The Gift That Keeps On Givhan

by Mattie Kahn
October 3, 2013
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A reflection on criticism and those who best relay it

letstalkaboutitblacklips

Oh, sure. We’re pretty fond of each other, but the truth is you all are our favorite contributors to The Man Repeller. Really! We’ve formalized that fact with “Let’s Talk About It.” This weekly column is a forum for conversation, communication, and complete distraction from the jobs you’re supposed to be doing right now. So get involved. We promise we won’t tell your bosses.

Congratulations, darlings. We survived. (It must have been all the green juice!) After four cities in four weeks, I think we deserve a medal.

Ha. Just kidding.

Unlike some of my globetrotting peers, I did not physically attend a single show during fashion month. Instead, I played spectator to the entire gorgeous universe it spawns each season from the comfort of my own dorm room. I must say: it was not too shabby.

I tagged along with Billy Farrell Agency via Instagram and refreshed Style.com every six seconds. I watched some of the collections march down their respective runways in real time and saved others for popcorn-fueled, late-night viewings. In high definition, I saw Alexander Wang single-handedly resuscitate the logo and Raf Simons redefine Dior. I made this very website you’re reading now my homepage. But when the cacophony of images and vines and videos threatened to overwhelm, I knew just how to quiet the aesthetic noise, or rather: I knew just who would. I mean, really, what else is a critic for?

Eons ago, before New York Fashion Week began and pink mohair coats were considerably less ubiquitous than they are now, New York Magazine announced that the inimitable Robin Givhan would lend her Pulitzer-prize-winning voice to The Cut’s formidable show coverage. Along with, yes, Cathy Horyn and Suzy Menkes, Givhan is that rare critical breed. She is honest, and she isn’t always “nice.” With remarkably little fanfare, in fact, she tells you exactly what the hell she thinks. Truthfully, I like her incisive, even-keeled accounts best of the bunch.

On Tuesday, Givhan proved her commitment to that worthy objective by ripping Hedi Slimane’s latest collection for Saint Laurent to — forgive the pun — shreds. The entire takedown is gripping, but she succinctly summarizes her disdain in writing that “this time, the collection was a sucker punch to sophistication; a jab at the very meaning of luxury, a humorless impersonation of cool. And worst of all,” she continues. “It was ugly.”

Not only does Givhan’s piercing commentary dispel the widespread stereotype of a too-cozy critical community, but it also complicates Lee Siegel’s eloquently enunciated assertion in The New Yorker last week that the gloriously bloody practice of real criticism is dead. Where critics were once called upon to report when emperors wore no clothes, it seems many have now become royal court subjects who instead politely avert their eyes.

In an age of Internet effusions, Givhan’s controlled analysis is no small thing. Where colleagues gush, she investigates, and where others are bone dry, she conveys real, imaginative warmth. In short: I think she’s pretty good at her job. Although, of course, we can scrutinize whether that’s true—if you want to! For now, though, what I’m most interested in is what Givhan’s wince-worthy account means in the context of our wider and now vastly democratized critical landscape.

These days, thanks to Twitter and Facebook and even this column, we’re all critics. Some of us scored paper-and-ink invites to September’s spectacles. Others followed along remotely. But no matter our technical proximity, one could argue that each of us has as much access to a given collection as even the most rarefied reviewer. And if we are so inclined, each of us has a platform—or ten—on which to share our thoughts. We comment. We engage. A few of us quite literally put our money where our mouths are and shop Moda Operandi.

With all that in mind, what purpose do critics of Givhan’s caliber serve? Do such isolated opinions still command your attention the way they do mine? Or do you, like The New Yorker’s Siegel, feel that criticism needs to evolve to suit our Yelp!-hewn times? If so, what form should it assume? According to Siegel:

The future [of criticism] lies in a synthetic approach. Instead of books, art, theatre, and music being consigned to specialized niches, we might have a criticism that better reflects the eclecticism of our time, a criticism that takes in various arts all at once. You might have, say, a review of a novel by Rachel Kushner that is also a reflection on “Girls,” the art of Marina Abramović, the acting style of Jessica Chastain, and the commercial, theatrical, existential provocations of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Or not. In any case, it’s worth a try.

Considering that Givhan name-drops Cyrus in her review, it would seem that the sartorial scribe at least tangentially agrees. The question is, do you?

I’m giving you permission. Let’s talk about it.

REPLIES
  • JiaoJiao

    Hey! I really enjoy your blog and I have nominated it for the versatile blogger award! Check out my blog to see what it’s all about! :) http://www.occupythecloset.com

    • Mia

      Someone clearly skipped on reading the article and went into self-promo mode. tsk tsk. SMH #bloggers

      • JiaoJiao

        Just because I didn’t mention anything about the article doesn’t mean I did not read it…. Yes, maybe I should have written something, but it would have just been a generic reply like, “Oh, great article! Wish I could write as well as you! Wish I had your style!” like everyone else… I enjoy this blog and I take pleasure and entertainment from reading every article. I don’t think I deserve you “tsk tsk- SMH- “hashtag”” shit because I was commenting on a post and just so happen to add my blog at the end…. scroll down and see how many other people did that as well.

        • Hereshoping Themayanswereright

          If you read this whole article and couldn’t think of anything but a generic reply, then how interesting could your blog that you are promoting on here be? It’s not that hard to add something relevant.

          • Mia

            Thank you ! Finally someone who understands.

      • Savannah

        And so what if she did? She could argue that you skipped the reading and went into hating much mode?

        • Mia

          She could argue but she has no proof that I did not read it. Plus, by the looks of it, she is too busy promoting her blog nomination to care in the type of response she makes.

          God forbid she does it again on a topic about death, cancer or who knows what. There is a reason Leandra’s blog is successful while others are still going the generic copy and paste method to attract readers who most likely won’t return to read her blog, let alone vote for whatever she is promoting.

          • Hereshoping Themayanswereright

            Mia, ALOT of people agree with you. They just don’t want to say anything for fear of not being considered “nice”. I for one find it really f**king annoying to come on here and be assaulted by the rabid self promoters trying to steal traffic and not adding one single thing to the conversation. It’s always some version of: “Love your blog! I’m doing blah blah! come and check out my blog and tell me what you think! I wish we had the option to flag them as spam, because that’s all they really are.

          • marie a

            What’s worse than coming on here to be “assaulted by the rabid self promoters trying to steal traffic”, is coming on here to be assaulted by people adding to petty and catty conversations such as this. Leave it be next time.

          • Hereshoping Themayanswereright

            Mia’s comment got 10 votes up and yours got zero. Clearly the majority agrees with her sentiments. Oh and btw, disingenuously labeling someone’s legitimate opinion as “catty” to suit your own hidden agenda couldn’t be more transparent.

          • marie a

            Actually, I didn’t say whether I agreed with Mia or JiaoJiao. I just thought the conversation seemed silly, and the delivery, maybe not the opinion, did come off as catty. I don’t even have a blog or a “hidden agenda” to self-promote (another reason I’m not too worried about my votes up- interesting that you find votes up so valuable for someone who is vehemently against self-promoting), but this is obviously one of the ways people get their blogs read. If it is slightly annoying, it isn’t going to stop, and there was a lot of interesting commentary about the actual content of the post for you to focus on instead. But now I am just absolutely contributing to the conversation I think is silly- so hopefully this just cleared up my point a bit.

  • Amatoria Clothing

    Everyone can be a “critic” because of social media… but that doesn’t mean everyone’s opinion is worthy of attention. Some people love to just complain about everything, even if they know nothing on the subject.
    A person who is used to eating meat and potatoes every day will not appreciate escargot, so why would I listen to their opinion? I would rather listen to someone who has an open mind to many types of food.
    I think of fashion the same way. Some things may not be my taste, but I can appreciate them for the quality, or innovation, or aesthetic appeal. Someone who wears jeans and graphic tees will not appreciate the SS14 Prada Collection.

    • Savannah

      Why exactly wouldn’t they? I for one LOVED that collection (highlight of the whole fashion month in my humble opinion) and yes, I find my self wearing graphic tees and jeans now and then.
      Do agree on the point you were trying to make, just didn’t understand your final comment.

      • Amatoria Clothing

        I definitely was not talking about anyone who would ever read a fashion blog. If you read this post, you obviously like fashion and are able to appreciate it. A good example of the person I meant would be my boyfriend or my mom. They do not care for fashion. They don’t really know why anyone would want to pay more than $100 for a piece of clothing. They don’t consider fashion art.
        While a fashion lover can go to the Punk exhibit at the Met, and appreciate it, my boyfriend just thought anyone who would wear those things would be crazy. They don’t get it.
        So my point is, if you take EVERYONE’s opinion about something, the ratings may be skewed. Someone like my mom or my boyfriend would give the Punk exhibit a much lower rating because they do not understand or appreciate it. Their opinion of the exhibit doesn’t mean much to me. On the other hand if someone knows about fashion, but they were still underwhelmed by the exhibit, I would be interested in finding out why they felt that way.

  • Boomqueen

    It takes vision, edge, and vocabulary to be a decent fashion critic, and Givhan is equally limited in all three respects. Her insight smacks of a manufactured aesthetic carefully honed in the Beltway, a play-it-safe snobbery that values practicality and brand over art or a historical understanding of the day’s fashion. She writes in a narrative form that appeals to women who identify as “fashionistas” and only understand fashion to be a never-ending game where she with the most snark will prevail. The only purpose of her reviews lies in the upkeep of my cockatoo’s cage.

    • Mattie Kahn

      Interesting. I’d actually love to know, then, how you think a better critic would have evaluated Slimane’s work. What you seem to be saying is that Givhan is using the wrong metrics to decide whether collections are good or bad. She’s judging them based on “practicality” and you think she should be weighing them according to different standards. But doesn’t a “review” of a show (like a review of a television series or movie) need to deal with aesthetic/consumer appeal in addition to its historical context?

      Using Miley Cyrus as an example (because why not?), shouldn’t a review of her album address whether it’s musically good or not in ADDITION to explaining her popularity in this day and age? Isn’t that a reviewer’s responsibility?

      • Boomqueen

        It’s a good point to clarify. I’d have no problem with Givhan’s assessments say of Banana Republic or Gap’s fall launch- practicality is highly valued in that marketplace, and should be the dominant consideration. But when you are dealing with high fashion, the metrics should be better grounded in an understanding of the history and an appreciation for the aesthetic intent. (Disclaimer- I lived in DC for a decade and had to suffer through her advice column- which usually turned on whatever designer was big at the moment, infused with some sass. I have no doubt at one point she had an “I’m a Charlotte” shirt which she paired with her Tory Burch flats and pronounced FAB-U-LOUS.) It’s just not the caliber of theoretical discussion worthy of its subject or of its readership. And there’s something about the way she writes- she’s fearful of big words or theoretical contributions. Indeed, if she balanced her appreciation for the mundane and the predictable with an assessment of its value in culture, I could stand it. She’s an excellent example of success through connections and self-promotions- two skill sets highly promoted in DC culture- and I hate to see that trump better writers with more substantive knowledge.

        • Pullleeeeze

          Written by someone who knows nothing about Givhan, obviously. She’s right on point. Givhan’s review was right on point–she knows what she’s talking about and she has the goods. So sorry you had to “suffer” through her reviews and essays about popular culture.

  • We Voice Fashion

    We do agree with Givhan, and Menkes and Horyn are not far off behind. Critiquing fashion is quite a serious matter, and us being critiques of fashion do not think that the current way of critiquing needs a twitch or a budge to change. Another fashion critique that we’re fans of is Vanessa Friedman of the Financial Times. Her opinionated articles on the past few fashion weeks have been very insightful and interesting. Like Boomqueen said, it does take vision, edge and most importantly good fashion vocabulary to actually make it as a fashion critique. We’re currently working on ours, and hoping to enhance them to follow the fashion critiquing bunch suit.

    Asma and Reem
    http://www.wevoicefashion.com

  • Stylegodis

    Amazing post! <3
    xxxx

    The StyleGodis.com Team

  • http://www.believebeautonomy.com/ Asia Monique Mays

    I appreciate the fact Givhan stated her opinion the way she did. It not only provided the difference needed to gauge the practicality of the wear, but allows for other critics to be honest about how they feel, as far as what they see and for most to not just be “ok” with what was presented.

    Bold and straight forward. Great read.

    http://believebeautonomy.com

  • Shazia A Ali

    A mix of praise and a dash of criticism are vital for any form of art (and it’s a good thing if everyone is not in a (like/hate) robotic unison, right? – laws of individuality/intellectuality). Few harsh words can add dimension, meaning and depth to a collection or shred it to pieces depending on who’s listening and what state of mind the designer is in (sticks and stones and words theory).

    The Givhan comment, “this time, the collection was a sucker
    punch to sophistication; a jab at the very meaning of luxury, a humorless
    impersonation of cool – can also mean this collection was not homed in for the
    mature cultivated clientele who wants to ooze a persona of luxury at all times.
    It was intended towards younger, hip and cooler clientry. A huge number of
    leggy pop star with edgy-persona lassies with swole bank rolls are
    gonna have a field day “Killin’ It” street style! (The sales will be the final
    judge of who will be able to keep their cool and who’d be laughing all the way
    to the bank.)

    For the worst of all comment,” “It was ugly.” I incur the clause – beauty is in the eye of the beholder babe.

    In my opinion Givhan criticism has added flavor and depth to the art of Hedi Salimane, and now we can all sleep easy at night thinking clothes we choose to wear define who we want to be that particular day or occasion. Some might hate our expression some might love it, important thing is we keep expressing and while doing so we remember fondly that someone talented made it possible for us to wear our expression physically and thank God it is not cut to one size Stepford wife sophisticated cool. ;)

    • Leandra Medine

      Interesting perspective — thanks for taking the time to share!

      • Shazia A Ali

        Hey, it’s always cathartic thinking out aloud in front of liberal company. ;) Critique is healthy we all know that, but, I am tired of excessive use of force by boxed connoisseurs telling public what fashion is all about? Who gets to says where art starts and stops, anyway? To me the art world isn’t Kashmir or Palestine. Its borders are negotiable — fictional even. Coloring outside the lines should be left to artist’s discretion and public response ;)

  • T

    Hm, really interesting stuff. Being a critic, yes, it would seem important for someone such as Givhan to have an educated opinion in more than one genre such as fashion and be able to make these connections to pop-culture references. What it offers is a perspective to someone who may be being spoon fed their views of fashion, film, etc. But someone’s opinion is only their .02, a point of view for you to formulate your own choices or decisions.

    As far as the critique of Slimane, I don’t think what she said was exactly ‘slamming’ the designer. It was meant to, yes, but I kind of feel that Slimane was precisely aiming for the collection to be an ‘assault on luxury and beauty.’ The choice of music made it quite evident, even the models’ walk was in no way gracious and was meant to be fast, as if the girls were stumbling home after a wild night in a walk of shame.

    She hit the nail on the head, “Coolness is derived from nonchalance, not this excruciatingly obvious flash.” Although she’s right, it is still going to sell, so it is extremely important that she makes this apparent to everyone now as Slimane continues to further stray away from the DNA of the house.

  • Eva Kuzyk

    I don’t see the point in criticism unless it’s constructive or helpful to someone in some way. Speaking about your own opinions is great and can be valuable as long as you don’t mistake them with facts. I see articles from people like Givhan as attention seeking. But maybe that’s what this industries all about.