Robin Givhan: A Chance to Join the Conversation

Many thoughts crossed my mind when I found out I would be hearing Pulitzer Prize winning fashion critic Robin Givhan speak to an audience at Hart House last night.

Would she answer all of my questions? Would she be as thoughtful in front of an audience as she is behind her laptop? Would she share similar opinions about the status of “fashion”? As much as everyone in the room absorbed her every word, there were moments where I felt connected to Givhan, most notably at this point in the conversation:

Jeanne Beker: “After all of these years, what has kept you so immersed in fashion?”

Robin Givhan: “I am still figuring it out. I come at fashion at an arm’s distance.”

What followed these modest, yet practical words was a sentiment that fully expresses how I feel about my own capacity as a fashion critic:

RG: ” I stand by a doorway and sometimes I get to enter where fashion happens.”

Growing up, Givhan did not “soak up Vogue” or endless pioneer publications, but she discussed how her triumphs in fashion took time, manning doors, hoping to be invited to what she describes as “a once rarified world.” She mentions how papers neglect to include “Fashion” sections, fearful of a backlash that may arise – is fashion newsworthy, or strictly for glossy publications and online journalism? Fortunate for Givhan, she is the first ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for work in fashion criticism – I’d say, despite her “still figuring it out” status, Givhan has proven that fashion is newsworthy, bona fide news and given the homogenization of the entire industry, it is on everyone’s mind and it will sell papers.

A lot of Givhan’s feelings about fashion can be summed up by a reference she made to first lady Michelle Obama. Jeanne Beker asked, “is there an outfit [Michelle Obama] has chosen that you thought, “no, it didn’t work?”” Givhan spoke of Obama’s shorts incident, noting “if you get the fancy riot, you’ve got to play the part.”

She couldn’t be more right.

It became clear that this is how she felt about fashion overall. Fashion itself is a fancy riot, with excess amounts of money being spent on ‘it bags’, couture and luxury – words Givhan believes have been bastardized, losing all original meaning. She mentioned how she’s noticed an affinity for a retro aesthetic, with little focus being made to the future of fashion.

RG: ” I go back and forth. Season after season, we wait for something that isn’t referencing the 40s, 50s and [she says with disdain] the 80s.”

A “sobering of fashion” that justifies homogenized design is what Givhan describes as the current state of affairs. I too believe this to be accurate, given the propensity toward fur, monochromatic black and 80s bold shoulders on almost all runways from the past two seasons. But is everything a copy, insincere and void of the creativity we come to expect from the visionaries of fashion? Have we arrived at a fancy riot, only to see look after look of the same old thing?

Kevin Naulls: “I have been reading the autobiography of Bill Blass and what interests me was his ability to remain unfocused on trends, selecting whichever fabric he desired, the silhouettes he preferred and the colour palettes he deemed suitable. However, given the importance of trend forecasting software, years in advance colour selection and the aggressive PR spin, how much of what we see on the runway is sincere? Has fashion become watered down by this pre-packaged sense of design?”

I would like to note that I was not as eloquent as this quote suggests. There was stammering, my leg was completely shaking and I believe I introduced myself by saying, in a very fan boy-esque way, that I “loved her so much.”

I aimed to arrive at a conclusion for what fashion has become, but instead Givhan showed how fashion is indeed, not watered down – “often, designers become too sincere in their vision,” which is a problem in and of itself.

Despite the more jarring use of “watered down,” which admittedly was an aggressive stance, I do believe that the use of trend forecasting places limitations on design. Can I use lavender for Spring/Summer 2011? Well, let me just consult WGSN to see if it is an acceptable colour for the season. Is this really how creative people should approach design? Has fashion as a money making machine made designers too aware of trends?

The bottom line (and it is something both Jeanne and Robin noted) is that fashion is a business. Design can be creative, but given the lack of money being given to new designers, the interest is often on making consumable designs. Was I wrong to suggest that design has become too pre-packaged? I don’t believe so, but designs are still ultimately made from pattern to party dress and for that, it does take a creative hand. However, with designers like the late Alexander McQueen and rising star Phoebe Philo being a dime a dozen, I am often left with the feeling, “it’s nice, but it could have been more.”

The very true notion of ‘fashion as business’ has taught me that trend-based collections are an effective way to line the pockets of creators and companies like LVMH, but perhaps I am merely longing for more heightened spectacle alongside trend and fad items – prepackaged can exist, but if it is the only fashion presence, then I’ll stay home. “Fashion,” Robin says, “is meant to evolve.” I think that is something we can all agree with.

Events like the Robin Givhan talk are important to me, because I thrive on an open dialogue. How can definitions be reached if no one is talking about the words we use in every critique and every blog post. Robin and Jeanne gave Toronto a chance to participate in a global discussion about a fashionable world view that is so loosely defined, it needs to be criticized. Thankfully we have thoughtful and intelligent women to guide us along. Hopefully in the future, I can be among them.

For those bloggers out there, Robin is on our side.

RG: “God bless the bloggers.”

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Robin Givhan: A Chance to Join the Conversation

  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing :).

  2. i so wish i could have been there!

    thank you kevin for this post.

  3. i like this blog
    is good!

    • naulls

      I am glad you like it! How did you find me? It is great to have you here and I hope you’ll keep reading.

      – Kevin

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