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Serious social issues, ranging from racism to safe and ethical manufacturing practices, have taken center stage recently in the world of fashion. Various industry groups and insiders are pushing designers to be more aware of, and accountable for, decisions they make about everything from who they send down the runway to where their garments are manufactured. Kojo talks with award-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan about the impact fashion has on lives on and beyond the runway.
- Robin Givhan Contributor, The Washington Post; style and culture writer, The Cut from New York Magazine
Robin Givhan On Her Career In Fashion Criticism
Robin Givhan talks about how she got her start as a fashion critic and what it was like to win a Pulitzer Prize.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMany who follow fashion, love the element of fantasy it brings to their lives, but lately reality has come crashing in with serious questions about social issues, including racism, body image and gender politics taking center stage. A growing number of industry insiders are pushing designers to be more aware of and accountable for decisions they make about everything from the models they send down the runway to how and where their garments are manufactured.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to talk about the impact fashion has on lives on and beyond the runway is Robin Givhan. She writes about fashion, culture and politics. She's currently a Washington Post and New York Magazine contributor who has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her work in fashion criticism. Robin, good to see you again.
MS. ROBIN GIVHANIt's nice to be here.
NNAMDIThe collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,000 died last spring, brought this complex issue of the global fashion supply chain to the fore. Just how large is the disconnect between the design process and the manufacturing process?
GIVHANWell, I mean I think it sort of depends on the time of day that you ask people. I mean when this garment factory collapsed it really brought home the fact that there is not very much distance. But I think on a day-to-day basis, particularly with the designers who present their collections during fashion week, there is a disconnect because they're not the kind of designers who are making hundreds of thousands of units. I mean these are people who are working on a more limited basis.
GIVHANAnd for them, there really is this sort of, you know, cross your fingers and close your eyes and hope that the promises of your manufacturer bear out and they're not subcontracting and then subcontracting again.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Have you become more conscious of where the clothes you buy are made since that factory collapse in Bangladesh? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to Kojo@wamu.org. Robin, do you think that we'll see real and lasting change in the wake of that tragedy in Bangladesh and the attention that event brought to this issue?
GIVHANWell, you know, I'm an eternal optimist, so I'm going to say yes. You know, I think that one of the heartening things that's happened recently is the fact that more and more designers are trying to bring manufacturing back to the states, specifically New York. And for a long time there's been an effort to save the garment district. And, you know, some have sort of said that that's, you know, sort of a touchy-feely-warm-fuzzy sort of campaign.
GIVHANBut just recently the CFDA, which is the fashion industry's trade organization, along with the New York Development Corporation, along with one of the top businessmen in the field, have gotten together to create an initiative to really support New York factories, to try and help them expand, to try and help them modernize. And a pretty large number of designers, whose names that people know, really do a lot of their manufacturing in New York.
NNAMDIToo many digital companies now in the garment district?
GIVHANWell, you know, the garment district sort of fell on hard times, the way that a lot of manufacturing in this country did. And as garment factories disappeared internet and tech companies moved in and took on that real estate. And so now a lot of them are being squeezed out. A lot of them don't make huge amounts of money. And as the real estate values go up, they can't really afford to pay them. But some designers like Anna Sui and Yoli Tang (sp?), Rag And Bone, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who design The Row, have all really made manufacturing in New York sort of part of their company's ethos.
NNAMDIYou know, just having discussed the tragedy that occurred at the Washington Navy Yard, here we're realizing that outrage doesn't last very long. So I'm wondering if the outrage over the collapse of that building and the deaths of more than 1,000 people in Bangladesh is going to last long enough for us to see real changes as a result of the outrage.
GIVHANYou know, honestly, I think the outrage has passed. I mean the sad thing is soon after I first arrived at the Washington Post, and this was in the mid '90s, there were stories about sweatshops in Los Angeles or just outside of Los Angeles. And, you know, poor Cathy Lee Gifford went around, you know, sort of doing a big mea culpa because she didn't know that clothing bearing her name had been manufactured in some of these places. So, you know, we've seen this before and we've had the outrage and we've had the sort of soul searching that happens when we ask ourselves, are we demanding fashion or just pure old clothing at really too cheap of a price? At such a cheap price that somebody, somewhere is paying for it, and with their lives.
NNAMDIYou know, I have to say I hate that we've seen it all before, but that's the way life is. One issue that sparks a rallying cry every few years -- speaking of seen it all before in the fashion industry -- is diversity. Recently, questions have once again been raised about racism on the runways. Just how homogenous is the scene and who is behind the latest efforts to bring attention to this?
GIVHANWell, I will say that the good news is that the Spring 2014 collections, which were just on the runway in New York, were modeled by a vastly more racially diverse collection of models than the previous season. And part of the reason for that is…
NNAMDIThey knew you were watching. But no, go ahead.
GIVHANThey knew people were counting. You know, part of the reason is because that conversation is in the air. And, in fact, they did know that people were watching. And no one really wanted to be caught having to explain themselves. I think probably the most instrumental in making the change has been the campaign that has really been led by Bethann Hardison who is a formal model and had her own agency, helped broker the quite famous deal of Tyson Beckford at Ralph Lauren.
GIVHANAnd has really been pushing on this topic for practically a decade. And this season she was in particular joined by Naomi Campbell, Iman. And they wrote letters to the governing bodies of the world's major fashion capitals, New York, London, Milan and Paris, and they listed the designers, who last season had only one or no black models on the runway. And the list was quite long, particularly in Paris. And they essentially said that you may not be a racist, but your actions, when it comes to casting your shows, is racist. That's a pretty intense accusation.
NNAMDIYou know we talked with Iman on this show way back in October of 2005. And while she shared the, well, untrue story that was spun by her background…
NNAMDI…by the photographer who discovered her, because, as she noted, she was never lost. But she also talked about it created tensions between her and African Americans after she moved to the U.S. from Somalia to pursue a career in modeling.
IMANAnd one of the things that Peter Beard said that a lot of people took at heart, especially African Americans when I came to the United States, was that I was the most beautiful black woman he's ever met. And the reason that everybody took offense on that, because it was like the word itself, beautiful, at that time, in our industry, in the fashion and beauty industry was never used to describe a black woman. It was always sexy, sultry, sassy, but never beautiful. The word beautiful was always something that only was described for Caucasians.
NNAMDIWhich could have caused immediately some tension between you and African Americans who happen to live in the United States.
IMANAnd it absolutely did because having been studying political science, it was not lost on me the politics of the whole beauty industry, because African Americans took it upon themselves to think and say publicly, why do they need to go to Africa to find a model, when there are all these black African American models who can't even get a job? So it created the tension between me and the African Americans and it wasn't lost on me. And I totally took it on their side, because Americans in western society like to go somewhere else, where they call exotic. So finding an exotic feature, which I always sort of took an insult upon the word exotic, because I always find a mango is exotic, but not a person, you know.
NNAMDIIman speaking on this broadcast in 2005. Do you think these more recent efforts will resort in real change? You say they already seem to have resulted in some changed.
GIVHANThey have. You know, one of the things that Bethann said to me was that whenever she sort of lights the fire, change does happen. But the problem is consistency. And, you know, for awhile there these, you know, there's a spike in the number of black women on the runway and then, you know, she and her colleagues take a step back and, you know, feel like they've made some progress. And then that progress recedes.
GIVHANAnd, you know, to Iman's point about African versus African American models on the runway, I mean, it continues to be an interesting dynamic because the fashion industry has a complicated relationship with race. And it's sort of wound up in the idea of the exotic. It's wound up in the idea of, you know, this sort of otherness. And, you know, quite often the black models that are recruited for the runway, do tend to come from some country in Africa or they do tend to be foreign born, that is, you know, foreign born to the States.
NNAMDINaomi Campbell, for instance, yeah.
GIVHANNaomi Campbell. And, you know, it's a curiosity. I don't know the psychology behind that, but it's pretty unusual that you have a black girl from Chicago walking down the runway.
NNAMDIOn to the phones. Here now is Mohammed, in Silver Spring, Md. Mohammed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MOHAMMEDThank you for taking my call. I think this topic has been covered in different angles in terms of garment industry and the repercussions. I was reading on BBC about the after effects of the collapse of the building in Bangladesh and how there's a requirement to prove through DNA testing that you have lost a member of your family to try and get some compensation. So given the fact that we outsource all of this work out to cheaper labor, and then we are asking them to -- somebody's asking them through DNA testing to prove that a family member has been lost, that its self is the wrong approach.
MOHAMMEDThat's just a comment, an observation, an opinion on my part. But one of the heart-wrenching pieces was a 14-year-old girl who lost both parents and now she can't just wait to get back into the work force so that she can sustain the rest of the remaining family members because that was the only income. So the follow-up question, as your guest as alluded to, is that the outrage shows up momentarily and then does it all dissipate? The follow-up question to all of these comments that I've made is, essentially, why the big corporations that has made X amount of money -- and I'm not going to name them, just so that I'm not…
NNAMDIPlease don't. We're running out of time.
MOHAMMEDSure. Why they can't set up some sort of victim compensation fund when something so tragic happens, fire, building collapses.
NNAMDIDoes the fashion industry take any responsibility for this at all, in terms of compensating victims, Robin?
GIVHANAs far as I know there is not a victims' compensation fund that is directly related to the American fashion industry. Now, I think part of it is that, you know, they're outsourcing their production, so to some degree there's an outsourcing of the responsibility. And, you know, in a sense that a company that's based here in the States, how much control, how much input, how much say does it have over a company that is owned and operated in another country.
GIVHANAnd, obviously, I think there are ways that you can work in conjunction with those companies and certainly there have been agreements that have been signed by some of the major corporations, but they're not legally binding. And often they are about self-monitoring, as opposed to having outside monitors. So, I mean, there are a lot of loopholes, essentially.
NNAMDIMohammed, thank you for your call. Another perennial concern within the industry, body image. There seems to have been some improvement on that front with fewer models who appear painfully thin, but there's still a major disconnect between size 00 models and the average American woman who wears a size 14. Does the industry alienate a potential client base by not featuring more relatable women?
GIVHANYou know, it's a hard thing to say because I think most women understand that the images that they see on the runway and in magazines are fantasy, particularly in the magazines. I mean there have been numerous stories, numerous, you know, confessionals by models saying that, you know, that photograph of me is really barely me because it's been photoshopped so much. But I do think there is an aspect of extremes where, you know, the model is so thin or really a case where the model is so young, that there's a disconnect between her and the adult woman who is the actual customer.
GIVHANI mean it's insulting, I suppose, you know, for a woman who's even 25 or who's 30 and who's looking at clothes that are being modeled by someone who's 17.
NNAMDIBut there, I guess, is really no way of telling whether that disconnect adversely affects the revenue stream of the fashion industry because we can only talk about potentially increasing that revenue stream by closing that disconnect, but we don't know for sure.
GIVHANWell, you know, an interesting anecdote came from the designer Tracy Reese, who has created clothes for Michelle Obama and has a very nice business. And she opened one of her first stores in the meat packing district of New York. And she was enthusiastic about it because she felt it would give her an opportunity to get direct feedback from customers on a regular basis. And her collection was sized from a 2 and I think it was about a 12. And she said that she was really interested to find out whether or not there would be call for her to increase her size to a 14, perhaps even a 16.
GIVHANAnd what she discovered, based on the feedback that she was getting, was that there were not size 14 women coming in and saying, why don't you make these clothes in my size, there were women who were coming in saying, I need a size 0. And so there is I think a self selection that happens, about women who already feel alienated simply aren't going into stores where they assume their size won't be, and they're not making demands of designers because they've just essentially tuned out.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. The number's 800-433-8850. Do you think the reliance on rail thin models alienates a large segment of the population? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to email@example.com. We're talking with Robin Givhan. I’m Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the fashion industry and the issues bubbling within it with Robin Givhan. She writes about fashion, culture and politics. She's currently a Washington Post and New York Magazine contributor. She's received a Pulitzer Prize for her work in fashion criticism. You mentioned under-aged models. Ever since Brooke Shields declared that nothing came between her and Calvins at the age of 15, designers' relationships with teen models has been fraught.
NNAMDINew York state is close to enacting a bill that would provide greater protections for under-age models. Why do you think some designers continue to use models as young as 15?
GIVHANWell, I think a huge part of it has to do with the, you know, the body of a 15 and 16-year-old girl. I mean they're skinny. And many of them are effortlessly skinny. And that goes to the idea of, you know, sort of the model as coat hanger. They are beautiful girls at that age and there's an obsession with youth. I mean, what was so surprising to me was that models weren't covered by the same protections as child actors and musicians and Broadway performers. That they were in this sort of vast gray region, which meant that it wasn't mandatory that they have a chaperone, you know, backstage.
GIVHANIt wasn't mandatory that they have tutors, that, you know, money that they made did not have to be put into a trust. They were just sort of this Wild West of, you know, hiring.
NNAMDIUntil you began to cover it, and others.
NNAMDIAnd so now there are moves, they have laws in New York.
GIVHANYeah, until people began to cover it, until the, you know, the Council of Fashion Designers of America began to encourage designers not to use models, younger than the age of 16. And, you know, finally the New York legislature decided that something needed to be done. So the bill essentially awaits the signature of the governor.
NNAMDIA lot of people want to talk to you about one issue or another. Here's Ron, in Falls Church, Va. Ron, your turn.
RONYes. There was a lot of outrage, as was mentioned earlier, after the problem in Bangladesh, and it led to boycotting of certain, I guess, stores, where merchandise might be sold that was manufactured in those countries. It has been very difficult to keep up on who to boycott and who not to boycott around this. And I’m wondering if there's any source of information that kind of -- you know, on the web or somewhere, that would give that kind of information to consumers about which both department stores and designers, some of the big ones like Target and things like that, that were not cooperating with these attempts to increase safety. And I'll take my answer off the air.
NNAMDIRon, before you get your answer…
NNAMDI…off the air, I don't know if this is relevant to you, but I'm reliably informed that according to The Guardian Newspaper there was a meeting in Geneva last week to talk about compensating the victims of the factory collapse. Of the 29 global companies invited, 9 attended, according to The Guardian. Now, here's Robin.
GIVHANAnd in more bad news, I mean, I don't know of any sort of clearing house of information or even a particularly great source and reliable source of information about which companies manufacture where. I mean know that on sort of the designer end and on the small business end oftentimes, you know, it changes from one season to the next, based on what the collection looks like. You know, if there are a lot of knits, then those knits might, in fact, be made in Europe, particularly at the high end.
GIVHANIf it's a lot of embroidery, that embroidery might be done in Eastern Europe or in India. So it really often depends on what the collection looks like.
NNAMDIRon, thank you for your call. Here now is Lauren, in Washington, D.C. Hi, Lauren.
LAURENHi, Kojo. I’m such a fan of your show.
LAURENI'm really enjoying this conversation. I wanted to ask Robin Givhan, you made a comment that it's obvious to people, with these pictures in magazines and advertisements are fantasy. And I just wanted to -- I was a communications major in college and I’m not sure that that's true. I often take issue with that. And I wonder why there doesn't need to be some sort of claim, perhaps, that says these photos have been altered.
NNAMDIYou think people actually -- most people who look at those photos actually think that that's the correct reflection of that person?
LAURENI mean I just don't think it's as obvious as people -- I think that…
NNAMDIOkay. Let me have Robin respond.
GIVHANYou know, maybe I'm giving people too much credit for knowing the ways of the media these days. I mean, this was an assumption on my part that most people did have a sense of how images are manipulated, particularly in the era of, you know, Instagram and every other sort of technology that allows them to manipulate their own photographs. But the idea, you know, it sounds like the idea you're proposing is essentially a warning label, saying, you know, do not believe these images.
NNAMDINot going to happen.
GIVHANBut I do think that more stories and more coverage of the fashion industry and the way that it works, leads to a more informed consumer. And I think that helps. I mean one of the things that I always find sort of interesting is that oftentimes fashion coverage is sort of done in an organic, holistic way so that people understand the, you know, not just the images, but how the images are made and how the images -- what they're meant to communicate and what we take away from them.
GIVHANSo I think all of those pieces of the puzzle, if we try to put them together, I think it leads to people having a better understanding of what they're looking at.
NNAMDIAnd, Lauren, thank you for your call. Yesterday you wrote in the Washington Post about what you termed the elephant on the runway. Such a cool phrase. And a next exhibit that explores the connection between the gay community and the fashion world. Just how far back does that association go?
GIVHANWell, based on the exhibition it goes back at least to the 18th century, but it goes back beyond that, but that's where the exhibition starts. And what was sort of fascinating to me was that, you know, there's always this assumption, this stereotype of the gay designer. And to some degree that is true, that a lot of designers are openly gay, but the ramifications of that haven't really been explored. And, you know, as I said in the piece, you know, sometimes a dress is just a dress and it has absolutely nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the designer. And in the same, that a dress doesn't always have to mean something based on the ethnicity or the racial background of a designer.
NNAMDIBut that flies in the face of what you yourself described as a kind of unconscious bias that seems to persist in the industry, this idea that gay men make the best designers. Where do you think that idea comes from and why do you think it persists?
GIVHANWell, I think that bubbles up in terms of who gets, you know, a leg up and who gets the attention, who gets the buzz and who's sort of referred to as the next hot young thing. And oftentimes it's the cute, gay designer. And, you know, women in the industry -- there was a piece in The New York Times several years ago about women in the industry who felt a bit perturbed by that tendency. And, you know, I think some of it comes because certainly the industry has been more welcoming to gay men than other industries have been.
GIVHANI think also it has something to do with the fact that a lot of the sort of, you know, kingmakers or queen makers are women and there remains an undeniable respect for the male gays. And it doesn't matter if that gaze is coming from a man who is gay or straight. There's this idea that having the male opinion about what is beautiful on a woman carries a kind of value that that same opinion coming from another woman doesn't have. And there's also an expectation that male designers are concerned with beauty and sex appeal and a much more aesthetically driven goal.
GIVHANAnd that female designers are driven by pragmatism and comfort and practicality. And those two things are valued…
NNAMDIThose two perceptions. They're not necessarily real, are they?
GIVHANThey're not necessarily real, but they carry very different values within the fashion industry.
NNAMDIOn to Gerry, in Washington, D.C. Jerry, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
GERRYHi, Kojo. I think for one thing I've been cursorily following the Bangladesh problems with the manufacturers because I get emails from activists groups. And I would say that Wal-Mart and Gap are egregious. And it would be great if everyone boycotted them because they have not signed and they're not concerned about the fire hazards and safety implementation. I think what is happening is, of all the countries of the developed world, it's come out that we're the most unequal country. And U.S. companies don't make a deal while other clothing companies from other countries, for example, Great Britain, have made deals for safety.
GERRYThey went on board early on and some of these U.S. companies still have not done that. So there is a question about our ethics and our soul. I think we've kind of lost our soul.
NNAMDIAnd you think we also lost our moral compass?
GERRYDefinitely. I really do. I mean everything around us tells us that, you know. Jump off a building…
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly. So allow me to have Robin Givhan respond. Have you noticed a deterioration in the moral values in the fashion industry?
GIVHANI wouldn't say that the moral values have deteriorated. I think what's happening is that, you know, the industry is dealing with growing pains. It continues to deal with growing pains, in which it is becoming a much more democratic kind of industry. It's an industry that's having to deal with these enormous, mass manufacturers with companies like Target and Wal-Mart and Kohls that they didn't deal with before. I think it's something that they're still figuring out, but I also think that unless they know people are watching, they don't have a lot of impetus to make changes.
NNAMDIRobin Givhan, she took a season off from fashion week and then resumed this season. Did you feel like that break gave you a new perspective?
GIVHANIt did. I think it made me less cranky at the shows.
NNAMDIShe writes about fashion, culture and politics. She's currently a Washington Post and New York Magazine contributor. Robin Givhan has received a Pulitzer Prize for her work in fashion criticism. Always good to see you.
GIVHANAlways good to be here.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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