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Chic Commentator
Talking style with Robin Givhan

It’s not Bryant Park just yet, but Savannah Fashion Week is gaining traction in the hearts and minds of haute couture, according to award–winning fashion editor Robin Givhan.

The lady ought to know. Givhan has examined the fashion world down to the seams for over a decade, first as the fashion editor at the Washington Post and currently as a special correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She elevated the genre of fashion writing to new heights when she garnered a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2006, though her well–researched critiques of sainted designers have cost her coveted front row seats at runway shows. She authored Michelle: The First Lady, The First Year, calling the Obama administration “the end of the first lady–as–rectangle.” She can also be credited with introducing the term “peplum” into common vernacular. (FYI, it’s a flared ruffle attached to a jacket.)

The Washington, D.C.–based journalist will be in town this Saturday to moderate a conversation between Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley and couture designer Ralph Rucci, who will accept SCAD’s Lifetime Achievement Award that evening at the annual fashion show.

Barely back at her desk after covering the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala in New York, Givhan took time away from her deadline to discuss the contrivance of celebrity style, fashion bloggers and the importance of a good bargain.

You’ve interviewed both André Leon Talley and Ralph Rucci in the past. What can we expect from this mash–up of different style deities?

Robin Givhan: Well, André is quite the fullblown character and can always entertain. He’s also a tremendous resource. He has been part of the industry for such a long time and really has such an extraordinary context for design.
Ralph is quite refined. He’s measured, deliberate, almost controlled, very much like his collections. He always has interesting things to say about the fashion industry.

Is Savannah poised to blow up as a fashion destination?

Robin Givhan: [laughs] I don’t know about that yet, but I’ve heard such amazing things about Savannah and SCAD. I’m impressed by how the school has formed a relationship with the fashion industry at large. It’s incredible.
The school came to my attention around the time that André got involved. When he’s charmed and captivated by something, it’s a pretty major thing, and when that happens, he is such a champion. He speaks loudly and often about it.
Also, when [SCAD Dean of Fashion] Michael Fink came there from Saks [Fifth Avenue], that was another fashion industry connection.

So SCAD has kind of been on my radar for while. It’s constantly building a reputation, and it’s definitely in the consciousness of people in the fashion industry who have never been to Savannah.

Your fashion criticism goes so far beyond “love it” or “hate it.” How does clothing inform culture?

Robin Givhan: What I write about definitely goes beyond the clothes themselves. I’m not as interested in what people are wearing as in why they’re wearing it. In that context, fashion can be cultural, it can be political.

For instance, everyone got quite excited about hoodies after the Trayvon Martin shooting. There was the visual effect of seeing all of these people gathered together for a common cause, wearing hoodies. There was discussion about how it’s become this really evocative symbol, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. There’s too many people still can lay claim to a hoodie and its purpose.

Who are the style icons of this minute?

Robin Givhan: I am really cautious of making observations like that, and I’m not saying that to wrangle out of the question. So often the people who are in the spotlight and capture our attention with their clothing are people who basically have a whole village behind them helping them get dressed.

I always say I don’t frankly know what Nicole Kidman’s style is or what Jessica Biel’s style is. They all have stylists. It’s very hard to tease out what is purely the point of view of the person wearing the clothes and what’s the stylist and the makeup artist and the hairdresser and the five friends who are weighing in.

You can still make an aesthetic judgment at the end of the day when they walk down the red carpet—did they look stunning or provocative or shocking? But when we start talking about style icons, I think of someone who has a really strong personal expression of style.

Certain people stand out. At the Costume Institute party, Beyoncé arrived perfectly late—in fact, she was the last person on the red carpet—wearing a long, black gown that was essentially see–through. And my response is that was a very studied choice for someone who just had a baby. Here’s someone who’s getting ready to reemerge into the spotlight, has music to promote, is considered a fashion plate in the entertainment world. Those were strong choices, from the dress to the arrival time.

You wrote recently about how fashion bloggers are upsetting the apple cart in regards to writing about designers and runway shows. What’s the difference between them and what you do?

Robin Givhan: I hope people didn’t get the impression that I don’t like bloggers. I wanted to raise some questions and express my ambivalence.

One thing that bothers me is that when reading that kind of commentary is you have to make such an effort to figure out who the person is behind the blog. There’s no byline. I want to know who this person is. If you’re going to produce commentary, it has more resonance and authority if you stand behind it in a public way.

What troubles me about blogging that it’s often hard to know what’s their relationship to the industry and the designers they’re writing about. What are their standards, what rules do they play by? It’s a new medium, and it’s great that so many people can have a platform, but the rules are unclear.

After winning a Pulitzer, is it all downhill? Are you just another journalist reporting from the front lines?

Robin Givhan: [laughs] I definitely still see myself that way. I’m constantly feeling that you’re judged by your last story.

When you got the gig at the Washington Post, were you already interested in fashion or was there a job opening?

Robin Givhan: A hundred percent the latter. I had finished grad school and I was a general feature writer. I really wanted a beat, some thing to delve into and call my own. The fashion editor at the time became a columnist and her job opened up, so I raised my hand. I had no particularly strong interest in the subject. I had been trained to report, and that’s what I did.

I honestly think if the religion writer had gotten a new beat, I’d be a religion writer right now.

I bet you have a much better shoe collection than the religion writer.

Robin Givhan: [laughs] I would say definitely over the course of the years it would have been impossible to be exposed to some of the beautiful garments and accessories out there. It’s certainly elevated that sense of what’s possible. Not that I can afford it!

So on your day off, it’s not Louis Vuitton tracksuits and Prada sneakers?

Robin Givhan: I’m afraid I’m really disappointing! For the big events, of course I have to dress, but my goal is always just not to embarrass my employer.

I do enjoy clothes and appreciate them for what they are. I certainly feel better when I’m pulled together.

So what did you wear to the Costume Institute Gala at the Met?

Robin Givhan: I wore a long jersey halter dress by a Belgian designer named Dries Zan Noten. Which I bought on sale on Barney’s.

What: A Conversation with Robin Givhan, André Leon Talley and Ralph Rucci

When: Saturday, May 19, 2:30 p.m.

Where: SCAD Museum of Art, 601 Turner Blvd.

Cost: Free