By Amy Moeller
Photography by Mike Morgan | February 23, 2015 | Style & Beauty
Six local style setters weigh in on the ways DC has upped its fashion game.
With major designers moving in and hollywood taking note, the DC style scene has enjoyed a renaissance the last few years. Ready to rebuff the notion that Washingtonians are safe and staid when it comes to couture, six tastemakers—Robin Givhan, The Washington Post’s fashion critic; Carl Ray, makeup artist to the First Lady; Jennifer Hing, House Appropriations Committee communications director; Martha Slagle, Neiman Marcus VP/general manager; Sim Khan, founder of the custom menswear label Brimble & Clark; and Rachel Cothran, style blogger and director of communications at georgetown Bid—met over bubbly in the West End to discuss the updated look of the district. In tow, each expert brought along one signature item that best represents his or her sense of DC style.
We have a range of occupations and personalities here, and yet, each of you in your own way is an authority on style—and impeccably dressed. How did that start?
Robin Givhan, staff writer and fashion critic, The Washington Post: I love writing and journalism, and oddly, a fashion [position] happened to be open at the early point in my career. I found it interesting because it’s one of few [subjects] that is so personal: Everyone has to engage in it in some way, and it speaks volumes about who we are as a culture.
Jennifer Hing, communications director, House Appropriations Committee: I have always worked in an environment [where everyone dressed conservatively], and one day I got tired of wearing a black suit and a white button down. So I decided to think outside the box and be a little more adventurous.
Carl Ray, makeup artist: At a very young age I knew I was attracted to art and painting. I used to do my mother’s makeup growing up. She was going through a divorce, and I just thought she was doing it all wrong. I was 14 or 15. It was my passion, my calling.
Martha Slagle, vice president and general manager, Neiman Marcus: I got into retail fashion as a teenager to support my shopping habit. At 16 I lied and said I was 18 so I could work at Woodies [Woodward & Lothrop]. I was then a buyer at Garfinckel’s, and now [I’ve worked] 21 years at Neiman Marcus. I’ve been supporting my habit all along.
Sim Khan, founder, Brimble & Clark: I was a banking lawyer before I started my [custom-suit] business. At 30, I looked about 17, so in the courtroom, I needed to wear suits to look my age and to look like I knew what I was doing. I developed a new way to do [suit] fittings and translated that into a business.
Rachel Cothran, style blogger and director of communications, Georgetown BID: I’m from a small town in Virginia, and I didn’t grow up with much in the way of fashion or shopping, so I [had] fashion magazines. When I came to DC in 2007, I started a fashion blog when there were maybe one or two others. I hit the streets and photographed people who had an attractive and interesting look [and who had] something to say. Fashion is my artistic outlet.
“This vintage pink brocade swing coat is probably from the ’60s, and it has some embroidery around the neckline and down the front. I bought it in between my freshman and sophomore years of college when I was living on Taco Bell and Celeste pizza in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There was this vintage store right on the beach road, sort of out of place. [The coat] was $75, which was a lot of money to me at the time, but I loved it; I’ve loved it ever since.” —RACHEL COTHRAN
The movement of DC fashion away from an ultraconservative style has been a popular discussion recently.
Cothran: What’s interesting about DC is that it’s not really a fashion town—and I don’t think it needs to be.
Slagle: Thirty years ago we did not have designers. Not everybody carried Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana, and over the years many more vendors have accepted DC as a fashion place. I disagree—we are [about] classic fashion, not trends. There is a difference between [being] trendy and being [fashionable].
Givhan: One of my first stories at The Post was based on an observation: I was watching people come out of the Farragut Metro, and I was amazed at how many women were in very tailored suits but wearing giant sneakers. I couldn’t figure out why they felt they didn’t have to be who they ultimately had to be once they arrived at the office.... [general laughter] Our switchboard almost exploded because people were so angry. I’m not saying you need to wear four-inch stilettos to the Metro, but [you could wear] ballet flats…. The point is, there was a sense of being on at the workplace, but almost invisible until you got [there]. Now, there is this sense of Washington as a place where people live and express themselves beyond their job titles. I also think that men now look interesting, surprising, and great in this city.
Khan: For 30 years DC has had an epidemic of what I call “it’s all about the khakis”: [khaki pants,] blue blazers, red ties, and white shirts. But there has been an influx of diplomats and expats influencing everything from food to fashion, and their slim, European style is starting to mix with the Southern preppy tradition. Something really cool is evolving from that—[it’s] unique to DC and encouraging.
Hing: And the influx of millennials [has had an impact, too]. I think young blood has changed the lexicon, especially in Capitol Hill and in politics. People are more willing to take risks. [Millennials] grew up with fashion blogs and watching America’s Next Top Model, and they don’t necessarily feel like they have to stay in their bubble anymore.
Givhan: Not to slam millennials, but all good things that happened in Washington did not arrive on the backs of millennials. There is interesting and exciting fashion in Washington, but I don’t think that it’s due to millennials—in some ways I think the fashion they brought is informal, not particularly interesting fashion. It’s the anti-suit-and-tie [style], but not necessarily innovative. That creative stuff has happened across many generations, and some of it comes from a generation [of people who have] more disposable income and feel more comfortable expressing themselves.
Ray: Makeup has come a long way. It used to be [common to have a] very stark, simple face, and now people are expressing themselves more with makeup and color, changing the textures and trends, and [evolving] with the seasons. It has gotten a lot better. I invite it.
Cothran: Did someone suddenly give us permission to step out a little bit?
Hing: One of the most interesting things that happened for Washington professionals, particularly women, was the rallying cry from the industry that professional attire did not necessarily equal a suit. And all of a sudden, you see women wearing dresses to the office. [This mind-set] allowed women to be more expressive. You can still look fashionable, but also appropriate for your environment.
Cothran: In DC people really want to be taken seriously for their ideas. And those [people] buy beautiful things that are well made and classic. That is a prerogative: looking put together and not too flashy.
"My Rene Caovilla shoes are my [signature look] when I go out for the evening. I want a comfortable shoe that looks glamorous, and with that silver heel, it’s one of the most luxurious, as well as comfortable, shoes you can [wear].” —MARTHA SLAGLE
Jennifer mentioned still having to wear a coat on the House floor out of respect for the institution. How does fashion translate to the political realm?
Khan: I see a gap between professions that’s unique to DC: government versus everything else. In government, bad style is a bipartisan effort. They have style PTSD because they remember what happened to John Edwards’ campaign when he started getting $400 haircuts. Nobody’s going to forget “suitgate” with the president’s attempt to wear something other than a navy suit. In politics, style is stagnant. But a lot of guys on K Street—lobbyists, lawyers, bankers—are starting to understand, by watching House of Cards, Suits, Mad Men, Madam Secretary, that being taken seriously [professionally] isn’t just about knowing what you’re doing; it’s also about looking like you know what you’re doing.
Givhan: There [are] people embracing trends faster and being more creative. And then there is C-SPAN, and that is never going to be trendy. I don’t want the leader of the free world wearing a skinny suit and an ascot. It’s more about the tailoring and the quality of fabric. There are people on Capitol Hill who’ve been secret buyers of bespoke suits, but they don’t talk about it, because it’s not good to be known for spending $5,000 on a suit. But the suit doesn’t scream $5,000—the suit just says, “I’m very well tailored.”
Cothran: And you don’t see it. You’re not staring at that person. It’s about looking powerful and strong. This is a smart, powerful city.
Hing: It’s also about convincing people. A put-together appearance equals a put-together mind, [and] a put-together profession. I came to the Hill in ’02, when women’s style was your Talbots twinset—not that there is anything wrong with that—but it was your basic black suit/white button-down, or your twinset and skirt. Now you’ll walk into the House cafeteria and see more young people from different backgrounds, and even on government salaries, they’re making creative, interesting choices.
Givhan: Do you think there’s a trickle down from the executive office to the rest of Washington—that it matters who’s in the White House?
Ray: I think it does matter that people see what’s going on in the bigger office and the newness of what is going on in the world. I’ve seen a change in style since I’ve been working with the [current] administration and in DC. It’s getting stronger, with more individual style.
Cothran: A lot of people thought when Michelle Obama [became first lady], the city and its style would change. And being so tied into the local art scene, I thought there’d been a lot [of change] already bubbling under the surface, but when Michelle came in, it emanated in a big way.
Givhan: One of the differences is that [Michelle] came from the world of business, not politics. What was really striking about her wasn’t that she upset the whole political fashion construct, but that she came in and all of a sudden here was this person who was a real professional: a regular woman in the White House. She was wearing what she wanted to wear, for better or worse.
“A Prada jacket that I bought many, many years ago. It’s a cropped Shirley jacket with a jeweled collar, and it is very much a luxury for me. I love a little sparkle at all times of the day. Someone once asked me right after I bought it whether or not I was planning to retire it after the season, and I laughed and said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’ll probably be buried in this jacket!’” —ROBIN GIVHAN
You’ve alluded to the idea that a Washingtonian’s style is heavily influenced by how he or she wants to be perceived.
Khan: It’s like you’re not really dressing for yourself. It’s marketing: dressing to suit your occupation. It’s not a mistake that, in menswear, most representatives [of Congress] look like your grandfather—that’s whom you want to elect. You want them representing your interests. But guys like Representative Aaron Schock are changing that. It depends on their base. On his days off, Vice President Biden dresses pretty well. They know that, in front of the cameras, they have to look like the everyman. It’s a tough line to [straddle].
Let’s talk more about Hollywood’s influence. So many current television shows are set in DC, and the characters are very fashionable.
Slagle: Dressing for success. They want to look successful, and in DC they feel it’s a power suit, a power scarf, a power bag, or a power shoe.
Cothran: Scandal is one people talk about a lot. To me, [the characters] always look put together, and that’s how DC prioritizes who looks good and who doesn’t.
Givhan: They look like Washington on its best day, with everything tailored and a little bit tighter, which makes for good television.
Cothran: [Robin Wright’s character on House of Cards] looks amazing. She wears chic dresses all the time: very tailored, very architectural. That’s DC—amped up by 50 percent.
Khan: Scandal is almost true to life—the tailored silhouettes and the use of color. You see that a lot on lobbyists, because they need to look like they have influence. But with politicians it’s definitely not a case of art imitating life. In House of Cards, you see Frank Underwood’s evolution from the big suit as house whip to something more tailored as president.
“I like to change my reading glasses a lot. For outfits, occasions, the way I feel that day—it’s just an expression of myself. I love different shapes, sizes, colors.” —CARL RAY
Carl, does this same newfound purposefulness apply to makeup?
Ray: There is a definition of how people think they should look, but they are going outside that box now. They are wearing lashes; they are wearing colorful lipstick; they are wearing eyeliner and cat eyes. They’re not afraid to express themselves anymore.
Givhan: I remember a conversation with Richard Martin from The Costume Institute at the Met who [said] that the last time we, as a country, expected our elected officials to be more polished and look better than we do, was with the Kennedys. After that, there was this desire to have someone who looked like us, like the person next door—not quite as slick. It seems like we got stuck there.
Cothran: I wonder why it stopped with the Kennedys. People have such a fascination with that family and era. What changed?
Givhan: Distrust of government: a feeling that we wanted greater empathy from government.
Hing: In the ’70s there was a terrible recession. Immediately after Kennedy, you had Nixon, wars, distrust, and an economic downturn.
Khan: I think that hits it on the head. With an economic downturn people don’t want to see somebody in office spending a lot on clothes.
Givhan: When billionaire [Malcolm] Forbes ran for president, he purposefully wore ill-fitting suits.
Hing: That doesn’t surprise me.
“My item is an MCL multicolored cocktail ring with a spider embossed on the front. It’s the first piece of jewelry I purchased for myself. It was a splurge item, and I absolutely love it. It’s gorgeous and also super fun and unique. I also happen to love spiders, so it was a very appropriate piece of jewelry for me to be attracted to.” —JENNIFER HING
How has this change affected local business? Or vice versa?
Slagle: I think brick-and-mortar is still very much alive. It’s all about relationships. [Clients] call and say, “I’m going someplace—I just found out, and I need this. Can you have this ready for me?”
Khan: I absolutely agree. There is an importance to that personal interaction and that accessibility. DC customers have access to more personalized shopping. At Brimble & Clark we send guys out to your home or your office; they look through your closets. There is a whole style consultation process that you probably wouldn’t otherwise have had some years ago.
Slagle: Even I personally go to customers’ homes. If you do the right thing for them and make them look like they are supposed to look, it’s the best advertisement you can have.
“My grandfather taught me the importance of standout conservatism. A royal-blue suit on its own looks like a standard blue suit. But next to a guy wearing a navy suit, it blows him out of the water. It’s like putting a highlighter all over yourself, so that people will gravitate toward you. With Brimble & Clark, I want our suits to open doors for our guys—in the boardroom, in the courtroom, and in the bedroom.” —SIM KHAN
Someone mentioned that Ann Taylor—which everyone jokes is the DC uniform—has become more boutique-like, and its inventory has evolved. Has that pushed the envelope for Washingtonians?
Givhan: Over the last 10 years fashion has changed, and there’s no longer this separate bubble of “fashion” [versus] other clothing. Even the woman who is the standby Ann Taylor customer is getting a more contemporary product than she was 10 years ago. The Eileen Fisher [customer] is getting a more contemporary, relevant product than she might have 10 years ago.
Cothran: I loved your point that someone can now feel like he or she is a person outside of work.
Givhan: It’s a reflection of more interesting, creative industries coming into Washington. [DC is] not so overwhelmingly smothered by the federal government. There are other elements that make for a more interesting environment—galleries and restaurants and bars. [People say,] “Oh, I can buy that because, now, I actually have a place to wear it.”
This roundtable was hosted in a luxury penthouse in the West End at 1200 23rd St. NW, 910, currently listed for $799,000. Listing agent: Joyce Wehrle, RE/MAX Allegiance, 202-338-8900; joyce. firstname.lastname@example.org