Hosted by Highsnobiety’s Editor-at-Large Christopher Morency, “On the Record” is a podcast series of intimate, off-the-cuff conversations with icons and cultural engineers that have shaped the worlds of fashion, music, tech, art, business, sports, and youth culture at large. For this episode, Morency spoke with Washington Post fashion critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Robin Givhan.
Between the fluff of fashion, there is Robin Givhan. The American author and fashion critic of The Washington Post is known for her cutting-edge journalism and objective reporting on the fashion industry. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2006 — the first ever fashion writer to receive the award — for “her witty, closely observed essays that transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism.” Givhan’s writing for the Post is refreshingly honest; she manages to cut through the noise and makes the elusive world of fashion digestible for her readers. During our chat, Givhan and I spoke about a wide range of topics, focusing on how influence is changing, especially at a time when the fashion industry (like most other sectors) is in flux.
The below interview is a written version of “On the Record” Season 2, Episode 1. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christopher Morency: I think there’s no better time to speak about fashion than now, when we’re hitting the reset button, and about to really see what comes next. I think, for an industry which has always prided itself on creativity and openness, the whole model we’re seeing now is old-fashioned. There’s this lack of risk-taking in the industry that we’ve seen the past couple of years.
Robin Givhan: When you mentioned the idea of authority and where the influence is coming from, I fully agree that in recent years the most interesting changes have really been coming from the menswear part of the business. And as I thought about that, I was led to a dark place, in that I think sexism has always been a huge part of the way that fashion is perceived in the broader cultural world. I’ve always argued that the idea that fashion is seen as this sort of superficial, frivolous industry despite it being a global trillion dollar industry has a lot to do with the fact that it’s always been perceived as a providence of women.
I don’t necessarily find it particularly surprising that when it comes to the idea of influence coming from the ground up as opposed to the design houses themselves, that it would be on the menswear side. I tend to think that there is still this kind of stubborn notion within the women’s side of the business ,that’s sort of, “Designers know best.”
Why do you think that hasn’t changed?
Well, I think there’s a long history of it. It’s significant that, on the men’s side for instance, early on, when you started thinking about who are the sort of early influencers, who are the guys that male customers are looking to for style inspiration, a huge part of that has come from the world of sports and athletes. I think there’s an element of respect for that. For women, the great influence has come typically from Hollywood, models, and socialites, and I think it’s a reflection of the power balance and the kind of respect that those different personalities carry with them.
I indeed feel like the menswear industry has embraced this shift in influence a lot better than the women’s industry.
I always joked that the difference between when a woman is shopping for a pair of trousers and when a guy is shopping for a pair of trousers, they both can go into the dressing room and try them on. If the guy tries them on and the pants don’t fit, his response is, “There’s something wrong with these pants.” If a woman tries them on and they don’t fit, she says, “Oh my god, I need to lose 10 pounds.” That’s not the case 100 percent, but I think this kind of simmering subtext is there. Menswear always seemed to consider itself being in service to its customer and much keener on listening to what customers wanted and much more willing to absorb the changes in their customers’ lives into the work. I think on the women’s side, it’s been much more attached to the idea of aspiration and fantasy.
I feel like a lot of brands still feel they’re in charge, leading the agenda and creating culture, when actually the consumer is nowadays.
You know, the whole influx of athleisure and street style into the women’s side is really something that was borrowed from the men’s. But I do think that it is just nice to have that sort of authoritative, professional guidance and creativity of designers. I think ideally there would be a kind of mutual sharing of authority if that’s possible, as opposed to it being this really asymmetrical kind of relationship, because I would hate to see all of a designer’s skill, technique, and taste level sort of vanish in service to a kind of do-it-yourself world.
It’s always the question — to what extent can you give that consumer a level of creative freedom? Where does that dialogue begin, and where does it end?
I think about what Tom Ford once said, that the job of a designer is to give people what they didn’t even know that they wanted, and the best designers really are able to do that. I think what happens is when what designers are offering isn’t something that’s sort of wonderfully come from their imagination, it’s just more of the same. It’s getting stuck in this never-ending cycle.
That’s almost what streetwear and men’s luxury has become nowadays. This whole idea of true originality — if it even exists today — definitely doesn’t exist in streetwear anymore. It’s more about referencing and introducing the audience to something that’s beyond just the fashion world, whether it’s art, music, or sports. Like when Supreme works with Larry Clark or Nike with Tom Sachs.
I think the conversation about originality is a challenging one, because, as with music, two or three familiar things can be combined to make something that is ultimately brand new, even though the building blocks are old and familiar. I do think there’s a distinction between combining [things] to make something new and it’s just sort of derivative and isn’t an improvement of the two independent things. I don’t know if it’s just to some degree coming out of sheer exhaustion. I think that real creativity requires a fresh brain and perspective, and if you’re constantly churning out things and constantly thinking about the next product launch that’s coming along in three weeks, it does become incredibly difficult to be creative.
There’s been a lot of talk about change in the fashion industry. A lot of talk of how fashion week can change, how the speed of the cycles can change with deliveries and the amount of collections designers have to show every year. Do you truly believe that it’s something that will change?
I’m an optimist. I hope it does. I mean, how long have people been talking about the cycle being too fast and wanting to step away? In order for it to stop, it’s like jamming a tire iron into spinning wheels. That’s essentially what has happened. The coronavirus made everything come to a screeching halt. I would hope that people would take the opportunity to say, “Listen, everything has been delayed anyway. Why not just take this opportunity to reset the cycle?”
Everyone’s been talking about sustainability and the fact that there’s too much merchandise and that’s why there’s constant sales and [items] end up going to waste. Why not take this opportunity to produce less? The thing about it though is, the industry only has itself to blame. It’s not like consumers were saying, “Please, please, just give me more stuff.” I think the industry responded to consumers saying, “Give me more exciting, interesting, creative things by just giving them more stuff.”
Consumers expect physical product nowadays at the speed of Instagram, which is obviously impossible to do. That takes time. Going back to influence and authority, once upon a time you did have the department stores and magazines that dictated what was new and the next big thing. That’s obviously completely shifted to the consumer, but the model of the industry hasn’t changed. I wonder if you think this idea around influence and authority will also hit the reset button?
That’s a good question. My best guess is that yes, I do think that the influence will be felt more from consumers than it will be from the industry itself. I think that, if nothing else, a lot of the fashion industry’s power as a business has really been diluted thanks to all of this. They’re really at the mercy of the customer and what the customer wants and when the customer wants it. This whole idea that it’s impossible to find a swimsuit in July because they all arrived back in April and then were put on sale by March has always been ridiculous.
I would think that ideally there would be a kind of, for lack of a better word, sort of a détente between the industry and the customer in realizing that they really have to move forward together, and in realizing that a lot of things could change, ranging from the mechanics of the business to who the industry believes is its customer, and broadening that to include a wider range of sizes and to include a wider diversity of voices and creatives in the industry. Just recognizing that they’re not holding all the cards. I think it could change the way that fashion advertises and what editorial shoots look like.
What do you think about this idea of localization? During corona, we’re now really looking around us and cutting away what’s not essential to us; I feel that looking more at the smaller community aspect of it will become very important for brands as well, if you want to be part of any community.
Well, it’s a little bit like Back to the Future, right? When you look at what’s sort of the conversation coming out of the restaurant industry and people in communities really feeling like, “Oh, I want to support my local restaurant, because when this is over, I want them to still be around. I understand that they are part of what makes my neighborhood an interesting and vital place.” If you sort of extend that to the fashion industry, it does make you start thinking that it’s the smaller brands and the independent stores that make the industry interesting. It’s the ones who are not part of the giant conglomerates.
I’m not dissing [them], but they are the ones that are everywhere and who’ve made fashion feel much more homogenous. It’s virtually impossible to go from one capital to another and not feel like the shopping experience is almost the same. It would be a really wonderful offshoot of this if that sense of “local and unique” starts to really permeate the industry.
That’s a good point. This idea of tribalism in fashion nowadays is also something I think about a lot. I really feel that after all of this, we’re going to see a return to those early days of, “You’re either a Margiela or a Helmut Lang person.” We see that a few brands’ shows, like Rick Owens and Thom Browne, that they still have it, but apart from that, it’s always been pretty homogenous. It adds meaning to fashion, beyond the clothes.
There’ve been conversations about the end of fashion shows and how fashion shows were already feeling so obsolete and from another time. I disagree with that. I think that some fashion shows feel like they’re pointless, but there are others that have always been an incredible experience and incredibly exciting. I think the industry got into this place of sameness, where there was this sense that everyone had to present their collection in the same kind of way. And that every brand had to aim to be as big and as global as possible, and that every brand had to cater to as many influencers as possible, instead of each brand deciding what it was about it that made it special and that made it worthwhile for people to care about it.
I would be very sad if Rick Owens decided he was never going to have another fashion show, because I think a Rick Owens show is a really powerful, moving thing. [But] I think more brands really need to ask themselves, “What is the point of the fashion show?” If the point of the fashion show is purely a marketing exercise, then I think it’s worth sitting down and saying, “How else can I market my clothes?”
Actually, I have a question for you.
I’m curious to know how you feel the future looks for collaborations? I sort of joke that every time I see something, I’m just like, “Enough already.”
Absolutely. For the longest time, people have thought about collaborations as a product, right? Like, the only collaboration we can talk about is a product. I think that’s just not the way that fashion works anymore. It goes back to the point I just made about this whole fashion show, where it’s about the soundtrack, it’s about who’s sitting on the front row, the set design. The product almost becomes this means to an end, as opposed to the end itself, as it was in the past. And so, I think this idea of collaboration only works when it’s beyond product alone. I have asked business leaders this question many times; They’ve said, “Very often, it only works when you get something out of it which is beyond product.” I think, for the consumer, that really trickles down. It makes sense to the consumer when you can see that it’s not an easy product with just two labels slapped on it for sheer marketing purposes. What I do think, when it comes to product, is that it changes culture, in a way. That’s what was so polarizing when Vuitton collaborated with Supreme. All the Supreme skaterheads said, “That’s ridiculous. They’ve sold their souls. It’s so commercialized,” and the Vuitton customers said, “This is not for us. It’s too focused towards youth culture.” But that collab was so amazing because it signified something in time.
Yeah. When I think about collaborations, it really does sort of come down to two brands mushing their name together, as opposed to two brands bringing together disparate worlds, or an interesting tension between opposites. Speaking of Dries, the collaboration that he did with Christian Lacroix was, I thought, a really interesting collaboration, because you really did get a sense of two different creative voices coming together to create something that was neither Dries nor Lacroix. It also had this feeling of sort of past and present, and couture and ready-to-wear, and all of those things. But again, it comes down to the idea of just more product.
I remember when, in New York, there was so much wailing and gnashing of teeth about whether or not brands should show collections in season or they should be showing them six months from now, and why and how consumers were going to be so bored with things because they’ve seen the photographs and they’ve talked about it and dissected it. I just sort of felt like the industry was sort of going around and around and around a central problem, which was not when things arrived in stores, but the things themselves. People are happy to wait to see a trailer for a film, and if it looks incredible, the anticipation only builds over the course of the months that they’re waiting.
What’s something that you hope will change in our industry?
I would hope that the industry took the opportunity to slow down the pace and to use that breathing room to really create the most interesting, the most alluring, the most captivating product, and to try to re-engage customers so that people are thinking less about having to fill up their closet with newness. One of the most fascinating things that I came across when working on a story about sustainability was when I was looking at the prices of clothing. It was discovering that — along with electronics and meat products — clothing was one of the few industries in which it actually costs less today to buy garments than it did in the 1950s. And that price suppression has come at an enormous cost, all the way up and down the supply chain.
And I don’t want to make fashion out to be the bad guy; This is a problem in a multitude of industries. But I also don’t want to let consumers off the hook, because we all know that going into a store and spending $6.99 on a T-shirt is not sustainable. We all know that, if the cost of a shirt is that low, somewhere along the way somebody got really screwed, and it probably was not the person whose name is on the door of the store.
And people will argue that, absolutely, a lot of fashion is way, way overpriced, but there is this middle ground where people are being paid fairly, where environments aren’t being trampled on, and the simple answer is, instead of feeling like we need to own 10 of them, one will suffice.
We see this with streetwear as well now.
Yes. It used to be that it was a seasonal thing, you know? That you could at least be assured that, “Okay, for six months, I’m relevant. I’m plugged into the conversation.” Now, you’re plugged into the conversation [for four weeks]. That’s part of the wonderful mythology and fantasy and aspirational quality of fashion, and it’s also part of what makes fashion toxic at times.
I have a bit of a controversial opinion — I don’t feel that many fashion writers are pushing the agenda forward anymore, and it feels a lot like we’re chasing culture, as opposed to reporting on where it’s going next.
To me, with journalism, I hate it when some people distinguish fashion journalism from journalism. Right? Journalism is journalism, and the same rules apply regardless of what industry you’re covering. Having said that, I also think there is a distinction between being a journalist and being an advocate. I have great respect for advocates who are out there leading a charge for whatever issue it might be, whether it’s more organic fabrics or against fur, etc. My feeling as a journalist is that my job is to give people the best information that I can. As a critic, I feel that my job is to raise questions about things, to question the status quo, to look at things with a reasonable amount of skepticism, as opposed to immediate acceptance. That combination, I hope, arms people with the kind of information and their own personal questioning that will allow them to make smart choices.
It is really incumbent, and it’s better for the industry, I think, if the more independent journalists there are covering it. No industry is good at self policing. The most solid industries are the ones that have lots of watchdogs who are raising questions and shining a light on things, and asking why. “Why is it done this way? Why has it always been done this way? What are the repercussions of something being done this way for so long?” I also think it’s hugely important for journalists to remember that they’re not part of the fashion industry. They’re part of the journalism community, and they’re working on behalf of their reader, not on behalf of the designers that they cover.
That’s why I’ve always enjoyed your writing so much. It’s a bird’s eye point of view. But fashion is tricky in that way; I think a lot of writers become close with designers and with brands and their teams. Objectivity gets increasingly skewed.
Well, it’s hard, because it’s one of those industries in which, for anyone who covers a beat, there’s always the question of access. It’s something that journalists who cover politics are constantly dealing with. But then you also have to balance access with keeping in mind that you’re in this for the reader.
I admire the design industry. I admire designers, because after having reported about the industry for a long time, I’ve learned how hard fashion is. It is not for the faint of heart. It’s not for people who want to do it for the glamour and the glory. I admire the commitment that designers have to their brand and to their vision and to their dream. But I also think that it’s an incredible honor and blessing and delight to be able to practice fashion, and with that comes responsibility.
For Highsnobiety readers that might want to join the fashion industry in whatever way, what are some key things that could really help them in their careers, especially at this point in time?
It’s such a challenging business, especially journalism. I would just say that if you are passionate about writing and are passionate about journalism, don’t give up on it. Be a constant optimist and believe that there will always be a place for storytelling and for news gathering. The method of delivery will change, but the content, that part of it won’t.
And for potential designers, I am still a believer that creativity wins the day, ultimately — but really take the time to find your voice. I think that probably goes for journalism as well. There is a tendency to be in an excruciating hurry, and there’s a lot to be said for taking some time to figure out, one, from the design part, what it is that you want to say. I do think a lot of times people go into fashion and they haven’t really figured out what it is that they want to say to people, and that’s one of the reasons why they are often met with failure, I think.
Just hone your voice, but also remember to not stop speaking. I really feel like people need to be heard, and there’s so many interesting, diverse voices out there that need to be heard. It’s just a matter of making sure that when you start to speak, you really have something that’s distinctive and that is compelling. Because sometimes you only get one shot. You only get one shot at the investors. You only get one shot to entice customers. Make sure that you’re prepared to give it your best.
Robin, thank you so much for that great advice and for taking the time today.