© 2023 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Does Donna Karan's Ramadan Line Border On Cultural Commodification?


Now we shift our focus from the political to the sartorial. And there's no one better for sartorial splendor and sense than Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan, who's aesthetic and economic and historical perspectives inform her commentary. Robin joins me to discuss a range of headlines, seemly and not, from the fashion world from her office at The Washington Post. Robin, welcome to the program.

ROBIN GIVHAN: Hi, Jacki. It's good to be here.

LYDEN: Good to have you, and welcome back to town. You were living and writing in New York for a while.

GIVHAN: I was. But it's nice to be back in D.C. and back at The Post.

LYDEN: So speaking of New York, I was just struck, and maybe you were too, by the news that Donna Karan, this global designer, has a new line of garments for Ramadan, the Muslim holiday. And The Times of Israel took note of that, as she's Jewish. And I think this is a first for Donna Karan, this kind of line. And as a former Middle East correspondent I was really struck by that. What's your take?

GIVHAN: Well, I mean, you're right. I mean, I do not recall another instance when Donna Karan's done something like this. But, you know, maybe I'm being a little bit cynical. I think that it's a lovely idea. But I would note that, you know, she's not doing a collection for the Amish. There's a lot of - there are a lot of fashion customers in the Middle East. And there is a lot of money in the Middle East. And as designers look at a business that is becoming ever more global, you know, some of the largest, growing markets are in the Middle East. So it makes a lot of business sense to do it.

LYDEN: Yes. And we should probably note that these - this line is available just in her stores in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. So she's really designing specifically for these customers. Have you looked at the actual clothes?

GIVHAN: I have. And, you know, I've given them a quick pass. And I think that they certainly are in keeping with her aesthetic, which I think is the most important thing. I mean, as you sort of try and cater to different markets and different customers, the one thing that you don't want as a designer, that you don't want to lose, is your aesthetic sensibility because that's what has drawn the customers to you in the first place. So a lot of it, I think, has to do with sort of selecting the right pieces from the collection and also styling them in a way that is appropriate.

LYDEN: Let me ask you a little more general question. When is it cultural commodification, and when is it appropriate for a designer to try something new? I mean, designers are inspired by events and symbols and traditions all over the world. But, as you said at the outset, sometimes we're skeptical, too.

GIVHAN: Yeah. And I think it's a really fuzzy line sometimes. But often, you know, the offense is in the - is from the perspective of the person whose culture, whose religion, whose tradition is being used. And I think they're the ones who ultimately can say whether or not something is appropriate or whether something is offensive. I do think that there are a certain group of warning signs and one is that, you know, if it is respectful of the tradition, and if it's attempting to keep some of the context out of which it came, then I think those two things, generally, are very helpful in keeping it from being offensive.

LYDEN: Robin, I also want to note that we have seen the passing of Eileen Ford at age 92. She was, of course, the creator of Ford Models - a woman who left her legacy on four decades of fashion. I want to play a quick clip from 1987. My colleague Scott Simon interviewed her. It was a really testy and funny exchange. Here it is.


SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: Why is it impossible to accept the fact that there's somebody older, who doesn't have wide set eyes, who doesn't have a long neck, who nonetheless communicates something extraordinary about...

EILEEN FORD: Listen, why don't you start a model agency, and you sell those girls? You've got to get them work. And if I don't provide work, I'm not a good agent. And if there's no demand for that look, then there's no reason for me to supply it because who am I going to supply it to? You.

LYDEN: (Laughing) I thought that was great. And she goes on to say, look, if people want wide set eyes and short statures, I'll supply that too.

GIVHAN: (Laughing).

LYDEN: Do we have Eileen Ford to blame for the sort of ectomorph look?

GIVHAN: (Laughing) Well...

LYDEN: Or to credit?

GIVHAN: I don't know if we should credit her or blame her. But I do think that she had a really good point, which is basically that fashion is, at that level, is a fantasy and that she was supplying women who could essentially help perpetuate, help bring to life that fantasy. So if we have anyone to blame, I would say that, you know, we have ourselves to blame because we are the ones who crave that fantasy despite what we often say publicly.

LYDEN: (Laughing) OK. Thank you so much for joining us today. Robin Givhan is the fashion critic for The Washington Post, and she joined us from their studios. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More from Hawai‘i Public Radio