How we look matters to Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan.
The 46-year-old Detroit native contends that, like it or not, our style says something about how we live, what we value and who we are as a community. That notion goes double for public figures and power brokers.
So what was first lady Michelle Obama saying when she stepped off Air Force One wearing thigh-high hiking shorts last summer? Givhan summed it up thusly: "It does American culture no favors if a first lady tries so hard to be average that she winds up looking common."
What was the deal when presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton flashed cleavage from the Senate floor? Givhan wrote: "To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres is a provocation."
Givhan's fearless and pointed observations have put her in a career class by herself. In 2006, she became the first fashion writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, journalism's highest honor.
Her award-winning entry for criticism featured, among other columns, a takedown of then-Vice President Dick Cheney for wearing a ski parka —"typically the kind of attire one wears to operate a snow blower" — to a gathering of world leaders to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Givhan grew up in northwest Detroit and notched her first reporting job at the Detroit Free Press in 1988, where she initially covered nightlife and the emergence of techno and house music. When a spot opened up to cover fashion, Givhan raised her hand and the Free Press assigned her to report on menswear.
Givhan joined the Washington Post in 1995. She moved to New York City to work for Vogue magazine in 2000, but returned to the Post after six months.
The author of "Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady" (Triumph, $14.95) lives near Capitol Hill with her West Highland terrier, Ruby. Givhan spoke with us about her work and the personalities — from the first lady to the fashionistas — who populate "The Washington Catwalk," the title of a recent lecture.
In the context of modern life — the recession, unemployment, strained international relationships — why is the style of the first lady relevant?
She is first and foremost the representative of the American people on the world stage. She's not representing the policies and the politics. She's representing the people. It's hugely important. It reflects on how we see ourselves, the way she presents herself. We like having somebody who manages to walk this line in terms of high and low.
One of the things she's been quite good at is choosing designers who epitomize the idea of small business owners. They were companies founded by a person with a bolt of fabric and a dream, and they build them into sustainable businesses that employ a significant number of people. During the worst depths of the recession, the fashion industry muddled through; nobody got a bailout.
How do you think Michelle Obama's role is affected by being the first African-American first lady?
She's acutely aware that she's a historical figure. And that is a great responsibility. I think she relishes it, but it's also a burden. And she knows that a mistake made by her will be magnified. I think that has to some degree led her to be more cautious than is traditional of the first lady.
She's very aware that she's the person who is looking through the White House gates. It's come to bear on who is invited to events. When there's a concert or some sort of social event, there is always an educational component and kids get to participate, either through a workshop or a concert. She's very aware that you can live within walking distance of the White House and live in poverty. And the distance between your house and the White House is 2 miles, but (psychologically) it may be 2 million miles.
Do you know what White House occupants think about what you write?
I will hear from staff. I have a better sense of what they're navigating and they have a better sense of what I look for. I would say that the relationship (with the Obamas) has certainly grown and become more solid. We still have a completely mixed agenda.
Do you get big reactions when you write about political figures, such as when you wrote about Hillary Clinton's clothes or Elena Kagan not wearing a frilly blouse to dress up her Supreme Court robe?
Definitely. People respond more to pieces that are about public figures, in general, and the way they put themselves together. With political stuff, there are definitely strong reactions, and it's a reflection of the very partisan world we live in. The ones that have responded to me have far away been the men I've written about. Whether it's positive or critical, I've had men — public figures — write and call and express gratitude or write letters explaining themselves. If there's been something that I've written that is critical, they write back and say, "Clearly, there must have been bad lighting because, really, the suit was quite tasteful."
What's the biggest difference between the fashion collections presented in Paris and Milan and those staged in the United States?
I would say it's mostly about atmosphere and logistics. I think in New York they tend to be staged as more of a commercial enterprise. In Paris, there's a tendency to put them in the context of a creative happening. I don't think necessarily the designers in Paris are more creative than in New York.
One of the really great things about New York is that the barrier to entry is extremely low. No other city I go to has as many young designers presenting their collections during Fashion Week — by young, I mean new designers who have maybe about a dozen pieces.
What is one of your extreme memories from watching the runway shows?
I think my retinas will be forever damaged by the Lindsay Lohan Ungaro collection. Ungaro hired Lindsay Lohan to be an artistic adviser about a year and a half ago. It was the worst collection I've ever seen.