TALK TO ME: Robin Givhan, part 1

Fashion writer Robin Givhan is refreshingly down-to-earth, naturally eloquent and unguarded. She’s also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The Washington Post. (Take a look through her portfolio.)

Recently, Paul Aguirre-Livingston asked Robin questions from The Style Notebook’s “Talk to Me” questionnaire.

Has winning a Pulitzer always been an ambition of yours? Did you ever doubt that colleagues would view fashion criticism as a viable genre for the prize?

“I think every journalist, in the dark recesses of their brain, imagines what it would be like to win a Pulitzer. But the possibility is so remote; you simply do your best work because you love what you do. The Washington Post nominated me for the Pulitzer, which is generally how it’s done. I was honoured to have been nominated, which is quite special. A fashion critic had never won, so I really didn’t know what my chances were.”

Which fashion writer(s) do you most admire?

“I have always been a fan of Teri Agins, who wrote for the Wall Street Journal and is now a freelancer. She really focuses on the business of fashion, and I admire her reporting skill, which is incomparable.”

Top three fashion documentaries that no fashionphile should miss?

The September Issue and Unzipped. I’ve heard that the Valentino documentary is great, although I haven’t seen it.”

What would you say differentiates a fashion criticism piece, and—more importantly—what makes one good?

“I can really only say what I think differentiates my work. I try to put fashion into a cultural context. I try to give readers a sense of where and how trends originate, why we chose to present ourselves in particular ways and how those decisions influence our perceptions.”

Was reporting on the Washington style scene and, specifically Michelle Obama, something you consciously wanted to do?

“I moved back to Washington because I added Mrs. Obama and the East Wing of the White House to my reporting portfolio. I couldn’t cover them from New York. I would lose some of my face time with folks in the fashion industry, but the political beat was new and required more attention.”

Trend-watching Mrs. Obama has caused a bit of frenzy in the way Jackie O did in the ’60s. In the U.S. specifically, would you say this mixing of fashion and politics is fueling the economy more than, say, celebrity endorsements? Or is fashion still synonymous with celebrity?

“I think fashion and celebrity have a strong link that won’t ever full dissolve. Mrs. Obama certainly brings a great deal of attention to the fashion industry. And affordable brands like J. Crew have seen huge financial benefits. The more expensive lines are a different story. No matter how much folks might love a designer dress she wears, only a small percentage of people are able and willing to spend $1,000 for it. In fact, her Chicago-based designer Maria Pinto, who famously made the purple sheath she wore during the campaign and numerous other dresses, closed her business. Publicity does not always translate into sales, particularly in fashion.”

What do you think about the evolution of the fashion show (i.e. film presentations, outdoor theatrics, online streaming, etc.)? Do you think this will eventually negate the need for the traditional runway?

“It’s awfully hard to say. I don’t really care how a designer presents a collection as long as the presentation is in service to the clothes.”

You didn’t grow up idolizing Vogue or fawning over designers. Did you ever feel like this wasn’t for you? What advice would you give to your 1995 self?

“Everyone has a bad day; so sure, there have been times when I’ve been annoyed or frustrated. The lessons I’ve learned along the way include don’t take things personally and follow the money. The latter was advice from my friend Teri Agins.”

Do you have a favourite fashion memory?

“Does winning the Pulitzer count?”

Tomorrow: Part II of Paul’s conversation with Robin!

Below, Michelle Obama in purple…

…and Anna Wintour in fur, in The September Issue.

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