‘Using your voice’ is a phrase the world has become oversaturated with. Attempting to describe the work of Robin Givhan though, there’s perhaps no phrase more fitting. The Pulitzer Prize-awarded fashion critic is known for her honest, unapologetic, and, above all, profound writing. To her, fashion does not just function as a form of visual expression but equally as an industry—and an influential part of society and politics. Givhan isn’t one to simply shout the loudest or craft the most clickbait-y headlines, though. Rather, the 55-year-old journalist makes the most of her reach through articles that go deep into the workings of the industry. Having been The Washington Post’s fashion critic since 1995—save for stints at The Daily Beast and Newsweek from 2010 until 2014—she not only reports on collections but also dissects the dress of politicians, and regularly comments on the controversies concerning the industry.
In a way, Givhan has thus continuously educated her readers, and similarly, the industry at large. Which, in the context of a creative landscape that often seems to be more interested in quick Instagram captions than informed criticism, has become increasingly rare. If you want to truly take a look at the current state of fashion and the way media is covering it, you’d be pressed to find anyone more informed and opinionated than Robin Givhan. INDIE spoke to her about precisely these inevitable changes affecting the industry—and how to best ‘use your voice,’ whether that’s as a critic, designer, or dedicated fan.
You went to your first fashion shows in the early ‘90s—when there was no social media and designers like Alexander McQueen and Martin Margiela were just starting out. How did you perceive the industry at the time?
To be perfectly honest, I did not enjoy my first season at all. It was sort of horrible [laughs]. What I remember was being frustrated by the bureaucracy of it all. Shows were smaller, and there seemed to be an incredible amount of ravenous energy about getting into them. It felt like, that sense of it being a high hurdle to clear, was really just exaggerated by the design houses themselves. A lot of them were suspicious of any kind of photography that would be put online. They felt that it would take away their control over the creative product. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the design houses independently just sort of woke up and decided to be difficult; that was the tenor of the industry at that time. But that tenor has changed to a huge degree.
What are the most significant changes?
Now design houses thrill at the idea that there are sets and shows being documented on social media for the entire world to see instantaneously. Another big shift is the compression of media, the coverage of shows. When I started, there weren’t all the websites but a lot of smaller, regional newspapers that covered the collections. I think the disappearance of that kind of coverage is unfortunate because it means that there are fewer publications that are [of] general interest, and that have more freedom in terms of the way that they cover the industry—actually covering it, and being watchdogs over the industry.
It’s interesting you just chose the term ‘watchdog’ in relation to fashion journalists—as it is so often being used to describe ‘call-out’ accounts like @diet_prada now, which primarily made a name for themselves with their rather reckless coverage of the industry.
I think it’s good for fashion that so many more people are engaged with it, and to some degree, have a real affinity for it, or at least feel invested in it. But, and I’ll use a sports comparison, there are a lot of sports fans who all have an opinion about their favourite teams, and their favourite athletes and the big game. But that doesn’t make them sports journalists. And I think that, while that distinction is generally made clearer in the realm of sports, I don’t know that it’s always made as clear as it should be in the realm of fashion.
Is there a disparity between the quantity and quality of fashion coverage at the moment?
Fashion needs people to be engaged with it; it needs people who feel passionately about the excitement of it, and the product, and what’s coming down the pipe—it does need that sense of anticipation. But it needs to perhaps do a better job in understanding what constitutes a fan, what constitutes a critic, what constitutes a reporter, what constitutes an active participant in the fashion industry.
What constitutes a critic?
I always believe that my role is to be the eyes and ears of my readers—to approach the industry with a healthy amount of scepticism, to try and put it into the broadest possible context, to open it up. I never want to feel like I’m preaching to the choir. I want to feel that I am speaking to those who may be somewhat estranged from fashion.
This is an industry that affects the lives of millions of people— we all have to engage in it in some way, and it doesn’t do anyone any good to simply cheerlead for it. There are definitely moments when a wholly positive, enthusiastic story is warranted. And I don’t think that it’s the job of the critic to be a curmudgeon either; that doesn’t do anyone any good.
You got into fashion by chance when starting out at the Detroit Free Press and initially covered techno and rave music. Did having a sort of ‘outsider’ perspective help you in reporting on fashion in a more objective and critical way?
I would definitely say that I have always been a little bit sceptical or suspicious of the industry. Certainly, over time as I have gotten a much better understanding of it, and the role of the different players within the industry, I’ve gotten a much broader appreciation of what goes into the making of a collection, what goes into building a business. So that’s one of the things I say when people ask me about a negative review: it is important to critique the work as objectively and fairly as you can but to never get personal; meaning, don’t try to climb into a designer’s head.
In comparison to other artistic forms, are fashion designers less used to being criticised for their work, simply because of how the industry is structured through advertising or endorsements?
I do think that they are used to it because it happens all the time. It happens when their clothes are left hanging on a rack at a massive discount. That’s pretty public criticism. It happens when buyers come into their showroom and walk out without placing an order. So they’re definitely used to that; with any kind of creative field where there’s a part of you that goes into the product, it’s really hard. It takes— I’m not going to say bravery because I think that’s overstating it—but it definitely takes a kind of passion to be willing to be a designer, and to put the work out there, and to allow it to be critiqued.
How did you find the balance of keeping all this in mind and still being able to profoundly criticise a collection?
To me, criticism is not saying ‘I hate it’ or ‘I love it’ because that is a subjective opinion and it’s based on just personal preference. Thoughtful, relevant criticism comes to its positive or negative end based on a lot of factors. Ranging from whether or not a collection speaks to a cultural moment, whether or not a collection propels the designer’s work forward in some way or expands on a sensibility that a designer has begun to establish. If you sort of work your way through all of those different kinds of questions, then, if you ultimately say that a collection is good or bad, a designer knows why.
What makes a good runway show to you?
There have definitely been shows where I thought that the designer was able to evoke really powerful imagery with the show, but the clothing also sort of stood up to the theatrics and the mood. One that I will always remember is a Dries Van Noten show; I think it was his 50th show, and he did it in this enormous warehouse. There was a dinner beforehand and then the chandeliers over this long single table rose, and the table itself became the runway. It was just a really beautiful collection and spoke to the kind of intimate human-scale aesthetic that he always expresses.
Are fashion shows currently too heavily influenced by the theatrics, by this sports event aspect we just spoke about?
I don’t know that there’s too much theatrics. It may be that oftentimes the theatrics overshadow the clothes. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a problem with the theatrics though, as opposed to more of a problem with the clothes. If you are going to walk out into that spotlight, then you need to be ready and you need to have something to say.
There’s the case in some collections in which a designer really wants to say something about political issues, or social justice issues, or feminism, and they want to use their show as a platform for doing that, but they’re not necessarily using the clothes as a platform for doing that. So you have this feeling of disconnect, where the whole show production is sending one message that doesn’t really have much to do with the clothes.
Has the number of designers that want to use their shows or collections as tools for some kind of commentary increased?
Some of them currently feel that their position and their reach via social media almost compels them to speak, and then there are others who feel that fashion should really be a solace; it should be a place that you go to get away from that kind of commentary. But I do think that, in the last five years, say, designers have had to make more of a conscious choice about which of those roads they want to take. Even those who don’t comment, they’ve made a conscious decision not to. I don’t think that it’s accidental, the decision not to comment.
When brands do decide to touch on certain issues, whether that’s verbally or visually, their commenting often still seems to go in the wrong direction—leading to accusations of political incorrectness or cultural appropriation.
I think that we have to remember that brands are essentially made up of flawed human beings with all the same baggage that everyone else has, and they bring that into the workplace. Individuals say things that they don’t mean, or they offend people all the time that they don’t necessarily mean to offend, so it’s not surprising that it would happen with a company.
What we have to look at is how do you respond? How does the company respond when it’s made a mistake? Do you apologise? A full-throated, upfront apology; does the company do the same thing?
We all have to be a little bit more human and civil in our actions. Companies need to be more humane and aware of their global reach and the international audiences that they are speaking to. But I also think that, as consumers, if you are offended about something that a company does, then you have to ask yourself ‘What is it that I want the company to do in order to make it better? Or am I just enjoying revelling in my own anger and outrage?’
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With more and more people having become so engaged with fashion and fashion shows, what is the public’s current perception of the industry?
I think people recognise the massiveness of the industry and just the cultural sweep of it. That said, there is still a diehard, significant percentage of the population that, even if they don’t necessarily think it’s superficial, they think that it’s frivolous and that it’s the purview of a particular kind of person and a particular audience.
I’m always, to some degree, delighted when someone says ‘Oh, I’m not interested in fashion, but I really enjoyed your story.’ That makes me happy because someone who didn’t think that the subject matter was for them, felt welcomed into my story and enjoyed it, and possibly learned something. However, it also says to me that this person has a very narrow definition of what fashion is—they see it as something that is very expensive, very rarefied, and most likely for women.
What is fashion to you?
I think there’s a difference between fashion and clothes. Clothing is utilitarian; it serves a particular purpose. Whether it’s to get you through your day looking professional, or there’s some technical aspect that allows you to perform in sports or what have you. Clothing is very much wholly rooted in the now. Fashion has tentacles that stretch a little bit into the future. To me, fashion always has this element of possibility.
Looking at the current landscape of the industry, are there more clothes or is there more fashion?
Oh, there’s definitely more clothes. And I think that’s to be expected. Firstly, most people want clothes; they don’t really want fashion. And fashion is sort of the top of the garment industry pyramid. It’s the part of the iceberg that pokes out above water, and everything else is just clothing.
Given the rapid change the world is currently undergoing, what’s the industry’s role?
In order for it to remain relevant and in order for it to grow and be a healthy industry, it has to engage. Some of that comes through just the increased diversity that we’re seeing in fashion, or the focus or, at least, the concern of issues related to sustainability. Those are all different ways of engaging and being attuned to the way in which life is changing. I don’t think it necessarily has to be picking from a provocative political stance, but it certainly means being aware of the shifting needs, desires, and thinking of its potential customer base.
What in your opinion are the biggest challenges fashion is currently facing?
If I had that answer, I would be a billion-dollar consultant. [laughs] It’s multi-parted. It’s all rolled up in this really challenging idea that the industry survives by pushing people to desire more, and as they consume more, it raises issues related to sustainability, and it helps to depress prices, which affects the conditions of the people who are actually producing the clothes. So it’s this really challenging, difficult cycle to slow down, pull apart, and fix. That’s the most massive challenge because there are so many moving parts to it, and it’s not just a matter of changing logistics; it’s also changing a mind-set that the industry has helped create.
In an interview in 2013, when asked about precisely this change you’d like to see in the industry, you said that “the industry as a whole should really realise the impact it has on our culture.” Would you say it has done so by now?
The industry is somewhat more attuned to the ways in which the choices that it makes ripple out and have an impact far beyond the realm of fashion lovers. You see it in the way that the industry has explored gender-neutral or non-gendered fashion, the way in which it has slowly opened the doors to more diversity in sizing, and age and race, ethnicity, religion. It’s still working through a lot of things for sure. It does constantly need to be reminded that with freedom of expression also comes a responsibility to consider what you are saying.
This is a condensed version of an interview featured in INDIE – An Education (AW19). To order a copy and read the full article, head here.