Fashion, Pulitzers and Angelo's food comas: In conversation with Robin Givhan
I first met Robin Givhan as a 16-year-old who had somehow found the luck and funds to intern at New York Fashion Week. One lunch break, while swimming upstream through Chelsea Market’s sea of tourists and businessmen, a well-dressed, petite figure caught my eye. I immediately recognized her as the woman my mom had told me about so many years ago: The fashion journalist from Detroit who had “made it big time.” I’d looked up to Givhan as something of a homegrown role model since my tween years, so seeing her in person was enough to send any kind of rationality flying from my brain.
“Excuse me,” I blurted in her direction without a second thought. “Are you Robin Givhan?”
Her response sounded more like a question than an answer. I panicked, shuffling out of her way before she had the chance to see what type of person had the audacity to interrupt her search for a good cup of coffee.
Four years later, I found myself on the phone in my subleased New York apartment with Givhan on the other line. A Michigan alum herself, she had been kind enough to agree to an interview for The Daily, and I was determined not to embarrass myself again.
My admiration for Givhan is well beyond justified by her work. After beginning her career writing across verticals at the Detroit Free Press, she held positions at the San Francisco Chronicle and Vogue before moving on to The Washington Post, where she currently serves as head fashion critic.
“I wanted to write,” she told The Daily of her introduction to fashion journalism. “That was my primary interest, and being a journalist seemed like the place where I could do that most realistically and it would also satisfy my natural curiosity. I started covering fashion just because that was a beat that was open. I had absolutely no specific interest in fashion.”
That chance decision to pursue fashion clearly worked out in Givhan’s favor. She became the first fashion reporter to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2006.
“I remember, after finding out, I had called my parents and they weren’t home,” she recounted. “I left a message on their voicemail that was essentially me screaming into the phone saying, ‘Call me, call me, call me.’ Then I hung up and about ten seconds later I realized, ‘Oh my god, that sounded so awful.’ I called back and said, ‘It’s good, it’s good. I’m sorry’… It was particularly interesting for me because it was the first time that someone covering the fashion industry had won. It was really nice to get feedback and congratulations from other people on the fashion beat because they felt, and I agree, in many ways it helped validate their field of coverage, which sometimes doesn’t get the respect that I think it deserves. I think part of that is because of the nature of the fashion industry as an industry that is overwhelmingly aimed at women and is perceived as a field of interest to women. I think it’s subject to sexist opinions.”
Givhan’s gift for objective analysis is what has garnered her ample (and well-deserved) recognition over the years. In our conversation, she made it clear that her writing is predicated on contextualizing designers’s works, rather than offering her personal opinions.
“I always say that my favorite fashion designer at any given moment is the one who’s doing the most exciting work, which gives me something to write about,” she said. “One of the things that I think is important to underscore is that, as a journalist who covers fashion, I’m not looking at things from a personal point of view, particularly when I’m doing reviews. There are many things that I write about in a very positive way because I think that the designer has been quite skilled at accomplishing what he or she set out to do, and yet it’s not something that I would ever want in my closet or would ever wear. And then there are things I personally would love to wear, but I critically feel that it wasn’t necessarily part of a strong collection because perhaps it was repetitive or overall it just wasn’t aesthetically successful, for myriad reasons.”
Accolades aside, to say Givhan’s career path has been smooth sailing would be a grave misjudgment. She has received more than her fair share of flak. In 2007, she created an uproar after publishing an article criticizing an outfit choice of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. In 2016, she was banned from the fashion shows of designer label Rodarte thanks to an investigative piece about their profit margins, and was recently asked to leave BET’s annual Leading Women Defined summit when she reported on a panel featuring Michelle Obama that some had understood to be off the record.
When I asked about her initial reaction to being ousted from the BET event, Givhan laughed: “Surprise. Yeah, I mean, surprise essentially because the story that I wrote was a straightforward story about an event by two newsmakers in a setting that was on the record.
As news broke of Givhan’s abrupt departure, those following the summit via social media quickly jumped to condemn her for writing an article about what some considered to be an intimate, had-to-be-there conversation.
“I think my path was to correct people if I felt that they were misstating facts,” she said of handling the backlash. “I don’t think it makes any sense to get into an argument with someone over their personal opinion, and a lot of it was opinion. It wasn’t an argument about fact. At a certain point, at least for me, my feeling was that my role in this is to make sure that the conversation that is being had is one that is rooted in fact. People can agree or disagree and that is something that is out of my control. It’s up to them.”
Because I am writing this article for The Daily, I knew I had to grill Givhan about her tenure in Ann Arbor, but she made it easy. When she first picked up the phone for our interview, she quickly pointed out that she still orders from Zingerman’s on occasion.
I asked if she’d ever eaten at Angelo’s, my preferred brunch spot, to which she let out a giggle and exclaimed, “Oh my god. It’s shocking that my heart still functions.”
Beyond the scope of the campus food scene, Givhan offered up some valuable advice for students hoping to pursue a career in journalism.
“I can’t underscore enough the importance of having an internship,” she said. “That’s huge because nothing can really prepare you for the pace and what it means to be in a newsroom other than being in a newsroom. In addition to that, I always felt that some of the things that were the most helpful to me, beyond the practical aspect of getting to write during internships and everything, were the classes I took that had actually nothing to do with journalism, but just broadened my understanding of so many other aspects of culture — especially for me, because I predominantly do feature writing … I think it’s like you build up all of these really interesting, nuanced layers of knowledge, and as a reporter, when you are delving into a subject and you have to think critically about it, you’re able to kind of dig through all those layers of knowledge. You can access them, and that’s an incredible gift.”
I ended our talk by telling Givhan the story of that cringe-worthy encounter four years ago in Chelsea Market. She laughed and told me she wished I’d introduced myself.
“I wish I had, too,” I laughed. “But you know what, here I am.”
Somewhere deep within my psyche, 16-year-old me beamed.