On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
Washington doesn’t have the concentration of design schools, fashion houses, modeling agencies and everything else it takes to be a magnet for designers and fashionistas.
But that doesn’t mean that D.C. fashion doesn’t exist — or that it’s limited to the drab, conservative suits favored by many in this government town.
We’ve actually got a college-level fashion design program here. There’s a place where you can turn your drawings into actual garments. Local designers are trying to sell their creations through a growing number of pop-up shops and websites.
And if you look beyond Capitol Hill, you’re likely to see people who are experimenting with style in ways that could soon put D.C. on the fashion map.
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Robin Givhan Fashion critic, The Washington Post; @RobinGivhan
- Mikaela Lefrak WAMU Arts and Culture Reporter and host of WAMU's What's With Washington podcast; @mikafrak
- Julia Ravindran Professor in the fashion design and merchandising department, Marymount College; @Marymount_fmfd
- Mimi Miller Owner of Mimi Miller Womenswear; @shopmimimiller
SASHA-ANN SIMONSWelcome back. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons in for Kojo Nnamdi. Washington is a capitol but few call it a fashion capitol. Natives and newcomers often make fun of their own supposed lack of fashion sense, equating the quote "Washington Look" with the dull interchangeable suits worn by legions of workers to their government jobs.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSBut is that all there is to D.C. fashion? Our guests today offer a different perspective on what people in the Washington region are not only wearing, but designing and creating. Joining us to discuss is Robin Givhan. She's the Pulitzer Price-winning fashion critic for the Washington Post. She joins us by phone. Hi, Robin.
ROBIN GIVHANHi. How are you?
SIMONSGood. Thanks for joining us. Mikaela Lefrak is the arts and culture reporter at WAMU and the host of its "What's With Washington" podcast. The episode released today looks into Washington's fashion scene. Welcome back, Mikaela.
MIKAELA LEFRAKHey, Sasha.
SIMONSJulia Ravindrian is a professor in the fashion design and merchandising department at Marymount University. Hi, Julia.
SIMONSAnd Mimi Miller is the founder of Mimi Miller Womenswear. Thanks for joining us.
SIMONSRobin, I'll start with you. Does Washington really have such a terrible reputation when it comes to fashion? Give it to us straight. (laugh)
GIVHANWell, I don't think it necessarily has a worst reputation than any other major city in the U.S., aside obviously from New York and L.A. But I do think that there are a lot of people who have not visited the Washington region in say the last decade. And their impressions of the city are formed almost exclusively by what they see on CSPAN.
SIMONSOh, we'll tap into more of that later. (laugh) You do say that you've noticed that Washingtonians suffer from a terrible insecurity about fashion. What do you mean by that?
GIVHANWell, I mean, I grew up in Detroit and I have lived in San Francisco. And I've lived in New York as well. And I'm just really struck by the incredible sense of insecurity and tendency to compare itself to other cities that happens in Washington that I didn't see or hear elsewhere. And I'm not quite sure why that is. I think it happens less now than it did, when I first moved here. But there is an insecurity and I don't really think there's any reason for Washington to be insecure about its, you know, place in the style universe.
SIMONSMikaela, the D.C. fashion scene is the topic of this week's "What's With Washington" podcast, which you host. What did you find in your reporting? What's changing and what hasn't changed?
LEFRAKWell, office culture and capitol hill culture, the clothing there never really changes. You know, it's that ill-fitting blue suit with the white-collared shirts. What you see during the impeachment hearings when you were watching TV. And part of that there's nothing we can really do anything about. Capitol hill still has some actual rules about what you can and cannot wear to work there and, you know what, that's fine.
LEFRAKBut what I do think is changing is that there is this growing fashion industry in Washington. A lot of makers and local designers are getting their clothing out there. And one place you can really see that is in the growth of local boutiques that supply work by local designers. You know, as we move into this world of online shopping, I think there are still people who are looking for that experience of walking into a retail store and seeing something different than what they could just buy in one click online. And I think that's where we're seeing the innovation.
SIMONSSo Washington area designers, up-and-coming designers, they're not necessarily trying to blow up D.C. fashion but they're reframing it.
LEFRAKExactly, yeah. I think, you know, there's an understanding that, yes, a lot of us work in offices. We're going to need to look nice. We're going to need to look put together, but there are ways that you can spice that up. Like, Sasha, for example you're wearing these amazing statement earrings.
LEFRAKYou're looking cute (laugh) and ...
LEFRAKI think that's what a lot of us are trying to do. And, you know, for example I went into two boutiques during the reporting for this episode, Nubian Hueman in Anacostia and Shop Made in D.C., their Georgetown location. And both places supplied these amazing, like, statement necklaces, big earrings. You know, for men, the very colorful sock. You know, things that you can do to say, you know, yes I'm looking professional, but I also have a personality.
SIMONSAt 26, Mimi, you are relatively new to the fashion industry. And you decided to base your line of clothing out of your hometown of Manassas. Why did you decide to start your business right there in your own backyard?
MILLERI like the area here and my thought process was, you know, build a consumer base here before expanding out. And like Mikaela mentioned, I think we need more of that here in D.C. and more homegrown and local businesses. Not just retailers, but also, you now, designers that are actually building their businesses from the ground up in the area.
SIMONSAnd you went to school here also so to what I've been told is actually one of the only programs in the area that offers Bachelor's Degrees in fashion design and fashion merchandising. Was Arlington's Marymount University your first choice?
MILLERIt was not. It was actually my last choice.
MILLERYeah, so I kind of had to take back what I said originally when we were looking at schools. Both my parents are police officers in Arlington and just living so close to the school I felt there were going to be a lot of eyes. And my parents were, you know, going to be constantly coming down. And that was never the case at all. But then I toured the school and got a scholarship. And I liked it so I had to take back what I said and I went to Marymount.
SIMONSJulia, you're a professor at Marymount in the fashion merchandising and design program. What are your students learning?
RAVINDRIANSo they're learning anything from how to hand sew. They're learning the machines, different machine stitches. And then they're also learning tailoring techniques. They're learning draping. And then in their senior year, they're working on a senior line. And then we produce a fashion show and we showcase all the student work.
SIMONSAnd so you told us a bit, Mimi, about your parents, who are both police officers in Northern Virginia. Tell us a bit more about how your business king of got off the ground.
MILLERA lot of Googling and a lot of support from my parents, both mentally and financially, and then coupled with what I've learned from Marymount, and internships that I did after graduation and also during my time in school really helped to prepare me for that. But when I graduated I didn't want to get out of the habit of designing and creating and so I kind of just really fell into it. It wasn't planned at all. It was always something that I wanted to do later in life. I never expected 26 to be doing this.
SIMONSIt never turns out quite the way you plan, doesn't it?
SIMONSJulia, are you seeing a lot of this? Like what kind of jobs are students getting after they graduate? Are they finding work here in this area?
RAVINDRIANIt's a variety. I'm seeing more students staying here, starting their own businesses, working for local boutiques, digital media, content strategists for online boutiques in the area. And then they also are, you know, going to New York City, for example. But what I'm noticing is a lot of my students that graduate and go to New York, a lot of them end up coming back to this region and they start their own business.
SIMONSLet's go to the phones. We have Josh, who's waiting. He's in Northwest D.C. Hi Josh, thanks for calling in.
JOSHHey, thanks for taking my call. I've been in the city for almost 15 years and in policy jobs in and out of a lot of the three letter government agencies and came from the music industry. And I've seen fashion change dramatically in Washington (unintelligible) 10 or 15 years. Guys are wearing suits that actually fit. People are dressing in a way that doesn't make them feel like they're not serious professionals, but they also care about the way that they look.
JOSHAnd the one thing that I've seen in the city though that hasn't kept pace with the way that people are starting to dress is the available options specifically for men to go find cool places that you were describing. These smaller boutiques to find things that aren't, you know, suit one click away. So it would be great to see more designers designing for men as well as women in the city.
SIMONSRobin, what do you have to say to that? I'm so glad Josh called in because we are all women sitting here having this discussion. So it was really great to hear the men's perspective. What are your thoughts, Robin?
GIVHANI agree with Josh one thousand percent. One of the first stories that I wrote after being sort of away from writing about Washington fashion, because I was working on a book, was about the way that men in Washington were dressing in their tailored suits. And they were really taking a cue from sort of, you know, larger trends, which was the incredible shrinking of men's suits.
GIVHANAnd I'm really struck by the changes in the way that men are dressing in the city. And I think it reflects the larger fashion industry in that some of the most interesting and transformative work in fashion has been happening on the men's side. And I think that retail here has yet to really catch up with men's interest, incredibly increased interest in style, and just the enormity of what's now available for men, and that goes so far beyond street wear.
SIMONSRight, right. And now Mikaela hinted at this earlier, but you, Robin, have been writing about what some of the participants in the impeachment hearings are wearing. Tell us what you've noticed.
GIVHANWell, you know, I mean, most of them are sort of the behind-the-scene players, you know, the people who are career diplomats, career government employees. And I think that their clothing reflects the fact that they are not the bold-faced names. They are not the principals. You know, they're the people behind the scenes. And I sort of half-jokingly said to, you know, a colleague, I don't think that anyone, you know, wants the U.S. diplomatic core wearing Rick Owens.
GIVHANI mean, I think that there is a kind of reassurance in, you know, these traditional but well-fitting, thoughtful business suits that both the men and the women wear. And I think they do it with a hint of their own personal flair, but they're still very much within the confines of, I think, fashion as reassuring.
SIMONSWhen she was First Lady, Robin, you wrote about the clothing choices of Michelle Obama who may be as close to a fashion icon as D.C.'s got. You have also written about First Lady Melania Trump, a former fashion model. How did each of them make fashion news?
GIVHANWell, the most significant thing about Michelle Obama was her broad embrace of the fashion industry from its most established veteran designers to folks, who had been in business for, you know, two years and even less. She really was wide ranging in her taste and in the designers that she brought into the spotlight. And I think for that reason alone, the fashion industry was extraordinarily enthusiastic about her, because she was so enthusiastic about the industry in turn.
GIVHANI think with the current First Lady, she is much more focused on personal style and she tends to wear much more established designers. And she tends to wear, you know, both American and international designers.
SIMONSYou're still writing about Michelle Obama's style so how has it changed since she left the White House? I know I've noticed a lot more risk taking. I'm seeing off-the-shoulder tops. We didn't see that before. She had this really great pair of green high waisted Palazzo pants I just loved. And she wore them twice which is like such a big no-no. (laugh) You know, the white denim shorts on vacation. So, like, what else are you seeing, Robin?
GIVHANWell, to be perfectly honest, I mean, I don't really write about her non-First Lady fashion. I think the last time I did was when she was wearing a pair of over-the-knee -- she was wearing Balenciaga at one of the appearances (all talking at once)
SIMONSThose boots. The boots. How could I forget the boots.
GIVHANAnd I think that was sort of the moment when, you know, people sort of had the sense that now that she was no longer confined by the expectations and traditions of First Ladies, she could wear whatever she wanted to wear and I think she certainly has done that.
SIMONSYou're listening to the Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, WAMU's race and identity reporter sitting in for Kojo. We'll continue our conversation about D.C. fashion in a moment. Stay with us.
SIMONSI'm Sasha-Ann Simons sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Robin Givhan. She's the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critique for the Washington Post. Mikaela Lefrak is the arts and culture reporter at WAMU and the host of its "What's With Washington" podcast. Julia Ravindrian is a professor in the fashion design and merchandising department at Marymount University. And Mimi Miller is the founder of Mimi Miller Womenswear. Robin, another question for you, you recently wrote a cover story for the Washington Post Magazine called "The Troubling Ethics of Fashion in the Age of Climate Change." What's so troubling?
GIVHANWell, it's our massive consumption of clothing and our seemingly insatiable appetite for newness. I mean, one of the -- you know, you just mentioned -- someone just mentioned the idea of Michelle Obama re-wearing something. And I'm not quite sure when, you know, wearing something more than once when you're in the public eye became this terrible, terrible faux pas. I'm assuming it happened in the era of Instagram.
GIVHANBut, you know, that's one of the things that is particularly troubling, this idea that today we consume something like 60 percent, you know, more clothing -- we buy 60 percent more clothing than we used to. And much of that, you know, people consider to be old after it's been worn once or twice. That's a lot of clothing, a lot of fast fashion that's going directly into landfills and that's a problem, regardless of how it's made.
SIMONSWhat about thrift stores, Mikaela, and resale shops as a way to be kinder to the environment? What does the Washington area actually have to offer?
LEFRAKSure. Well, we do have a lot of great thrift stores. My favorite is Frugalista in Mount Pleasant. A lot of people here at WAMU are obsessed with the Value Village chain. There's a bunch of them in the area, but one other thing I wanted to add in response to Robin's comment is that what I was seeing in a lot of these small boutiques is a lot of local designers are really taking on this issue of fast fashion in the materials that they're using.
LEFRAKSo I saw a -- forgive me, I'm forgetting the name of the designer, but he makes accessories for men, mostly belts made out of old bike parts, bike tubes, and a lot of people using recycled fabrics. And one of the designers actually that I learned about from the Nubian Hueman Boutique in Anacostia was in the process of suing the retail chain Zara for copying the patterns that he was using for men's socks.
LEFRAKSo it is a big issue for designers that are right here in D.C.
SIMONSMimi, you're very environmentally conscious with your clothing line. Why is it important to you?
MILLERWith my designs I don't want to pollute the environment, you know, even more. If anything, I want to take steps to, you know, kind of change that and help remove any pollution that, you know, has already been created. I don't want to add to that. So with that I design and produce in smaller batches so there's less inventory left over at the end of the seasons. I'm really conscious about the fabrics that I use and using natural fibers and things that are, you know, can either compost down or are biodegradable as opposed to synthetic fabrics like polyester.
SIMONSDo your ethics also extend to the people making your designs?
MILLEROh, for sure. Yes. I always say I don't want to exploit anyone to make a profit so it's very important to me that the people, who are making my garments, are being paid fairly and working in the right conditions and getting what they deserve.
SIMONSLet's jump to the phone lines. We've got Calvin from Silver Spring. Hi, Calvin.
CALVINHi, how you doing?
SIMONSGood, good. What's your question or comment?
CALVINYeah, I have a question for Robin. First of all, I enjoy reading your columns. They're very good. I just have to have a dictionary nearby when I read it occasionally. (laugh)
CALVINThe question I have is that in the HBCU, historically Black University, you know, African Americans historically are very fashion conscious. And I'm just curious as to why there aren't that many programs, if any, related to fashion design and merchandising at these schools.
GIVHANIt's a good question. I don't know that I have a definitive answer. I would say that, you know, interesting in conversations with professors at Parsons and at FIT, one of the things that they have often lamented is the lack of black students enrolling in design programs, whether it's there or whether it's at the Rhode Island School of Design or, you know, at Howard or Spelman or Morehouse.
GIVHANAnd part of that seems to be that often they're sort of discouraged from going that route, because they're often discouraged from embracing creative careers, because they can be more challenging because there's often not a clear route to success. There's not a clear path to the ultimate goal. And so I don't know if that has something to do with it.
GIVHANAnd I think, you know, historically a lot of the HBCUs were more focused on, you know, professional programs and medicine and law, because, you know, their students were prohibited from pursuing those professions at majority white schools.
RAVINDRIANI'd also note that Howard University here has a concentration in fashion design. It's not the fully built out program that Marymount has, but they do have a design program there.
SIMONSYeah, and Julia, let's talk about what you're seeing folks in the Washington area wear right now. Have any trends caught your eye?
RAVINDRIANI mean, the Athleisure wear is everywhere. (laugh)
SIMONSAthleisure. (laugh) I love that term.
RAVINDRIANEveryone wants to be comfortable. The Sherpa coats are also a huge trend this year. I mean, I'm surrounded by students so it's definitely a different age demographic than myself.
SIMONSA lot of puffy coats.
RAVINDRIANA lot of puffy coats, a lot of crop tops.
SIMONSI just bought one. (laugh)
RAVINDRIANI mean, they're comfortable. What can you say? But as we discussed earlier, I think also in the D.C. area in general you're seeing a lot more fitted suits. Maybe not so much, like, the white collar, the fitted suit, but you're also seeing, like, more interesting blouses underneath the suit. Like, I'm wearing, you know, a tied blouse. I prefer to have some kind of statement piece underneath a blazer, if I'm going to wear that. You're also seeing a lot of the kitten heel boots. Snakeskin, reptile skin is also really...
SIMONSKitten heel boots are back?
SIMONSOkay. Interesting. Let's take another phone call here. Hannah's on the line, also from Silver Spring. Hi, Hannah.
HANNAHHi. I heard you talking about fast fashion earlier and that's something I really struggle with as a mom of a two-year-old and a one-year-old, because kids need new clothes all the time. And so I made it my goal this year not to buy anything new for them. And we're almost at the end of the year and I haven't had to buy a single new item for them. I've gotten all of their clothing from Kid to Kid in Rockville or the various Value Village stores. They're so amazing, salvation Army Family stores. And these clothes are all practically brand new because kids only wear them for a few months before they're too big for them.
SIMONSSuch a good idea, Hannah. So many secondhand stores with really quality stuff too, and I can relate to the mom factor because they grow out of things so quickly. And it's like to spend so much on new clothes and in two seconds they can't fit.
LEFRAKAnd I would also say we here at WAMU, Sasha, as you know recently did a clothing swap...
LEFRAK...which was so much fun. I mean, I don't know if that would work for kids clothes as well, but we all brought in a bunch of trash bags full of our old clothes and swapped them around. And now, you know, I get to see my old blouses on a colleague, you don't have to say goodbye completely. (laugh)
SIMONSYes, exactly. Isn't that my top you're wearing?
SIMONSSpeaking of that, are there particularly fashionable places, Mikaela, here in the greater Washington area that people should know about?
LEFRAKI mean, I would definitely say Howard University. On the "What's With Washington" podcast episode we talk to Jonquilyn Hill, who's a producer here at WAMU and also a Howard alum. And she told me all these great stories about, you know, going to just sort of like an 8:00 a.m. class and seeing people in these just amazing outfits. She said it's a very fashionable campus.
LEFRAKI also went to a fashion runway show at the National Portrait Gallery that was put on by the downtown D.C. business improvement district. And like, oh, my gosh, the outfits were amazing. People looked great. So, I don't know, I think it's really everywhere. You know, maybe not Capitol Hill, but pretty much everywhere else.
SIMONSRight. Mimi, where do you get your clothes, just in general?
MILLERYeah, I go to Everlane. I like basics and I like neutrals and...
MILLER(laugh) Yeah, and then I wear a lot of my own samples as well. I don't do a whole lot of shopping, but, yeah, Everlane is a big place I usually go to.
SIMONSWhat about you, Julia, where do you get your clothes?
RAVINDRIANI make a lot of my clothes myself. When I'm not able to make my clothes, I usually shop at Ann Taylor, Made Well. If I'm going to buy something I'm going to keep it in my wardrobe for a very long time. I don't really tend to do the fast fashion very often unless, you know, I really need to, but everything that I -- the main staples in my wardrobe I usually make myself.
LEFRAKWell, I ...
SIMONSI mean, you kind of gave a bunch of your secrets.
LEFRAKYeah, but basically your closet actually, (laugh) but I have four older sisters so I'm very lucky and I do take, steal, borrow a lot of their clothes. But otherwise my favorite boutiques are two thrift stores here in D.C., Frugalista that I mentioned and Current Boutique on 14th Street.
SIMONSAwesome. Robin Givhan is the Pulitzer Price-winning fashion critique for the Washington Post. Mikaela Lefrak is the arts and cultural reporter at WAMU. Julia Ravindrian is a professor in the fashion design and merchandising department at Marymount University. Mimi Miller is the founder of Mimi Miller Womenswear. Thanks so much for joining us.
SIMONSThis conversation about D.C. fashion was produced by Lauren Markoe and our segment about Holiday shows was produced by Margaret Barthel. Be sure to catch the latest episode of Mikaela Lefrak's "What's With Washington" podcast to hear more perspectives on fashion in D.C. Listen and subscribe to season two of the podcast at WAMU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Until then next time, we'll see you on Thursday. Thanks for listening. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons.
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