For PETRIe 67, Editorial and Features Director, Grace Carter, spoke with the renowned award-winning fashion critic, Robin Givhan, about crafting out her criticism and the value of exposing truth, beauty and humanity within a rich tapestry of words. The below is an edited excerpt.

From feminism to show reviews, racial prejudice to retail, the First Lady to Iris Apfel, Robin Givhan has exposed many crucial, globally relevant moments in her writing, unpicking the social and cultural implications of fashion and clothing for her reader with uncompromised clarity, witty repertoire and frank honesty.

Photography by Patrick Demarchelier

Photography by Patrick Demarchelier

Givhan, who has spent many years writing for The Washington Post since first joining in 1995, and who worked briefly as Associate Editor at American Vogue, is an industry stalwart with an impressive accolade to boot. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for criticism – the first person to do so in fashion.

Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Givhan's father worked with the federal government while her mother was a youth director at YMCA. "Neither of my parents were particularly interested in fashion or anything like that," she notes. Yet Givhan had a very solid foundation and upbringing in life. "Both parents were certainly big influences in terms of education and reading and having a breadth of knowledge and just instilling that idea that you can really do anything... they gave me a sense that absolutely anything I dream is possible." 

Talking with Givhan, I get the sense that she was surrounded by a great deal of kindness and compassion growing up. Softly spoken with a gentle and warm laugh, she instantly puts you at ease. Measured in her replies and articulate, Givhan has a huge amount of graciousness and humility. She is also shrewdly intelligent; and, if I were to authenticate this rich depth of character with an anecdote, I'd need to start with a question from the very end of our interview.

Given her far-reaching experience and time spent in the fashion industry, I end on a question about what Givhan's most memorable interview has been. She pauses for a long time, leaving just contemplative silence lingering in the air, and then she begins. "If I am going to be completely honest in this response, it's not a fashion person at all. It's very sad but I was working at our New York office on 9/11 when all havoc broke loose, and I spent a day with a woman who was trying to track down a cousin who had been in one of the towers."

The Washington Post, 2001

The Washington Post, 2001

That lady was 38-year-old Carolyn Louallen, who was desperately trying to find information about her first cousin, 47-year-old security officer Stanley McCaskill. He had worked on the 98th floor of Tower One. The article was titled 'A Mission for Hope'. As Givhan recalls, "I basically just followed her around for an entire day as she was putting up posters and going around different hospitals and so on... and I was really struck that she was alone in doing this, except for this reporter who had just stumbled upon her. She just made this incredible impact on me."

Givhan continues: "She was this anonymous person thrown into this extra-ordinary situation and I was there, kind of sharing this really emotional moment with her. She was not a famous person, but to me, she sort of represented what is ultimately at the heart of every story that you do. There was just this humanity to her and I think the really interesting stories or profiles – whether about some Hollywood celebrity or some Wall Street entrepreneur or some fashion designer – the ones that stay with you, tend to be the ones that are able to dig down and find some sense of humanity there.

So whenever I do profiles of people, in some measure, I tend to try and think about this woman... her story was both unique and universal, and I think that in some measure applies to everyone's story; whether or not it's some big fancy designer or just an anonymous woman on quite possibly the worst day of her life. This one person; she really stood out in my mind."

Indeed, the opening to the article is tribute to the humanity and universal experiences that Givhan observed. "Sometimes hope hurts," she has written. "Sometimes it can be painful and tormenting, a relentless beacon that keeps a believer walking, not quite aimlessly, but with a tired limp and a silent prayer." The main image caption reads the words of Louallen: "I'm trying to keep faith." 

Talking about how she decides what is worthy of such discussion, Givhan notes: "I always feel like there is this basic question that you have to answer for readers, which is: 'Why does this matter to me?' There are many, many ways to answer that question. Sometimes it is as basic as because this will have an impact on something you wear six months from now, even if you never step foot inside a designer salon... That this is such a potent idea that you're going to see this trickle down; that is the most obvious thing." She continues: "Sometimes I feel like the answer to 'why does this matter' is because there is some extraordinarily beautiful creativity happening here and you will be better for knowing about this beautiful work - in the same way that you will also be better for knowing about a beautiful work of art; and then sometimes the answer is a lot more complicated, but I do always feel like that is the question that you have to have an answer to:Why does this matter?

Ultimately, it is the reader that remains at the forefront and is why what Givhan produces is always more than just personal opinion on a show, collection or an outfit. She cares, and she wants to help the reader care too. As she notes graciously, "I see my job as being in service to the reader." Where Givhan struggles in her writing, though, is in giving a run-down of what we should be wearing this season. As she admits herself, "I often joke that I am really bad at calling the top trends for a season. I sort of have to be beaten over the head with it. I need to see 14 shows that are nothing but purple dresses before I go 'oh, I guess purple's a trend' – that's just not my forte." In many ways though, given the cultural and social nuances that Givhan spots deeply embedded within fashion, I feel we can let her off for her trendspotting – particularly given how important her explorations are of the worlds of fashion and politics, within which she often recognises intricate, subtle connections.

The Washington Post, 2009

The Washington Post, 2009

Indeed, in 2009 Givhan managed to turn Michelle Obama's choice to wear a pair of "moss-coloured shorts" while on a family vacation in the West into an analysis of the First Lady's strikingly modern outlook. After initially noting with some irony mid-way through the article, on behalf of the "kind and civil enemies of fashion," that the more pressing concerns on her 'to discuss' list other than Obama's shorts include "world peace and restricting short selling on Wall Street," Givhan dissected Obama's aesthetic and deemed it rooted in "realism and inclusion"; her message was one of "approachability and empathy."

While this analysis is intelligent, perceptive and holds a great deal of opportunity for further discussion, it does have to be said that, in part, the reason Givhan deduced such level of detail from Obama's wardrobe is that there was little else to say. As she notes, the reason "why we tend to write so much about what she's wearing is because oftentimes the clothing is the only thing speaking for her."

She continues: "I took some time and actually followed the First Lady on her first overseas trips... She was with the President but she had a separate schedule and she was in Russia and Rome and also in Ghana, and if she uttered a dozen words in public, I might be exaggerating. She essentially said nothing, but it was just one photo op after another, and all you really had to hang a story on – and, this is significant, I mean this is the American First Lady's first trip abroad – is what does her mere physical presence say?"

"There are so many situations in which she is accompanying the President or she is at some event and the only thing people can read, or use to try and glean some understanding of the person and the situation, is by looking at their attire... I find it interesting but it is frustrating because it is still a limited method of communication... It makes her clothes more important than perhaps they should be.

I think if her voice, her words, were speaking for her, then every silent message uttered by her clothes would not be so loud." With such little to hang a story on, it is impressive how much Givhan does manage to unpick in order to provide unique commentary. Yet there is a much broader context within which Givhan is deducing these connections. As she explains: "The primary relationship between fashion and politics is one of power and trying to convey authority through clothing. Particularly now in America, as the presidential campaign gets underway, I think it becomes a more nuanced conversation about power.

There is also this desire to empathise with voters; particularly here, there is this great feeling that you don't want to look too rich, too removed, too rarefied, so fashion is often used as a great way to build bridges to different constituencies." She continues, "Fashion is very considered in terms of how someone is going to come across when they're delivering a speech. They don't want to be distracting... and I think 'distracting' is such a good term. They don't want to look too slick, too polished - you sort of want your clothes to fade away and be a non-issue."

In instances where the fashion is the only communication device, however, there are times when it needs to dominate. As Givhan acknowledges: "I think there is often a lot of heavy-handed symbolism in the clothes, particularly for the First Lady, who travels from one country to another. It is almost a given that their wardrobe will in some way acknowledge the country that they're visiting or serve as a commentary on pride in American creativity.

The notion of 'power' held between politics and fashion extends beyond the realms of choices made by Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton though. In a country where six in 10 Americans believe changes are needed to give equal rights to blacks and whites, and violent riots have taken place in the name of discrimination, there is also the fundamental matter of race. Fashion holds the power to influence the way it is dealt with in wider society; the choice of model on the runway, and how fashion decides to utilise these men and women, has significant ramifications towards defining American aesthetics of success and beauty. This also extends beyond just the 'land of the free', and into Europe too.

As Givhan writes in her debut book The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into The Spotlight And Made History, despite black models having much success in the 1970s and the subsequent decade-and-a-half after this, "The default standard of beauty had always been white and it remains so."

By the mid-Nineties, "The industry's affection for black models began to wane... Designers wanted a new runway aesthetic..." "They wanted women whose stage presence would not compete with the clothes or the designers themselves... the models? They were walking hangers." Black models suddenly became deemed too connected with "personal showmanship" and so began what the mainstream media termed as the "whitewashing" of the runway.

As Givhan notes in her writing, "There is no political push for the fashion industry to keep its ranks diverse." I ask Givhan about her views on race within fashion and how we can go about making progress. "I am sort of grappling with the clearest way of saying it," she answers, mulling it over, "but I think there has to stop being this sense of something that must be done and it just needs to happen. It needs to be natural and it needs to be normalised... you have to ask yourself, 'how many times do you need to be told that there aren't models of colour on the runway?' I think it is very clear to people what the remedy to that is.

I mean, if someone was saying 'oh my god, there are no blondes on the runway', it would not take a brain surgeon to work out what needs to happen to remedy that situation." Is it more prevalent in fashion than other walks of life? Not really, she tells me: "It's more obvious in fashion because fashion is an industry that celebrates the physical, the superficial - and I don't mean that in a condescending way - it celebrates surface - but I think the lack of diversity that we see in fashion is just a reflection of our general understanding and comfort level with diversity."

She continues, "It's lacking in the tech industry; you don't see a lot of it on Wall Street. There are so many different arenas where you could argue the same lack of diversity. It is a topic of conversation in film. It is not unique to fashion but because of the kind of business that fashion is, the lack of it resonates more deeply."

The reason change is not occurring is twofold. Firstly, explains Givhan, "It goes back to the idea of the default standard of beauty. People start from that and then they ask themselves how much they want to deviate from it." Second, it is about exiting our comfort zone. "I think half of it is what people are comfortable with and the world in which they live. The reality is that a lot of people live in very homogenous worlds, and while you can argue that designers who live in London, New York or Paris live in incredibly diverse cities, it doesn't really matter who you share a subway car with. It matters who you have dinner with when you go out with friends. Living in a diverse city is like wallpaper.

I think it matters more who you have personal interactions with and, for many people, these are very limited." Givhan continues, "I think part of
the problem is that there are people who will look at a runway show and it could be one model after another who is blonde and blue-eyed and that will not register with them because in their view, there is nothing unusual in that picture, whereas I look at that picture and that is not the world that I live in, that is not the company that I keep, so that seems very strange to me." 

One of the other issues affecting diversity is that we are not asking the right people to challenge the norm. As Givhan notes, in reference to being asked for her opinion on race on a previous occasion: "I said to the interviewer; 'why don't you go and interview a white editor and ask them what they think about diversity? I am guessing you can probably guess what I think. But I am not the one booking models. So go ask a booker, who is white... "You need to have that perspective in a conversation. Rather than constantly asking the black model – what do you think of diversity? I'd like to know – what does the white model that is booked for everything think about it?" She continues: "I think so much of it is just opening your eyes and being willing to put yourself into situations that may be unusual or uncomfortable.

I have had friends note, for instance, that 'oh I went to such-and-such event and I was the only white person there' and they sort of marvel at this and I just look at them and quietly shake my head because that happens to me daily; and them marveling at that is amusing to me. I hope they are glad of that marveling and remember that, and that it allows them to see a runway show or a fashion party or fashion shoot in a more nuanced and enlightened way."

As we talk about the world that Givhan lives in and her experiences, I find myself wondering what she does when she wants to switch off. Who is Givhan in her moments of privacy? "I really love hiking actually," she tells me. "I used to have a joke that every summer, I have to go and climb a mountain. I don't do any of the technical Everest-style hiking, but I like to get out there, get sweaty, climb a peak, take in a fantastic view, and I have been lucky enough to be able to do that all around America. I have gone up to British Columbia in Canada and the Dolomites in northeastern Italy. That's my fun... I love the uphill. I feel very triumphant when I get to the top."

Although it is hard to imagine two worlds more diametrically opposed than that of trekking poles and Tom Ford, or fell-walking and Fendi, it is in this very difference of spaces and mindsets that Givhan finds her sense of solace. "I think it is so removed from what I do on a
daily basis – which typically is indoors and sitting in front of a computer, asking people questions – and so it's just really nice to be able to be outside and be surrounded by silence" – she laughs – "to be able to not be in the midst of a city and just be out in the middle of nowhere taking in an extraordinary view."

With all the theatrical fanfare and social peacocking that follows the fashion industry around these days, it's hugely refreshing to speak with a writer who puts integrity and honesty at the heart of what she does, who seeks solace in silence and nature, and who has ultimately found humanity in Haute Couture. Like the revered design houses and notable names we hear often, Givhan is equally a master craftsman. She stitches together her sentences with aptitude and style, creating delicate works of art and crafting together couture with culture in a way rarely seen in journalism.

Givhan is one of a kind and, in the history of fashion, I believe her name will be one that stands up there amongst the great, reminding us repeatedly why fashion needs to be taken so seriously.

 

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Words: Grace Carter