ROBIN GIVHAN, fashion critic for The Washington Post, has two distinctions: One is that she’s the only fashion writer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize (in 2006); the other is that she has written a fascinating book about . . . fashion!
The chapter in American fashion history that Givhan (pronounced ghiv-ON) illuminates in “The Battle of Versailles” (Flatiron Books) is arguably the moment when American designers came into their own. Reading about the event, and the context in which it took place, is a bit like visiting a strange land, or a strange time, when “designers” were mostly men and women in the back rooms of manufacturing houses sketching clothing that would bear the manufacturer’s name, not their own. Personalities were emerging, but the late 1960s and early 1970s were early days.
MLB: I loved the beginning of the book, where you are telling us what things were like, who was in charge. Like the department stores and Paris.
RG: That was such a learning experience for me. It has changed so much and it’s so far removed from how things operate today . . . to go back and realize the whole American fashion industry was built on the notion of copying [with American manufacturers taking their cues from the Paris couture]. So that was kind of a revelation.
And the importance of the stores, that was huge. . . . Joan Kaner, who had been the fashion director of Neiman Marcus, explained how it was all about categories, not designers. So if you wanted a dress you went to the Dress Department, if you wanted a coat you went to the Coat Department. You didn’t go looking for a specific designer, you went for the item.
MLB: And women to this day complain about that. “I need a pair of black pants, and I have to go to 17 departments to find them.” [Laughs.]
You also talk about how the merchants were king.
RG: Yes, the designers came out into the spotlight and it was all about the designer brand. And I remember that [long-time Saks Fifth Avenue fashion director] Ellin Saltzman told great stories. She had these knock-down, drag-out fights [with management] because, “We were carrying Halston and nobody really knows it because it’s all about Saks.”
MLB: His name wasn’t inside the dress? Or she just couldn’t publicize it?
RG: She couldn’t publicize it. And it has changed so dramatically that now younger designers, while their name carries clout, they still feel they’re at the mercy of the stores [to carry their clothes]. So the stores took back a lot of that power even though the name is still about the designer.
MLB: Okay, tell us, what was the battle of Versailles and how did it come about?
RG: In a nutshell, the battle of Versailles was a French-American fundraiser, to help to restore the palace of Versailles. So it was going to be a giant, splashy party for the usual social swells. But it became a battle because of the way the media hyped it.
It was also because it was five French and five American designers, and the French were really the top dogs. It was Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior. On the other side, the American industry in general was sort of the underdog. And the five Americans who went–there was no reason these five designers should have been on a stage together. It was Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Halston and Anne Klein. And each in their own way represented the changes that were afoot in the 1970s in our culture–politically, economically, racially. Each one kind of represented a different aspect of change.
[The hype] was also egged on by the publicist, Eleanor Lambert. Conveniently, all five of them were Eleanor’s clients. She had helped establish the [Council of Fashion Designers of America] as we know it today, she was the first to create an organized Fashion Week in New York.
So when she got this query from the curator at Versailles, who was a friend, about what can I do to raise money for the palace? Eleanor said, Well, the only thing I can think of is to put on a fashion show. And she was off to the races.
MLB: I guess it was obvious who the French designers would be.
RG: It was, but a student asked me the other day, Why were there no women on the French side? Why wasn’t Madame Grès involved, because at the time she was the president of the haute couture syndicate in Paris? Politics, relationships, all of those things intervened, as well as the fact that Pierre Bergé was the head of the pret-a-porter [the new ready-to-wear] group and wielded clout, so just like on the American side where there was some jockeying for position, on the French side there was as well.
MLB: What about the inclusion of [African American designer] Stephen Burrows? Were they thinking about race, or was it about his use of bright color?
RG: It was a bit of both. Bill and Oscar were the no-brainer choices. Halston was a big celebrity–he had just sold his company to [the conglomerate] Norton Simon and was a newly minted millionaire. (And my favorite part was that apparently he kept referring to himself in the third person during this entire thing–and of course everybody loves that.)
And there was Anne Klein. No one wanted Anne to be there because she did such basic, unglamorous sportswear. The French didn’t want her, the Americans felt like, Oh my God, we’re going to have a hard enough time being spectacular on this huge stage and Anne is not going to help the cause. But after doing the research, even though it went unsaid, I felt that Eleanor really wanted a woman. So Oscar was sort of dispatched [to Paris] to argue for Anne’s place, and the French accepted her on the bill as a favor to Oscar and his French wife, Françoise Langlade.
And then there was Stephen. Stephen was the last of the designers chosen. He came out of nowhere and, with friends, had opened a boutique downtown called O Boutique, and it was pure hipster heaven. All the cool kids came. He got covered in Vogue, he won a Coty award. And Eleanor decided, I need that guy.
Certainly she realized he was the hottest guy now, but I think also there was all this stuff going on with race relations. There was a push to show black people just being regular people, not in the course of protesting, so that figured into it as well. Stephen was not Eleanor’s client before Versailles, but by the time the plane touched down in France, he was her client.
I sort of loved Eleanor. She was a little bit of P.T. Barnum, fashion dictator, mother hen. If you were not on Team Eleanor, you were in her way! [Laughs.]
MLB: Now, about you. You came to The Washington Post from Detroit?
RG: I came from the glamorous Detroit Free Press!
MLB: Which has always had very good fashion coverage!
RG: Yes. As a high school kid i wasn’t particularly interested in fashion, but after grad school I ended up going to the Free Press as my first job. To make a long story short, I was a general assignment writer in the entertainment department, which was filled with critics, so I got all the dregs. So when the fashion editor at the time became a columnist, I thought, Oh my God, a beat! A beat has opened! I raised my hand and said, Can I do it? And to this day, I swear to people that if it had been a religion writer, an environment writer, a city council writer who had gotten another job, I would have said, City council! It’s a beat! Can I do that?
I didn’t get the job–I knew nothing about fashion! But I started covering menswear. That was my entry point. That very first season–and this all goes to show the importance of fashion at the Free Press–the new fashion editor could not get to the paper in time for all the European shows. They did not want to miss a season. They said to me, We’ve already missed Milan–tragic, right?–so we need you to go to London and Paris, and then the new fashion critic will pick up things and go to New York. And the outgoing writer, this terrific woman named Robin Abcarian, who’s now a political writer at the L.A. Times, said to me, Here’s a list. Here are the shows you need to go to, and here are the ones you should go to. These are the ones you can skip if you want to. I had heard of Saint Laurent and Chanel–that was about it. She also said, here are the names of of four of my friends on the [fashion show] circuit. When you get to London, call them and they will help you.
MLB: And did they?
RG: I get to London and I call up Linda Griffin from the Houston Chronicle and Janet McCue from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They were the nicest people ever. They snuck me into shows I didn’t have invitations for, they talked me into places, they pointed me in the right direction.
That first season was so overwhelming. But my editor gave me great advice: Don’t review, just report. Go and learn about the industry, he said, go talk to the designers, and write good stories.
One of the things that struck me in researching the book, and having conversations with these women in the post-war period who wore couture. I was sort of judging them as frivolous. But Harold Koda from the [Metropolitan Museum of Art] Costume Institute, he said, You’re judging them through 2013 eyes. You really have to look at their time, what was available to them, and the way they used what was a kind of power, which was beauty. And whether it came naturally or through hard work, it was a kind of currency. They used that currency for all kinds of philanthropy and to set all kinds of cultural agendas.
MLB: It probably wasn’t apparent then, but they were also keeping alive certain couture traditions and crafts. I didn’t know until recently that Chanel owned Lesage [the famous embroidery studio].
RG: Chanel has been kind of extraordinary in that they essentially went around and bought all of these artisan houses, and what’s wonderful about it is, even though they own it, they don’t limit the work that Lesage can do. Lesage can work for a multitude of brands, but it’s owned by Chanel to basically ensure that there will always be work for Lesage. And there are the passementerie people, the feather people. There is basically someone for all these things.
MLB: Are your parents living?
RG: My dad is. My mom passed away almost two years ago. My dad will be 90 this year–I was late. [Laugh.]
MLB: When you got your Pulitzer, was he the first person you called?
RG: Well, my mom was alive then, and when I found out I called and of course I got their voice mail. And so I leave this message that’s like screaming, Call me, call me, call me as soon as you get in! And there’s this pause and then, Oh, it’s good, it’s all good!
My parents are kinda news junkies, so they understood [the importance of the Pulitzer]. Although I will say that at one point my mother got way too excited about it and at one point I had won the Nobel prize! I said, No, no, no, not quite that!