Robin Givhan is the former fashion editor of The Washington Post. She is currently a correspondent for The Daily Beast and Newsweek. In 2006 she won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her fashion coverage.
You’re writing a book on the Battle of Versailles. Can you tell us a little about why you’re interested and what the event actually was?
Only in hindsight was the event referred to as a “battle.” At the time, which was November of 1973, it was a fundraiser for the restoration of Versailles. Five American designers and five French designers were to present collections and the presentations were to be followed by an extravagant dinner. I think the show represents an interesting turning point in American fashion because the Americans included a single black designer, Stephen Burrows, and one woman, Anne Klein. It heralded the rise of sportswear and a shift in the way the American fashion industry was perceived by others and by its own members. The impact of the black models who participated in the American presentation also can’t be under-estimated.
It was also an interesting time culturally in terms of race, gender and sexuality.
How did your career as a journalist change after you received the Pulitzer Prize in 2006?
I’m not sure my career necessarily changed after winning the Pulitzer. I think I gained a wider audience because of the notoriety. And many of my colleagues on the fashion beat told me they felt as if their entire field had been elevated — that it was suddenly taken more seriously. And I suppose my calls were returned a little faster!
You are recognized for your tell-it-like-it-is commentary. Have you ever been blacklisted from a fashion show after a review?
I’ve never been blacklisted from a fashion show. I’ve certainly had designers or publicists upset about something that I’ve written. And I’ve certainly gotten an earful from them. But I’d much rather have someone tell me directly that they disagreed with something or thought a comment was off the mark instead of seething quietly.
I think the days of blacklisting people from shows are over. The fashion industry has grown up a lot and is a much more professional place.
An aside: The rise of anonymous commentary on the internet allows people to rant without repercussions. I take criticism more seriously from people who are willing to put their name to it.
You once said “I would rather sit down with Bernard Arnault than with one of the designers.” Do you still feel that way–that you get a better story from the business side?
I do think that the people who control the companies are the ones who can give you a better story. And increasingly, designers don’t necessarily control the purse strings. But honestly, the people who really know what’s going on are the folks in the backroom, the fabric suppliers, the unsung heroes.
Who do you think is the most underrated designer working today, and who is the most overrated?
I think this is a question that I’d have a different answer for every season! There are a lot of designers who do extraordinary work but don’t have a lot of buzz. People like Isabel Toledo or Ralph Rucci are incredibly talented. But they’re not dressing Hollywood stars; they’re not out on the town; they’re not on TV all the time. So people don’t necessarily know that much about them. Even after Isabel created the suit Michelle Obama wore to the swearing-in ceremony, I don’t think people know that much about her. Dries Van Noten doesn’t advertise, so he probably isn’t as well known as one might expect him to be based on his creativity. The average person probably couldn’t name the designer behind Marni (Consuelo Castiglioni) because she tends to keep a low profile. But her work is beloved by women.
In contrast, people love a great mythical tale, so designers like Zac Posen, the teams behind Rodarte and Proenza Schouler, they get a lot of attention. I’m not saying they’re over-rated, but I’m saying that they have all have compelling stories behind their successes. So they get more attention.
Are there any trends you really hate?
I never liked those dhoti trousers, the ones with the really low crotch. I don’t like skinny jeans, as I think they’re unflattering on most people. And I despise teal and sea foam green — but that’s just my own personal quirk.
At what point did you start commenting on political style?
I started writing about political style when I went to the Washington Post in 1995. DC is a company town and the business is politics. I was fascinated by how important public appearance was, even as people feigned disinterest in fashion.
What do you think would be appropriate style for positions like Vice-President or Secretary of State?
I don’t think there’s any one definitive way for any public person to dress. I would say the key considerations are looking respectful of your audience and the circumstances while also maintaining a sense of individuality. It’s the individuality part that often trips up politicians.
What is your opinion on the obsession with Michelle Obama’s style? Do you think it is warranted?
I don’t think a zillion blogs, books, and tweets about her style are warranted. But I do think that she marks a break from the way first ladies have traditionally dressed. Her style is both contemporary and personal. There’s nothing formulaic about it — she rarely wears a suit. And it reflects the way in which contemporary women are so much more comfortable with their body and their physical strength than women were a generation or two ago.
Has there been another first lady whose style you really admired?
Who said I admired Michelle Obama’s style? (smile)
I find it interesting and compelling to write about. I find some of her choices refreshing and dynamic. But as a journalist I try to steer clear of her fan club.
I found Hillary Clinton’s style interesting to write about because she often wrestled with a lot of the issues that confronted professional women in the work place. When she started wearing trousers regularly during her time in the East Wing that was a powerful shift in how women in that role had dressed. When she opted for a Donna Karan “cold-shoulder” dress at an early State Dinner that made a statement about high fashion and sex appeal and whether a first lady could display either or both.
I think Jackie Kennedy was smart about using fashion to help craft the Camelot image.
If you didn’t write about style, what would be covering?
I’m not sure what I’d be writing about but I’m certain that I’d still be a writer.
What was the greatest fashion moment of your career?
The greatest fashion moment? Since I don’t think of myself as a fashion person, but rather as a journalist who writes about fashion, I don’t know that I’ve had one. Certainly winning the Pulitzer Prize was my proudest professional moment. As for fashion, I’m just happy that I’ve managed to dress myself in a manner that has never embarrassed my employer — at least not that I know of.