Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Making it in the fashion business isn’t easy. It requires talent, start-up capital and visibility. And even if you do launch a successful business, staying on top isn’t a given. Kojo talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan about the evolution of the red carpet, the first lady’s status as a fashion icon and the personal politics at play in the industry.
- Robin Givhan contributor, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn the fashion business, the politics are personal. Affect, we don't have to look to Hollywood or New York to verify since one of its ultimate dramas plays out here in D.C. every four years when hours of breathless speculation over who the First Lady will wear is followed by a flurry of media attention for the designer. But making it to a you've-arrived moment, whether at an event like the inauguration or on the red carpet is only half the battle, when it comes to making it in the business.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd even as we settle into a second term with the First Lady who has unabashedly embraced the industry, some still question whether there are serious discussions to be had about fashion. Clearly they haven't met our guest today. Robin Givhan writes about fashion, culture and politics. She's currently a Washington Post contributor and a Pulitzer Prize winner for her work in fashion criticism. Robin, good to see you again.
MS. ROBIN GIVHANIt's nice to be here.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Last week we learned the first lady will be appearing on the cover of Vogue again. Does this second time of status cement her position as a fashion icon, or are we still uncomfortable thinking about a contemporary first lady with a law degree in those terms?
GIVHANWell, I think there will probably always be a certain wing of the culture, a certain wing of, dare I say, the feminist population that believes if you ever notice, acknowledge, mention what a woman is wearing then you have to immediately lower her IQ and your own by several notches. But, you know, I think this time when she appeared on the cover of Vogue, and it's -- I think the issue hits newsstands on the 26th of the month -- I don't think it was really a surprise as much as it was a validation really.
GIVHANBecause she has spent the last four years being so, I think, astute in the choices that she's made in terms of her public attire, that it's pretty much indisputable that she has an understanding of the industry. And an understanding of what her choices can do for a designer. And what they say about her.
NNAMDISpeaking of choices, the choice she made for the pose on the cover of Vogue was, I guess, critiqued by photographer Ann Liebovitz as saying, they're okay but they look like something the White House would have issued. There's no created zest. What is your reaction?
GIVHANMy reaction is perhaps...
NNAMDIWhat do you expect?
GIVHANWhat do you expect, exactly. I mean, my understanding, after some conversations with the folks involved, is that sure, of course, you know, Annie Liebovitz attempted to inject signature Annie Liebovitz creativity into the fashion shoot with the first lady. But I don't think anyone was really hopeful that there was going to be a photograph of the first lady in a bathtub filled with milk. I mean, it's still the first lady.
GIVHANAnd so while it is a very formal pose, I mean, I do think that there's a certain amount of looseness. And I think also a more -- a greater projection of confidence than was there in the first photograph that appeared on the cover.
NNAMDIYou don't expect to see her doing the dougie on the cover of Vogue.
GIVHANShe may do the dougie with Jimmy Fallon, but I don't think she'll do it on the cover of Vogue.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number. Do you think conversations about style can also be full of substance? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Speaking of Vogue, the last time you were here we talked about the possibility of an ambassador Wintour. As of last week, the magazine's editor does have a new job, but that's not it. What is the new title she's taking on and what do you make of the move?
GIVHANWell, the new title is one that is wholly new to Conde Nast and she's essentially the artistic director, which we don't really quite know what that means just yet. All I can really say is that, you know, she has said that she's very excited about the position. And in some ways it sounds like she'll be able to sort of make it up as she goes along a little bit.
GIVHANBut it doesn't really surprise me all that much. Because certainly when the conversation was all about the possibility of an ambassadorship for her, I had a chance to talk to the head of Conde Nast who made no bones about the fact that he wanted her to stay. Had no -- had every hope that she would stay. And to some degree, you know, there's the question of, how is it that this editor in chief of a magazine is able to so freely politic on her own time? I mean, you can't really separate Anna Wintour from the Vogue brand. They're sort of one in the same.
GIVHANAnd my reaction was that, you know, his explanation for why she's allowed to do that sort of rang a bit like, I will do anything necessary in order to keep her, including come up with a sort of dicey explanation about why it's completely okay for her to campaign for a presidential candidate.
NNAMDIYou seem to even get the impression that even if she had accepted an ambassadorial position, he would've managed to do some kind of work around that would've caused her to remain with the magazine.
GIVHANThat she could have Skyped in her comments from London.
NNAMDIThat's how important she was. Well, speaking of how important some people are, a veritable month of fashion weeks recently wrapped up. And for the first time in a long time you did not cover them intensely. I get the sense that there was perhaps a bit of relief on your part. What's your takeaway for taking a season off, more or less?
GIVHANYou know, my universe was off balance this past spring. But the relief came really from just knowing that I wasn't going to be exhausted and running around like a crazy person from one show venue to another. So just from a kind of health perspective there was a bit of relief. But, you know, it was interesting because I think when you've covered an industry for a very long time it's sometimes helpful to take a step back and remind yourself of how it looks from the outside, or at least from a little bit more of a distance.
GIVHANIt's a good reminder of, you know, how the things that seem so natural and so commonplace to you sometimes resonate as bizarre and shocking to an outsider. And it's also a good chance to remember that, you know, fashion is an industry that really exploits our insecurities. You know, and it does that in ways that I think are both good and bad. I mean, some of that exploitation also encourages us, I think, to do better in how we present ourselves.
GIVHANBut because it exploits insecurities it makes everything seem very personal, even business decisions. So sometimes it's nice to take a step back and be reminded that it's never personal. Really it's always about business, even when they're trying to sell you something.
NNAMDIBut how does taking a step back not exploit your own insecurities? There are a lot of people who would say, I can't afford to miss one day of fashion week anyplace at all. How difficult a decision was that to make?
GIVHANWell, the decision was, in some ways, sort of put upon me because I'm working on a book. And I couldn't do both of those things, work on the book and cover the collections. But, you know, what happens is you -- or at least for me -- I mean, I had to ask myself, you know, why am I going to these shows? Am I going purely from a kind of indulgent, I want to sort of preen at a fashion show.
NNAMDIProfessional insecurity like the rest of us.
GIVHANExactly. And you have to sort of fight that and say, well I'm going to shows because I need to be there for the work at hand. And the work at hand was the book. And that pretty much limited things to just a couple of shows. But, you know, I wrote about it for a piece for the New York magazine's website. And one of the most interesting comments that I got back came from young writers who were just starting to...
NNAMDII read about that speech, talked about that.
GIVHAN...write about fashion and to blog about fashion. And I was really...
NNAMDIHave to learn about rejection.
GIVHAN...and I was really gratified that so many of them said that the piece served as a very good reminder for them that when they are turned down for an invitation, when they are given a backseat, when someone is mean to them, you know, before a fashion show, when all kinds of things happen, that it's not about them personally. And that they need to separate perhaps their own personal enthusiasm for fashion from their duty as someone who is writing about it and perhaps wants to be a journalist covering fashion.
NNAMDIHow do you overcome it when a publicist tells you you're too big for the front row?
GIVHANFirst of all, I thought that I could not be shocked by things that pop out of people's mouths during a fashion show. And so to hear something like that was profoundly shocking.
NNAMDIAnd they don't mean you're too tall, that the people behind you won't be able to see. That's not what they mean.
GIVHANNo, no. They mean width, not length, as they say. But, you know, when things like that happen, you know, the only way to separate it is to realize that clearly there's something very dreadfully wrong going on in the mind of the person who actually said it, and to recognize that they don't know you. They don't have any sense of who -- whether you're a good person or a bad person. Their commentary is purely superficial, and fashion is about the superficial. So their commentary is not about your soul, it's just about the superficialities that fuel this business.
NNAMDIWell, it's good that young writers have you to turn to to help to reinforce that understanding in themselves. In case you're just joining us, shame shame. We're talking with Robin Givhan. She writes about fashion, culture, and politics. She's currently a Washington Post contributor, and won a Pulitzer Prize for her work in fashion criticism. Our number is 800-433-8850. Do you pay attention to the designers that public figures where when they make appearances? Why or why not? Call us with your questions or comments.
NNAMDIWe're talking on the heels of a few of fashion's biggest moments, the inauguration and the awards season. First, were you surprised that the First Lady chosen an inaugural gown by Jason Wu again?
GIVHANI was pretty stunned actually, because I had just spoken to Jason Wu probably the week before. So let's say he's very good at keeping a secret. And, you know, I was struck by the fact that he was the rare, sort of unknown, inaugural designer who had been able to really take his notoriety and turn it into sort of financial value for his company. But I was surprised by her choice to go back to him because she had been very, I think, generous in spreading the wealth, particularly when it came to formal attire for big events.
GIVHANBut, you know, as I thought about it, I realized that recently she had in fact kind of gone back to the same couple of designers for recent gowns. Michael Kors one of them, and Naeem Kahn who had designed the first gown that she wore -- or the State Dinner gown that she wore when...
NNAMDIIs that a way of saying they get me?
GIVHANYeah. You know, I think like any woman, she makes her choices, as she has said again and again, based on what she likes, and I think that the choice to go back to Jason Wu really kind of underscored that it was very much a personal decision in terms of just she felt worked her and what made her smile when she looked at her choices, and she many choices.
NNAMDIJust prior to the inauguration, you wrote about the business fates of previous gown designers. It sounds like Wu is very much the exception to the rule in recent years. Why is it so difficult to take the moment in the spotlight, and parlay it into a successful business?
GIVHANYeah. You know, several things are at play, and one of them has to do with the fact that oftentimes the inaugural gown is a collaboration between the first lady and the designer. I mean, that was certainly the case with Hillary Clinton and with Laura Bush. So what the public often sees is not the designer's pure vision. You know, Hillary Clinton's inaugural gown, for instance, at least the first one, you know, was very sort of fairy tale like.
GIVHANIt was lacy, and it had crystals on it, and it was really this sort of ethereal ball gown, when in fact the designer, Sarah Phillips, her sensibility was almost minimalist, and almost austere. So it wasn't really a full expression of her work. But one of the things that I think is most interesting is that Jason Wu is from a generation of -- a new generation of designers who are taught in a way that's very different from the way that designers were taught in the past.
GIVHANIn the past, designers were taught that once they left design school, they would go into the (word?) of a master designer. And so they were often schooled in how to reproduce someone else's aesthetic for them. Whereas now they are taught to be entrepreneurs, and so you have designers who graduate who are barely old enough to legally drink who are already putting together a business plan and are already thinking about their secondary line and the accessories and the fragrance business that they are going to launch in five years.
NNAMDIBut his business plan seems to be advantageous because he didn't move too far too fast.
GIVHANHe didn't move too far too fast, but he was very much a businessman, and he was very thoughtful about how he expanded, and he was also very thoughtful about the kind of project that he took on, and what they could do for the business. He did not open his own store, which is a route that many designers have taken, but he listened to his wholesalers. I mean, he listened to those department store buyers who are coming to look at the collection.
NNAMDIAnd he listened to my mom's advice, don't do too much too soon. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Robin Givhan. She writes about fashion, culture, and politics. She's currently a Washington Post contributor. She's a Pulitzer Prize winner for her work in fashion criticism. 800-433-8850. Do you pay attention to the designers that public figures where when they make appearances? Why do you or why not? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Robin Givhan. She writes about fashion, culture, and politics. Robin is currently a Washington Post contributor. She's a Pulitzer Prize winner for her work in fashion criticism. we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. We will get to the phones in a second. The other moment, Robin, that can help make a label is a star turn on the red carpet. This year you noted a sort of shift that has slowly taken place when it comes to the relationship between starlets and designers. What does the seemingly simple choice of a dress mean for the brand of both a designer and a celebrity?
GIVHANWell, it feels like that balance of power, or I should say it feels like the balance of who gets the benefit from the red carpet has really shifted. And it used to be that it was the designer who was able to burnish his or her brand. I mean, it certainly helped Giorgio Armani, for instance, but he was very early in on that, and brands like Valentino and Prada, and they still do reap some benefit, but now that the stars are, you know, crafting these really expansive brands that include everything from their latest film to their fragrance to their own fashion line, there's this sense that if you're a star, particularly a woman, and you can establish yourself as this sort of fashion -- I hate to use the word icon, but at least this sort of fashion savvy person, that it could lead to all kinds of deals, whether it's a beauty contract or, as I said, your own brand, your own line.
NNAMDIRhianna, her own line.
GIVHANExactly. Rhianna, Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian, you know, the list goes on to the point where, you know, some of these celebrities are better known just for being these manufacturers of fame then they are for something that actually made them famous.
NNAMDISo the balance of power has now shifted and it tends to be more in the hands of the celebrities, and...
GIVHANWell, I think they have much more to gain by a successful turn on the red carpet, because for the designers, what they really have to gain is sort of name recognition.
GIVHANBecause the garment that the woman is wearing is usually not part of a collection that could then, you know, be sold to other people. It's usually something that's made very specifically for that performer, and in the case of someone like Jennifer Lawrence who is working with the design house, like Christian Dior, and low and behold she happened to wear Christian Dior to the Oscars. It becomes more about her celebrating her own personal brand than any kind of surprise or any kind of oh, my gosh, you know, Dior must have had a really stellar collection this season because she chose Dior. No. No. She was paid.
NNAMDII was about to say does that mean because of that shift in the balance of power, those celebrities can now make demands of designers that they previously could or would not?
GIVHANWell, they've always been able to make certain demands, but now it's just a much more formalized kind of agreement. You know, they have signed a contract in which they are now the face of the representative of that brand. And so people like Charlize Theron, for instance, is a paid representative of Dior. So there's really no sense of surprise or serendipity in terms of what she may wear on the red carpet. I mean, she's a spokes model.
NNAMDIWell, the Oscars also showed how important and significant getting a star in your gown can be for well-established designers. A point perhaps driven home when Ann Hathaway's team issued an apology for her last minute switch from a Valentino dress to one from Prada. What gives?
GIVHANYou know, I would love to have been a fly on the wall when she stepped on that red carpet wearing Prada. But, you know, she's had a history with the house in which, you know, she's worn Valentino pretty regularly, but I think more significantly is that, you know, for a house as established as Valentino, there's a certain -- there's a point of pride in being able to sort of announce who's going to be wearing one of your looks because it suggests that you're not part of that sort of feeding frenzy, and the sort of desperation that might go into, oh, please, please, you know, wear my dress.
GIVHANYou know, it's worth noting that Armani issues a statement about who's wearing Armani to an event, you know, an hour before anyone's ever stepped on a red carpet. So to some degree it was a little bit of a -- it reflected poorly on Valentino because it made it seem like they were a part of this lottery and they had jumped the gun a little bit.
NNAMDILost. Onto the telephones. Please put on your headphones so you can hear what Chris in Washington DC has to say to you. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISThanks. Robin, I was just curious if you are a "Project Runway" fan, and what impact do you think it might have had on the industry. I had no interest in fashion until I started watching the show, and I'm addicted.
GIVHANYou are not alone. You know, I watched it from the very beginning, and I tend to try and check in periodically from a sort of professional point of view. I can't say that I've been diligent in following it the last few seasons, but it has been, I think incredibly influential in getting people excited about fashion and, you know, teaching them a little something which is essentially that as a designer you have to be creative on demand, which is difficult.
GIVHANAnd you have to not only be creative on demand, you have to be creative on demand four, six, eight times a year for whole collections. But beyond that, I think it has in some ways kind of hurt the industry just a smidge in terms of young people who are thinking about going into it because if, you know, because it's reality television it tends to reward personality over creativity. And so often the person who gets all the attention is the one with the smart mouth as opposed to the one who is the hardest worker.
NNAMDIChris, thank you very much for your call. Here is Dianne in Laurel, Md. Dianne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANNEHi. I have a question for you regarding John Wu. Shortly after he did the first lady's first gown, there was a commercial on the airwaves of this cute little black cat with a red bow, and she was pretending to make all of these, you know, clothes for John Wu, and when she got finished...
DIANNEYeah. She'd be sitting on the chaise lounge and he comes through the door and sits down at his desk, and it said John Wu is coming to Target. Did he ever come to Target?
GIVHANJohn Wu didn't, but Jason Wu did.
NNAMDICame and left. Yes.
GIVHANYes. Jason Wu did in fact have a collection for Target. It was one of those collections that's only in stores for a brief period of time, and he would be very happy that you have such a strong memory of that commercial because he was able to essentially sort of be the creative director for that commercial, and was very excited about it, and felt like it was a chance for him to sort of, you know, be fully in control of his brand even as is extended out to the Target price point.
NNAMDIAnd the Target line, it is my understanding, sold out in just a few hours?
GIVHANI'm not sure if it was a few hours, but it was definitely a successful run for them, and they have been extremely savvy about bringing in designers who have some buzz in the industry, and also who may be just starting to infiltrate popular culture. And doing these one offs that are very limited in terms of time, and it's a great sort of payday for the designers. It's a great way for them to gain even more name recognition, and it, you know, ups the reputation of Target as a place that engages in style at a pretty good price point.
NNAMDIWell, what's been going on at J.C. Penney? J.C. Penney's been finding out firsthand how tough it can be to stay relevant to shoppers. I'm afraid we only have about 30 seconds left.
GIVHANWell, J.C. Penney's troubles go back far, far beyond any issue they have with Martha Stewart.
GIVHANI mean, they have been trying to rebrand from J.C. Penney to J.C.P. for probably almost ten years, and I think they just have gotten lost in the mix.
NNAMDIRobin Givhan. She is never lost. She writes about fashion, culture, and politics. She's currently a Washington Post contributor and has a Pulitzer Prize winner for her work in fashion criticism. She's working on a book. When do you expect to finish?
GIVHANI hope to finish by the fall.
NNAMDIAre you on a deadline?
NNAMDIThere's a deadline for the fall. We'll be expecting to hear more about that after the fall. Robin, always a pleasure. So good to see you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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