Robin Givhan Talks Model Diversity, “Inner Swagger” in Reddit AMA

Fashion critic Robin Givhan never lacks for quotability, whether she’s eviscerating Michelle Obama’s fashion choices for the Washington Post or breaking down Marc Jacobs’ latest collection for The Cut. So it’s unsurprising that Givhan’s Reddit AMA, in which she fielded questions on everything from runway diversity to the essentials of a collegiate wardrobe, is as full of candid, concise prose as any of her reviews. Below, our roundup of the highlights from Givhan’s Q&A, which focused on fighting systemic racism in the fashion industry as much as Givhan’s personal experiences as a renowned critic. It includes her instructing a 30-year-old man to “find your inner swagger,” so needless to say, we highly recommend a quick read. Here are the highlights.

On her process: “…The first question I always ask myself: Was my gut reaction positive, negative or somewhere in between? Did the collection keep my attention? But mostly I try to understand what the designer attempted to to accomplish and whether he/she was successful.
When a designer puts on a show, they’re essentially picking up a microphone: What did they say? Was it coherent or was it a jumble? And I do try to take into consideration whether the collection was presented by a brand with every advantage or a newbie who basically had to put the whole thing together with bubble gum and straight pins. Context matters to me.”

On why the uproar over model diversity hasn’t done much: “I think that the change won’t really take hold until the culture’s perception of fashion changes so that we think about fashion as something that has more of an impact on our lives than just what we put in our closets. I think for most people it’s hard to get riled up about which 18 year old girls get to walk down a runway, but if we think about the broader impact of fashion, and how it makes us value different kinds of people, we are more likely to be concerned and think about the runway as an important place.”

On the role of the critic: “I think the basic role is to help the public sort through a vast amount of information and see through the smoke & mirrors of the fashion industry, and part of what makes fashion so great is that it sells a fantasy along with a garment. I think the role of the critic is to assess the relationship between the clothes and the fantasy, to help make connections between fashion and the broader culture, and hopefully to be an outside voice that brings a kind of tough love and enthusiastic applause to the creative process of designers.”

On social media at Fashion Week: “I don’t think you can go backwards when it comes to fashion weeks. Everything is more open, more instantly accessible. I don’t necessarily see how social media is having a negative impact on the shows, other than so many people sit through them spending more time uploading video and pictures than actually watching the show unfold!”

On being a black woman in the industry: “The metaphor of breaking glass ceilings seems far too dramatic for anything that I’ve ever dealt with. I would say there have been moments of subtle — I’m not sure discrimination is even the word — I’d say subtle surprise when I’ve shown up to interview someone or for an event. But that happens far less now. There have been times when, because I’m the only black woman in the room, people will ask my opinion on some race-related topic. And I fear they will then take my answer and extrapolate seem vast generalization about how all black women feel. And that is so far from reality that ….well, I don’t even have the words. I’m one person with opinions. And while there is common ground, my opinions may well be very different from those of someone who grew up, say in the South rather than in the Midwest. Or someone who came from far more meager circumstances than I did. The biggest stereotype to me seems to be that black people all think the same.”

On the craziest outfits at the shows: “The woman walking across Lincoln Center Plaza wearing a fox fur vest when it was 80+ degrees outside. This was followed by a woman wearing a wool coat outside of Ralph Lauren when it was about 80% humidity. But they attracted the street style photographers, so their job was a success!”

On fashion broadening its audience: “I think the democratization of fashion has been a good thing because it means more people are engaged about fashion and more people have access to truly designed and thoughtful clothes. The downside, if there really is one, is that I don’t know that the industry is fully prepared for what it means to be speaking to a broad audience instead of a smaller club. But being forced into facing the responsibility that comes with having a broader reach is, I think, something that will only make the fashion industry a more creative and successful place.”

On what makes American fashion American: “There are many ways to ‘define’ American fashion, but it is rooted in sportswear, less formality (when compared to Europe) and pragmatism. The clothes have to work. None of this means they have to be boring, uninspired or stodgy.”

On working in New York versus working in DC: “I’d say writing about New York fashion means writing about an industry and its players and how that industry influences the world. In DC, its more about how people use fashion to communicate. The subtlety of the power uniform, the strategies that politicians use to suggest empathy versus authority, the way women’s professional lives have changed — those topics are all part of fashion coverage in DC.”

On the importance of staying grounded: “I spent 10 years based in New York. I loved being so close to center of the industry and it allowed me to build sources and have a lot of serendipitous conversations with people. But the danger is you become too close to the industry and it becomes harder to keep abreast of the fashion concerns of regular people.”

On what to buy for college: “I’m guessing you have plenty of college gear in your closet, so I’d say you’d want a few pieces that you could haul out to look professional or just pulled together as you transition into the work world. So yeah, a suit. A cool, black suit. And a coat that is not a parka or an anorak. And, if you are writing this from DC — something to carry your laptop and other gear in that is not an L.L. Bean backpack. (Not that there’s anything wrong with L.L. Bean — if you’re climbing a mountain, but not hiking K Street).”

On the hardest review she’s ever done: “The toughest was probably the first collection helmed by Donatella Versace after the murder of her brother, Gianni. Did the clothes even matter? Who could assess whether the collection was good or bad? But there was a runway show and the company carried on. People were interested in that emotional moment of transition, homage, reflection. It was a difficult review to write.”

On why she does what she does: “I did not set out to write about fashion. My desire was simply to be a journalist and the fashion beat was open. Over the course of the years, I’ve learned the fashion is a fascinating business about selling magic. It is done on the backs of our optimism and our insecurity. It is as much psychology as commerce. But I’ve also learned that every day we make split second decisions about people based on their attire and those decisions can have powerful implications — see the story of Trayvon Martin and his hoodie. It’s important for us to understand how fashion works and how we connect to it.”

On whether pulling clothes out of a pile is an “acceptable” way to dress: “No, my dear. This is not acceptable. You are better than that. You deserve more than reasonably clean clothes from a pile. Find your inner swagger. Hang up your clothes. Find your style. Go conquer the world.”