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Robin Givhan Is the Fashion Watchdog We Need, But Not the One We Deserve

The Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic didn't hold back at Fashionista's "How to Make It in Fashion" conference on Friday.
Fashionista Editor-in-Chief Alyssa Vingan Klein and "The Washington Post" Fashion Critic Robin Givhan. Photo: Tonya Mann

Fashionista Editor-in-Chief Alyssa Vingan Klein and "The Washington Post" Fashion Critic Robin Givhan. Photo: Tonya Mann

After each season (if there even are seasons anymore), there are a handful of people who dispense thoughtful, nuanced takes on collections that reveal a deeper message about the current cultural moment.

One such voice belongs to Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic for The Washington Post who has become somewhat mythologized in the industry. The role of the all-powerful fashion editor — and in turn, the critic — has been replaced in the front row by influencers and celebrities, many of whom are paid to attend fashion shows by brands and public relations firms. They're there to sell you an illusion; Givhan's there to show you "the smoke and mirrors."

At Fashionista's sixth-annual "How to Make It in Fashion" industry conference, Editor-in-Chief Alyssa Vingan Klein interviewed Givhan for the bookend keynote discussion, during which Givhan talked about everything from how she got her start (as a general assignments reporter at The Detroit Free Press) to Supreme and the CFDA Awards.

Like most of what Givhan writes, the conversation was equal parts illuminating and entertaining. The discussion began with a sort of philosophical take on what it means to be a critic today. "I think like any other form of journalism, your work is to speak truth to power, be a watchdog, and it's also to draw people's attention to things that are troubling, contentious, but also absolutely amazing," Givhan said.

At a time when fashion shows are live-streamed on Instagram and tweets are fired in the seconds after, "rarely is the smoking-hot first take the most thoughtful. It may be the one that rises to the top of Google searches and gets tweeted around first, but in order to have a thoughtful opinion, you need to take a little time to think about it." (Wouldn't we all be better off if we applied that logic to our lives elsewhere?)

And even when Givhan's takes are harsh, she'd rather have a designer call her up to discuss her criticism before "sticking needles in a voodoo doll." Or, say, ban her from a show. (Cc: Rodarte.)

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While traditional fashion media has paid attention to the current First Lady from a sartorial standpoint, it's a topic especially relevant for a critic at the epicenter of the literal political landscape. Givhan covered former First Lady Michelle Obama's fashion as well as her political initiatives, and on stage on Friday, Givhan took a few moments to reminisce about how Obama had carefully constructed an entire aesthetic moment as political messaging without so much as uttering a word. Talking about the current First Lady doesn't inspire as much in Givhan.

"What's interesting to me is that [First Lady Melania Trump] is a polarizing political figure, but she's stepped completely away from using fashion as a communication device," Givhan said. "She has no issues wearing American designers or not wearing American designers, and in fact, tends not to."

"So, yeah," Givhan added coyly.

That's about the only time you can expect Givhan to remain more tight-lipped about a subject than not. Celebrity designers? "It breaks my heart," and "just because someone wears clothes well doesn't mean they design clothes well." Speaking of the hype machine:
"The whole CFDA Awards focusing on Supreme, I thought, was an example of the industry honoring something that was about marketing and advertising and a retail strategy rather than design."

And, there are few things in fashion less exhausting to Givhan than the revolving door of designers from house to house. "I don't think consumers are getting the best from designers, because [houses] are not giving designers a chance to settle in and find their groove and find a customer for that brand," she said.

Things aren't all bad in fashion, though: "I would say that one of the biggest triumphs is the industry's willingness to consider diversity and inclusiveness in a thoughtful way," Givhan said, toward the end of their conversation. "There's more that needs to happen, but there is an earnest conversation that is happening."

It'll continue, so long as Givhan's essential criticism does, too.

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