redux – Robin Givhan talks to Jeanne Beker

Thanks to the generosity of friend (and sponsor) Gail McInnes of Magnet Creative, I was able to attend a conversation (part of the Hot Docs festival) between fashion media superstars Robin Givhan and Jeanne Beker. The conversation began as a discussion of fashion in film, but expanded to touch on almost every major story that relates to fashion today – from model diversity to fashion bloggers to fast fashion to the recession. It really was a privilege to hear Givhan speak – she is a personable and thoughtful woman who obviously takes great pleasure in her work, and the way that she has pushed the envelope on her own craft (she is the first fashion writer to be awarded a Pulitzer) is so inspiring.

I’ve decided to include scans of my notes from my tiny Moleskine and a brief recap of what I found to be the most interesting observations, in case you’re curious.

Givhan started by briefly sharing a favourite fashion in film moment – the way that the lead character used a business suit in Hotel Rwanda.  The striking thing about this was the way that a suit is an international shorthand for authority – and also how clothing is related to human dignity.

Then she sat down with Beker and the conversation began – relatively quickly launching into the changing fortunes of fashion journalism. Givhan shared a revealing joke – “I love fashion bloggers,” she said, obviously aware that the crowd was full of them, “until they turn on you, and they inevitably will.” Much laughter. She went on to explain a bit about her ambivalence towards the new players in fashion media.  She wants to know who is paying these bloggers, and what rules they are playing by.  I guess I could add, as one of them, that this is something we are very curious about as well.

Givhan also pointed out that democratization of fashion leads to complaining.  In the case of model diversity, Givhan suggests that this story has developed with the growth of online, consumer commentary.  That in an age where fashion is no longer rarefied, it has to deal with the demands of a much large group of constituents.  Explaining the industry’s slow reaction to the blowback, Givhan suggested that the selection of models is subject to intense peer pressure between agencies, casting agents, and designers. Also on the retail level, that the provision of size diversity is self-fulfilling – bigger women don’t try to patronize designer clothing, so designers continue to provide to existing, wealthy thin clientele.

She didn’t say this in so many words, but it occurred to me as I listened: that perhaps in an age where money is no longer a barrier to exclusivity, size exclusivity becomes further entrenched. This is my editorializing here – I think no matter what, fashion is inherently elitist and status driven.  If it can’t exclude with cash, other tactics will fill the vacuum. Thus – the persistence of the idealization of thin in the face of so much protest.  The fact is that no rational argument – be it religious, political, or industrial – has ever halted the progress of even the most unappealing fashions, any more than legislation can halt the ever increasing ranks of obesity. It is almost arrogant to think that we are able to control such things.  But that’s me talking, not Robin Givhan.

Speaking of forces beyond our control – there was some discussion about how the recession is affecting fashion – from more grown-up looks and a focus on wearability.  Beker brought up the growing trend towards sponsorship for young designers – something offering young designers the financial support they need to produce fashion shows.  Givhan brought up the flip side – how sponsors like NAFA and Swarovski artificially construct trends – such as Fall 2010’s love affair with fur.  Does sponsorship abet or inhibit the creativity of young designers?

When I asked my question during the Q&A (I love asking questions at panel discussions), it was about fashion weeks and their rampant growth – how much bigger do they get, how many shows does there need to be, and is it possible or desirable to have an orderly downsizing?  Beker is a fan of the spectacle – obviously from a television point of view, bigness of individual fashion shows is a good thing. Givhan expressed a desire for a shorter week – but neither of them speculated on when and how the trend towards fashion weeks turning into fashion months would end or how.

At the end of the talk, Givhan brought it back to the beginning like a total pro and reiterated how fashion is important because it relates to human dignity – that somehow the veneer of civilization is a story so clearly expressed by the superficial layer of clothing we wear, a sensible contradiction I have enjoyed thinking about all weekend.

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2 thoughts on “redux – Robin Givhan talks to Jeanne Beker”

  1. I love your point about size exclusivity being linked to the democratization of fashion (and, I’d argue, globalization, which drives down price points and generates knockoffs). If the model system does fail or expand to include different bodies, what criteria will fashion use next to maintain exclusivity? It’s really interesting to think about – thanks Danielle!

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