Critical conversations: Robin Givhan & Jeanne Beker

Robin Givhan, the fashion writer for The Washington Post, and the only style journalist to have won a Pulitzer Prize. Story by Paul Aguirre-Livingston. Illustration by Ayalah Hutchins.

When power journalists Robin Givhan and Jeanne Beker gathered for “a conversation” as part of the new Hot Docs Critical Mass speaker series, no one was quite sure what to expect. Since it was part of a documentary festival, I secretly hoped we’d discuss the underlying themes of The September Issue and its spawning of a creative director turned vedette, the lovable Valentino and his personal relationships in The Last Emperor, and the cultural significance of Isaac Mizrahi’s Unzipped documentary (there is some, I promise).

Side by side, the two industry vets sat talking shop about everything from bloggers (“God bless the bloggers,” praised Givhan) to their shared love of McQueen (“His shows were always, always a highlight,” said Beker). Instantly, you could tell that the two aren’t rivals, but rather foils to one another. In one corner, you’ve got brassy Beker with her scene-stealing smile and an impressive number of years in the biz, and, in the other, you’ve got gracious Givhan, a soft-spoken, unassuming fashion reporter; the rare breed that’s less “Wear this with that” and more “What does this actually say about that?”

“I’ve always kept fashion at arm’s length,” noted Givhan when asked how and why she got into the industry.  In fact, one of the first things she said to her fashion followers was, “I remind people I work in journalism, not fashion.” A woman after my own heart, it’s instantly evident that she has the X factor.

But does she have the “It” factor?

The question brings to light why many of you might not recognize the name “Robin Givhan” if you came upon it in the morning Metro (at least not as instantly as, say, “Jeanne Beker”). But you should. To start, Givhan’s legacy is already set in stone: In 2006, she became the sole fashion writer to win a Pulitzer for Criticism. (Givhan’s “witty, closely observed essays … transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism,” said the selection committee.)

Pulitzers don’t come easy. Starting off as an entertainment reporter in Detroit, Givhan paid her dues covering the rise of techno music. After landing a gig as a style writer for The Washington Post in 1995, her first assignment was humbling: Reporting on the costumes for that year’s highly anticipated Batman Forever. She later quipped to a group of fanboys: “A friend called me up after [the piece was printed] and said, ‘Well, at least you got your name in the paper. That’s the important part.’”

Givhan opened the Critical Mass discussion with an anecdote about her favourite fashion moment in film, a scene from Hotel Rwanda (2004) where the protagonist is able to use a suit to represent dignity, humanity and solitude in the face of increasing suffering and despair.

What followed was literally a conversation. There was talk of size diversity, the challenges designers and manufactures face by being accountable to the masses, the revolution for a smaller Fashion Week, and the interest in the new wave of “avant-garde” presentations. All in all, the tête-à-tête covered all the standard fare: mass consumption (it is what it is), the future of journalism (glossies will always be coveted, but viral will live forever—and ever), and the sponsorship of emerging young talent. The last point set the wheels in motion for the uninformed when Givhan called out the North American Fur Association’s sponsorship and promo program and the recent “obsession” with fur on the Fall 2010 runways.  She asked: Aren’t we just creating artificial trends?

Givhan’s current beat is covering the White House circuit—she’s left New York’s Upper West Side behind to bring you the latest from Michelle Obama’s closet and the East Wing. This year, she also published her book Michelle: Her First Year As First Lady in conjunction with The Washington Post.

Both Beker and Givhan proved to be more thoughtful (and thought-provoking) than any documentary I’ve seen on the subject of fashion. Sure, we’ve all seen the clothing, the glam, the models, the editors, and heard their stories, but this time, I was pleasantly surprised to hear substance. Perhaps Givhan and Beker would actually make the perfect cultural crusaders (complete with cape— they are in after all), spreading the message and promoting the good over evil in fashion in their own corners, through their own mediums. But then one question remains: Who’s Batman and who’s Robin?

This afternoon: Stay tuned for Paul’s conversation with Robin Givhan. (Hint: It’s fantastic.) Below photo of the Critical Mass conversation by Paul Galipeau.

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