In a recent column paying tribute to the late civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan revealed that he once called her many years ago to express his gratitude for an item she penned about his “pitch-perfect” style of Turnbull & Asser shirts, Charvet ties and fedoras — an aesthetic that “drew upon the collage of influences that make this country exceptional but that connect us on common ground.”
But it hasn’t all been expressions of gratitude for the longtime fashion critic, who was recently promoted to senior critic at large, a role in which she writes about a broad range of subjects, including politics, race, business and the arts.
“Aretha Franklin was once not happy with me at all. I wrote about a fur that she wore during some inauguration or something and let me just say that even being reamed out by the Queen of Soul is an honor, so there you go,” she said from her Washington, D.C., apartment, adding that in general, though, it has been men who have been much more likely to call and “speak in their defense” if she has written critically about something they’ve worn.
Yet it was her straightforward and frank writing that won her the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2006, the first and only fashion critic to have done so, with the committee citing her “witty, closely observed essays that transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism.” Among the articles highlighted was one criticizing former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s choice of dressing down in a knit ski cap, green parka and hiking boots for a ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — “the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower.”
While Givhan first began covering fashion at her hometown newspaper the Detroit Free Press, having made a last-minute decision to attend journalism school after taking the LSAT, it wasn’t until she later joined The Post that she developed her trademark style of fashion criticism, exploring clothes through the lens of personal presentation, especially for political figures.
And although much of her focus with her new role is outside of the fashion world, Givhan — who has also had stints at The San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue and Newsweek/The Daily Beast — hasn’t left behind her method of noting the importance of even the smallest details, turning them into thoughtful social commentaries.
“I feel like almost all of my columns kind of start with an image — whether it’s a moment during a speech that particularly stands out, whether it’s a particular photograph or setting or something like that,” she said. “I always feel like that visual roots the column, or at least is the seed from which it sprouts. And I also think that part of the way that we absorb these messages is very much visual.”
Most recently, she has written about the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged for the death of George Floyd; President Joe Biden’s first formal news conference, and the deadly shooting in Boulder, Colo.
Here, Givhan discusses her career and her new role.
WWD: So why not law school?
Robin Givhan: My mother asked me why I was applying to law schools and I had a very shaky answer and she reminded me how much I loved writing and suggested that I think about going to grad school for journalism, so that was how I switched gears. But my journalism master’s program was two years and, throughout, I deferred law school because I kept thinking if this journalism situation doesn’t work out I can go to law school.
WWD: When you did opt for journalism, fashion reporting wasn’t your end goal, right?
R.G.: I have many friends from high school who can attest to the fact that fashion was not really on my radar. I went to journalism school really because I loved writing. I never had a specific field that I thought I would want to cover in journalism. In my mind, I really just thought that in my perfect world I would be in a features section and I’d be writing about a host of different things.
WWD: Your first beat was covering techno music in Detroit. Can you tell us more about that?
R.G.: My first job out of grad school [at the University of Michigan] was my hometown newspaper, which was the Detroit Free Press, and there was a distinction between the features lifestyle section and the entertainment section and I was in entertainment, which is where all of the film coverage, the pop music coverage, all that stuff landed and everyone was a critic except for me. I was the only generalist in the department and it was frustrating because I was getting the dregs of everyone else’s beat and I kind of created this mini beat for myself, which was called nightlife. It even had a little insignia and it was really because I was the youngest person in the department and I went to clubs in the evenings and I got to know some of the disc jockeys and at the time techno was just starting to really happen in a big way in Detroit and it just kind of naturally flowed from that. I loved the music and I was intrigued by these DJs who were also becoming producers and I was fascinated that so many of them would talk about going to Europe and doing these concerts and they would just be massive. They would attract thousands of people and then, in Detroit they were playing to these pop-up raves with maybe a few hundred people. But Detroit was really about Motown and rock and the broader audience hadn’t really, at that point, glommed onto techno. So it was a very cool thing to cover and just watch bubble up and see the difference between how it was accepted in one part of the world and how it was really this niche underground thing in the hometown.
WWD: Were there some days where you were up all night reporting in the clubs and then you had to be in the office all day as well?
R.G.: There was one infamous evening in which I had said to some of my friends from the newsroom that there’s a great party that’s happening and you should all definitely go and I think there were maybe three or four of us. And, unbeknown to me, this warehouse in which this was happening, the people who were putting it on didn’t exactly have permission to make it happen and I stayed a fairly decent amount of time, but these friends stayed a little bit longer and after I was gone, apparently the police came and shut the place down and raided it and took peoples’ ID and names. No one got arrested but the next morning I got an earful about it.
WWD: How did you get from techno music to fashion?
R.G.: Again, it was me in search of a beat. The nightlife techno stuff was great, but it was part time. It wasn’t a full beat and somewhere along the way the person who was the fashion editor became a features columnist and the paper needed to fill her position and I was like, “Oh my god, an actual beat has opened up.” I raised my hand and applied to it. I said to other people, “I honestly think if the person who covered the environment or religion or whatever had suddenly decided to move on, I would’ve gone, ‘Environment? I breathe oxygen, I could cover that.'” So I applied for the fashion job. I had some friends who were really into fashion who coached me on who designers were and gave me some ideas and I applied and I did not get the job because I clearly knew nothing about fashion. But they hired someone else and, at that time, regional newspapers had such a huge investment in fashion that they hired me to cover men’s wear part time.
WWD: Did you start traveling for fashion shows straight away?
R.G.: It’s so funny now because so few regional papers have the budget to have someone traveling like that, but back then there were all these regional papers — Detroit, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Boston Globe — and they all had fashion editors and the vast majority of them all went to Europe and they did the whole circuit of London, Milan and Paris. So my first trip was to London and Paris right after I got hired just to cover men’s wear, and I was pitching in until the actual new fashion editor could arrive. And it’s so crazy to think about it, but I remember my editors at the Free Press said Pat Morgan, who was the incoming fashion editor, will not be able to get here before Europe and, at that point, Europe came before New York and they were so concerned that the paper missed a season in Europe covering the collections that they were like, “Can you just go and do London and Paris? We’ve already missed Milan but just go and cover London and Paris.” It was so on their radar and it was such a huge investment.
WWD: The good days of journalism.
R.G.: I know. Some of these papers would send multiple people. They would send their own photographers. It was something.
WWD: How did you find the first shows you had to cover abroad?
R.G.: Horrifying on every level. I honestly couldn’t tell you if it was as intense and stressful as my recollection of it is or if it was just intense and stressful because I was new and had never done it before. But it was horrifying. I spoke a bit of French, having studied it in college and I had spent a little bit of time there when I had studied abroad. But I was by no means fluent. I remember the outgoing fashion editor at Free Press had said to me, “If you get in trouble here are three or four friends of mine who will help you out,” and I remember getting to London and just calling the hotel room of one of these women. I think it was the one from Houston and I pretty much just said, “Your friend said that you would be nice to me and I just got here and I could really use someone to be nice to me.” She was heading out to dinner and so she invited me and she and several other fashion editors from other newspapers were incredibly gracious and took me under their wing. But that first season it was very last minute; I didn’t know any of the publicists certainly by face, the invitations situation was just a disaster. I remember having to call and try to get into things at the last minute and not being able to and sneaking in. It was just horrific.
WWD: From that point how long did it take to develop the style of criticism you’re so well known for?
R.G.: The way that I have been covering fashion did not coalesce until I got to The Washington Post [in 1995]. When I got to The Post I had a good sense of the industry. I knew who people were and I had a fairly good idea of what I thought about the industry as an industry that I was covering. But it was the culmination of being at The Post and being in Washington and seeing the way that people here really used power and negotiated power and how so much of that was tied up in the way that they presented themselves that that was when I started looking at fashion through that lens of personal presentation.
WWD: Do you still watch shows?
R.G.: I do. Now it’s much more selective. I was much more focused on them last year around this time and even in September. I did not watch a ton of them this time around — only a handful. It’s been interesting to step back a little bit because you realize the ones that inherently intrigue you kind of outside of the world of fashion and from a cultural point of view.
WWD: In the past, you said you preferred not to watch a show via video or by looking through photographs. So what do you think of virtual shows?
R.G.: If memory serves, when I said that there were still live shows, so my feeling was always that to review live shows and then to have some of the reviews based solely on video or solely on still photography, you’re comparing apples and oranges because they’re so different. And something that I realized once when I was looking at the still images of a show, which I had not particularly liked, and I looked at these pictures and I thought, wow these pictures are really great, and I realized that the collection that you see in photos, versus the collection that you see in video, versus the one that you might see if you go to the showroom, versus the one that you see on the runway, they’re all so different — even if they’re the exact same items of clothing…it all comes across in a different way. When everything went virtual, it was obviously comparing apples at that point because they were all virtual and it’s harder. I think sometimes there are advantages. I really have to say I was completely taken with the idea of actually getting fabric swatches and the whole show in a box concept, which felt very intimate in the way that clothing really is. But in other cases, I felt like the films/technology just got in the way of the clothing. And it was more about, “Oh, I’m watching this interesting filmmaker create something” and the clothes have very little to do with it.
WWD: Do you think there will be a lot more virtual shows in the future, even as as we return to as “normal” as we can?
R.G.: I could think of all kinds of arguments for virtual shows, ranging from a smaller carbon footprint, the ability to be able to see them in your own time in your own space, the fact that so many more people can see them. Just on and on and on and yet I come back to the stubborn fact that it just doesn’t replace being in the room with clothing on people.
WWD: It’s hard to see how things flow and move and all that kind of stuff.
R.G.: I feel it’s the thing that, no matter how long you’ve been covering fashion, that keeps you intrigued and keeps you going back which is, in the back of your mind, you’re always thinking this could be one of those magical moments when there’s this just creative perfect storm and the clothes, a narrative, a set, the models, the whole thing comes together and you’re just transported. For me, one of the most intriguing shows and one that was just moving and lovely was when Dries Van Noten did his 50th show and he did the dinner party where the banquet table became the runway and that was really quite something.
WWD: The industry and fashion media have announced many diversity and inclusion initiatives since the summer. Do you think some of it is for show or are you hopeful the industry can change and is changing?
R.G.: I would say all of the above. Definitely some of it is for show, but I think that that kind of public facing shift is important. I don’t think, necessarily, because it is for show makes it all bad because we need to see that there’s some kind of recognition that there are problems and that those problems need to be solved. I think it’s a really long haul and obviously going to take time for some of the initiatives and things to bear fruit or to see if they just shrivel on the vine. But I also think that a certain amount of grace is called for on both sides. I think that the industry needs to have a certain amount of grace in accepting where it’s gone wrong and the dreams that it’s killed and the careers that it’s stifled and to recognize how painful that is for a lot of people. And I think that there also needs to be grace on the other side in at least allowing the possibility that people can change, that institutions can change and that an apology is never going to be perfect and sometimes you have to move on.
WWD: What do you think we need to see for meaningful change to happen?
R.G.: I think a lot of conversation needs to happen, as exhausting as that might be, and I think it’s going to require a good amount of humility. And the reality is that, while it’s not necessarily a zero sum game, I do think that there are going to be hurt feelings as some people may feel that their path forward has been slowed in order for other people’s paths to be cleared so they can catch up.
WWD: How has the switch from fashion critic to senior critic at large been?
R.G.: Now I finally know what being at large means. I never really understood what that meant. It’s been really, really challenging, which has been the best part of it. I definitely felt like the learning curve with fashion had flattened a little bit. It was still interesting to me, but now I feel like pretty much on a weekly basis that I’m walking on a tight rope standing on the edge of a cliff treading water in the deepest part of the pool. Can I come up with another bad analogy? It’s a little bit scary and that’s I think a good thing. But it’s also been incredibly gratifying to weigh in on things that have been happening that I have felt really deeply. It’s been, in some ways, a lot more emotionally, mentally exhausting because they are things that I feel really deeply. But it’s also been kind of therapeutic, in a weird way, to be able to have the luxury of being able to sort through the complicated emotions that I think a lot of people are feeling and try to figure out to some degree what it all means.
WWD: In some columns you still write about politicians’ clothes. Why do you think it’s so important to cover what politicians wear?
R.G.: I feel like a lot of what I learned covering the fashion industry is really applicable to the things that I write about now because I think fashion just kind of teaches you to look really closely and intently at things and to really try to understand the narrative in the visual. So I don’t want to lose that because I think it’s added value to a lot of the columns because there is a reason why Biden, in his first prime-time address, walked into the East Room through that colonnade of state flags. There’s a reason why he was dressed so formally as opposed to dressed in just a sports jacket and an open collar shirt, so I think all of those things are part of the story that he was telling that evening. And I like fashion, so I’m always intrigued to see what people decide that they want to wear and how they want to present themselves on some of the most substantial moments in their lives.
WWD: In terms of female politicians and first ladies, there’s been a long debate about whether we should comment on what they’re wearing. What’s your take on that?
R.G.: I think it depends on the circumstances and the politician and, at least for me, I think you look at them in the context of who they are. By that I feel like I look at Dr. [Jill] Biden and the way that she uses clothing very differently from the way that I might look at Vice President [Kamala] Harris. I think that the role of the First Lady is very different and the way that she communicates is very different. Most often, she’s communicating in very symbolic ways, whether it’s bringing a basket of cookies to the National Guard troops after the inauguration, or going into a local bakery to pick up Valentine’s treats with her hair in a scrunchie. I think all of those moments, they’re very symbolic, so her attire is all part of that versus Vice President Harris. Her role is not symbolic. Her role is very much rooted in policy and in governing and so her use of clothing is very different. It’s just about being dressed to convey the authority that she holds.
WWD: What were your thoughts on the Kamala Harris Vogue cover?
R.G.: It was interesting to me that people responded with such energy. That was just kind of a reminder about how much images like that continue to matter to people. For as much as some out there would like to say that the era of the overarching importance of a Vogue cover for someone like that is on the wane, I think that was an indication that maybe it’s waned a little bit, but not that much. And I also felt like [it] was one of those interesting moments when all of the elements on paper sounded perfect but the finished product didn’t, I think, come together with the kind of magic that one might have assumed that it would. And, to me, it was kind of a reminder that there’s a difference between diversity and inclusivity. Inclusivity is having a roster of, say, Black photographers that you can pull from and choose one who has a particular style that is right for this particular moment, as opposed to just celebrating the fact that we brought diversity to the shoot.
WWD: How do you relax?
R.G.: Being able to go to the gym or take a SoulCycle class or something like that was my primary way of relaxing. That has been a lot more challenging this last year. I’ve really been enjoying downloading these walking sessions where some famous person talks about their life for like 45 minutes and then they pick four of their favorite songs that they play at the end. So I’ve really been enjoying doing that and walking with my dog and listening to people like Ibram X. Kendi and Bubba Wallace and Ruby Bridges and they’ve all downloaded these little walking conversations and I walk by the Capitol with the razor wire surrounding it.
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