, courage, not taking no for an answer, not being defeated easily, picking yourself up and brushing yourself off and going on, even if things did try to shut you down. It’s important to follow those kinds of examples. Don’t think of my career as any kind of a road map to your career because you are going to go down roads that I never knew existed.

Beker poses for FAJO at her home in Toronto. The painting behind her is by Canadian fashion artist Frederick Watson.

Who were your inspirations when you were starting your career?

My parents were my major source of inspiration. They were Holocaust survivors, immigrants who came here after the war, with absolutely nothing. They couldn’t speak the language, they had no money. They had to reinvent themselves and rise like phoenixes from the ashes. And their style of parenting [was my inspiration too], which was loving me very much for who I was and making me feel that every single day, urging me to go out and fulfill my dreams, encouraging me to be an original and go beyond what they had done in their lives and try to create something new.

Many people along the way inspired me too. I give a lot of credit to Moses Znaimer. He created this brilliant, totally creative, little cable TV channel from nothing. And he was exploring a whole side of human nature via the television media that hadn’t been done before. He encouraged many people to take a ball and run with it. He encouraged people to work their asses off. “Just go! Do! Be!” Be an original. That was very important to him. If you look at CBC in those days and all those girls with turned-up noses, the helmet hair-dos—he didn’t want that. This is why he put me on TV—I went against that norm. He appreciated people who were different.

One of my greatest creative inspirations was the late, great John Martin, who started The New Music, which later evolved into MuchMusic. He was the first TV producer I worked for in that format. Before, I used to work in television as an actress. He was from Manchester, U.K., and he was an absolute genius! He invented that whole style of rock’n’roll television that MTV subscribed to. It wasn’t so much about staging shots but about letting the action tell the story.

John would take a cameraman and a reporter like me and send them into the fire (laughs) to see what happens. Our cameras were rolling when we knocked on the door of a dressing room or a hotel room of a rock star. And when they opened the door, there we were—right in their face. It was great! We didn’t have an audio guy, a lighting guy, a producer or a director. It was just me and a cameraman, ready to capture whatever was thrown our way. It was a very exciting style of television that was adopted later by many news outlets and certainly by MTV.

Do you remember your first fashion interview with a well-known designer?

Oh yes, totally. This was [a couple of years] before Fashion Television started. That was probably 1983. I went to Paris because, I think, Air France was doing a media junket. They decided to take me to Paris to do a story for City Pulse News when I was an entertainment reporter. They took us to a Pierre Cardin show, and I interviewed Pierre Cardin. It was, like, “Wow!” He is crazy. He is great. At that time, he had the restaurant, Maxim’s, and he was a designer so ahead of his time. He was the first designer with the idea of licensing, and he really understood the commercial viability of designer branding. And, he was charming.

I interviewed him many times subsequently, but that first time being in Paris, interviewing Pierre Cardin, who was talking to me about taking over the moon… He wanted to open a restaurant or a McDonald’s on the moon or something like that, can’t remember (laughs), and I thought, “Wow, that is a kind of a guy I want to hang out with, a big thinker.”

On your Instagram page, I saw a photo of your press pass to TIFF from 1984. Do you keep small reminders like this from your career?

Oh yes, I keep a lot of it! And I’m definitely thinking about doing something like a show or a retrospective exhibition of a fashion journalist at a certain point because it’s all so different now—the way we report on fashion, the way we consume and digest fashion. I got to cover the fashion scene at a very special time when it was a privilege to get behind that closed door and very, very few people could get access. Now, it is ubiquitous. To me, it’s lost its lustre a little bit. Going to the shows now is very different from [when I started].

Do you keep all the magazines and clippings of your articles too?

Oh yes, I keep a lot of them. My dear, late mother used to cut out every little clipping and put it in a book. And I just kept a lot of the magazines that I knew I was featured in or I wrote stories for.

I have all those little notebooks, maybe 50 of them, where I made notes. In those days, before you could snap a picture, you had to almost sketch what the silhouette was or you’d forget what it was. [And you’d write down quotes of] every celebrity you saw when you were without a cameraman and had to deliver it later in a piece.

I was interested not just in the runway but also in the backstage and all the conversations happening there. I was not one of those editors who would come, sit and wait for the outfit to come out. I was schmoozing and talking to people, witnessing the drama of backstage. I wrote about all that, and I still have all those notes. Sometimes, I think [we should print it]—something like a wallpaper? Wouldn’t that be cool?

Beker is a long-standing supporter of Canadian fashion designers and brands. The top she is wearing in this photo is from Freda’s (designed by the owner); the pendant is by Daniel Christian Tang.

Speaking of cool, what are the three most valuable or memorable items in your closet?

I have some pieces that I cherish very much. One fabulous Chanel dress that was given to me in Paris in 1989 when I was eight months pregnant with my daughter Joey. Lagerfeld was getting his couture collection ready, and I visited him at his studio. I felt like a beached whale. These were the days before it was very chic to look like you have a giant baby bump, before people were wearing Spandex over their burgeoning bellies. I was wearing something, not looking great.

Gilles Dufour, who was Karl’s assistant and later went on to design for Balmain, took me into this room while we were waiting for Lagerfeld. It was filled with samples from every collection. He said, “We will find something for you! Something in this room must fit you.” And sure enough, we found a beautiful black crêpe and creamy satin dress with Chanel pearl buttons that did fit me. It looked fantastic. So, I wore it for the interview with Karl, and he was like, “Ah, this dress looks superb on you!” and then I heard him saying something to Gilles to make it un cadeau pour mademoiselle. Right after I delivered my baby, I couldn’t wear it anymore because I looked pregnant. But that’s a very cherished dress.

Another fabulous outfit is the one I got from the House of Dior when Marc Bohan was designing there. I went to the House of Dior to do a story. First, I did an interview with Marc. We got along famously, and the next day I was going back to do an interview with Frédéric Castet, who was doing all the furs for Bohan. After the interview with Bohan, I was in Galeries Lafayette, trying on hats, when someone just went in and took my wallet. The next day, when I went to the House of Dior, I guess they had heard about that incident. They felt so terrible for me that they presented me with this amazing dress that they had lend me the day before to wear for the interview. It was a fantastic dress, all leather and suede, all jewel-encrusted. It has gigantic shoulder pads—it was 1985. I have that Dior in my closet too.

Another beautiful neck piece [that I cherish is] from Pauline Trigère. She was a legendary American sportswear designer from France. She was just fabulous! Once I was interviewing her in her apartment, and she was pouring all these big martinis.

I also have a gift from Philip Treacy, an evening bag, based on Andy Warhol paintings. [Treacy] has the rights to reproduce some of Warhol’s work. It’s like a satin Campbell’s soup-can purse, a gift directly from Philip.

Those are the kinds of things I want to put on display at a museum, with little stories. The further you get from them, the more incredible they are. You know, it’s not like: “I got free clothes from designers to put on Instagram.” Maybe it’s the same thing, but those were wonderful times in fashion, when you could have personal relationships with those iconic, legendary designers, and they would personally gift you things. It was not PR people just sending out massive gifts to editors—which is very welcome and nice too—but that was very different and personal.

Such great stories! I’m wondering, since you’ve interviewed so many contemporary fashion designers and influencers, if you could throw a dinner party with five fashion stars, dead or alive, who would you invite?

Definitely Lee McQueen and definitely Isabella Blow. Oh, so many great designers, great talents.

Kevyn Aucoin, another one who passed away, the greatest make-up artist of all time. We were very close friends too. I can’t believe he is gone now. This is maybe why I am looking back at late, great ones because I miss them so much.

Bill Blass, I absolutely loved him! What a king! What a sweetheart. That would be an interesting mix, actually.

And one more? Maybe I should stick to the late ones? Diana Vreeland. I’ve always thought she was totally fabulous. I never had the pleasure of meeting her personally. Let’s keep it at these five who are no longer with us.

Wow, that would be a great [party]!

What would you talk about at this party?

Hopefully, not fashion (laughing). Just how the world is going to hell in a handbasket—a designer handbasket.

Fast forward to today and at home, in Canada, the fashion landscape is constantly changing. With the changes at Toronto Fashion Week and the growth of social media influencers, what do you think are the biggest challenges that Canadian fashion designers face today?

To make a living, basically (laughs), which is always the biggest challenge. You know, there is too much out there. The cream, hopefully, will rise to the top—as it usually does. But in the process, a lot of people [have their dreams] broken and [suffer] a lot of pain because people are just working in this kind of a hornet’s nest right now. It’s gone crazy, and sometimes I feel bad because I feel responsible for it, for propagating a lot of myths. In our day, we exposed the world of fashion in a very glamorous way. And maybe we didn’t show the many cracks in that gorgeous mirror. Now, a lot of people don’t have a grip on reality, and everybody thinks they can be [a designer]. And maybe they can, but how are they going to translate that into money to pay the rent? That’s the bottom line.

I see a lot of wonderful designers who succeed, and lots who do not and never will. But a lot of designers succeeded because their families invested money in them. Alexander Wang, when he started, had a great family behind him, and they managed to get the right backing; those kids can go and be brilliant.

There are a lot of people who are crazy talented but don’t have the business funding and certainly not the business sense. They have to team up with great business brains. They get knocked down, and eventually they have to slink away. It’s really sad, it’s a crazy business. I don’t know why anyone would want to do it (laughs). Thank God, my kids didn’t want to become fashion designers.

Although, I love the business—it is brilliant, inspiring, creative, artistic. But it’s just got to be one of the toughest things. You must always reinvent yourself and reinvent the wheel. It used to be every six months, and now—how many collections a year are designers obliged to produce? There is just too much out there. Too much.

I am guilty of it too. I’m still propagating—I have a clothing line. I’m on The Shopping Channel, selling stuff, and we love it, and it’s out there, but every once in a while, you wake up and smell the coffee, and think, “What does this all lead to? What is this doing to the planet? How are we going to sustain this? What kind of sense does this make? And why does everybody want a piece of that pie?” I don’t know.

The whole nature of retail is changing so dramatically now. Let’s face it—most of the big retailers in this country are controlled by Americans. Canadian labels and brands don’t have the marketing dollars to compete with American or European counterparts. We don’t have the population base in this country, so that’s worrisome.

I don’t really have the answers. That bugs me sometimes, and I wonder about it. I don’t see the system of fashion getting fixed any time soon. We are trying, bless everybody in this country. But even in this city, IMG shut down the [Toronto] Fashion Week because they did not make enough money doing it, which is basically the bottom line. Everyone’s trying to reinvent it, and that’s great. The more, the merrier. It is all wonderful, I love anything that celebrates fashion. But how sustainable is it? What’s going to happen to all these great talents that are just pouring themselves into this business, heart and soul. How are they going to survive? And how is it going to change? I could write a book about the subject. Obviously, I have a lot of feelings about it.

To conclude—what is your next big adventure?

Maybe just living a more balanced life. I already try to do it, not running around to every collection, to every fashion week all over the world. That’s been a relief, trust me. You do it for a while, and that’s fabulous, but enough is enough.

I am loving my life in this city and in this country, that’s a great balance. I love spending time with my daughters. It’s a big part of my life.

I dream of curating a wonderful vintage collection one day, almost like having a little vintage store. I really believe now in what message vintage sends out. I don’t want to see any more clothes ending up at the landfill. There is hope and a change in consciousness now with young people. And that’s what I’m looking forward to the most: seeing how it’s going to shake down.

Exploring my archives is a big project now too. We are expecting great things to come from that. Although Karl Lagerfeld taught me “Don’t look back too much”—to really understand where things are going, you have to understand how things were. I think we are going to learn a lot, looking back—with an eye to the future, of course. We have a much better understanding of history the further we get from it. That’s what I’m interested in doing—taking a long, loving look back and re-examining where I was and how did it happen so fast. Some of those things happened once, and that was it. Now I have a chance to revisit it.

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