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Thursday, September 1, 2011


Robb Young

Meera Gandhi’s Giving Back Foundation is pleased to sponsor this exclusive fashion interview by WHOM YOU KNOW. The Giving Back Foundation, with operations in New York, London and Hong Kong, is a 501(c)(3) operation, with special emphasis on education and women and children in need. A documentary film, musical CD and coffee-table book are available from the Foundation, featuring vignettes and interviews with humanitarians such as Cherie Blair, Kerry Kennedy and her brother Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Hillary Clinton, Lord Loomba, Somers Farkas, Francine Le Frak, Bono, Donna Karan, Deborah Norville, Steven Rockefeller, Irish interior designer Clodagh, Mother Teresa’s Asha Daan and The American Friends of the Foundation of Prince William and Prince Harry. Charities that inspire The Giving Back Foundation include many others in Hong Kong, Ireland, England, Africa, South America, India and the U.S.A. 100 percent of the proceeds of The Giving Back Foundation’s activities will be donated to charity. To donate to the Giving Back Foundation, please visit:
Meera Gandhi was interviewed herself as a Mover and Shaker two years ago:
 Stay tuned to what she is doing with the film festival in Woodstock:
Remember, she attended “Centrepoint: The American Friends of the Foundation of Prince William and Prince Henry” polo match in Santa Barbara, California on July 9th:
so we could not think of a better fit to team up with this smashing interview from across the pond, which means London of course!  It is always fashionable to give back, and we are pleased to kick off Fashion Week in New York with this interview with Robb Young.


Robb Young is contributing journalist for the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune and among other publications. Specialising in the cultural, business and broader human angles on fashion, his writing has also appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times style magazine "T", Vogue Pelle, Vogue Gioiello, the Independent, the Guardian newspapers and more. Young is senior editor at Luxury Society (, a B2B luxury industry news source and online professional networking organisation. He has lived or worked in all the major international fashion capitals and many emerging markets, editing magazines in Tokyo and New York, adjudicating fashion contests around Europe, and consulting in Asia and the Middle East. Before embarking on his career, Young pursued international relations with a specialty in political economy at Syracuse University, receiving a Bachelor's degree one year ahead of schedule with 'summa cum laude' top honours and then completed an intensive course at the London College of Fashion in England. Based happily in London, he travels extensively around the globe in search of compelling news, perspectives, products and talent. 

Previously, Whom You Know featured Power Dressing in READ THIS, and it is highly recommended by us:

Peachy Deegan interviewed Robb Young for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: What is your first fashion memory? 
Robb Young: I think I have two early memories which mesmerized me in equal measure. There was a five-second clip of the finalé of some couture show that was beamed over from Paris on the evening news one night when I was about five years old which was my first glimpse of so-called ‘proper fashion’ – it was this extravagant, magical confection gliding down the runway that had me hypnotized. Then a couple of years later, I had my first experience of exciting street fashion on a primary school trip when I caught sight of my first real punk who was standing in front of the parliament building in Ottawa in full regalia and a sky-high orange mohawk. Talk about a frisson. And an early inspiration. 

Have you come to New York to see McQueen at The Met and if so how did you like it? We have been obsessed.
No, it was on when I was last in New York there but I was doing an intense TV spot at the time and didn’t have even a single moment to spare unfortunately. So now I’m waiting for it to come to London. 

How were you inspired by the idea of the appearance of women in politics? 
I guess the seed for this book was planted the moment I first came face to face with the severity of the political dress code myself – although it lied dormant for the next decade until about five years ago when I started dabbling in early research for the book. You see, back at university, my Bachelor’s degree was in international relations with a concentration in political economy. I was absolutely hooked on it at the time. After graduating, I fancied myself a diplomat-in-the-making before coming to terms with the reality that, in order to get a dream job at the United Nations, I’d have to abandon the wild outfits I was determined to wear in those days. Ultimately though, I was too stubborn, naïve and idealistic to wear a suit and tie. So, I decided that if fashion could be a career obstacle in these sorts of political circles, then maybe I ought to make fashion my career instead. That decision led me to study fashion in London and enter the fashion business for the next 15 years or so. And that experience probably inspired me in some way to write this book many years later. It has been a little bit like coming full-circle. I think I was seduced by the topic itself because there seems to be this tension that looms whenever fashion and politics are mentioned in the same breath. Over the years, I’ve gotten the impression that fashion is still a dirty word in parliament and the presidential palace. But, I don’t believe it’s necessarily frivolous to ask whether Germans feel more confident in Angela Merkel because she wears a certain kind of trouser suit or to assume that it’s silly to call Winnie Mandela a style icon as well as a freedom fighter. Tension between the two also comes from fashion people, so many of whom have a rather acute and shameful allergy to politics. Why do so few of them – us – know about the ravishing Somali-Dutch parliamentarian turned radical feminist and extremely controversial critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for instance? Maybe they’d be more interested if they realised she wore slogan T-shirts that proclaimed ‘Neither Whore Nor Submissive’ in parliament or if they knew she was also, oddly enough, a fan of the avant-garde designers Viktor & Rolf? I suppose I wanted to make fashion and politics wake up and take notice of one another – who knows, maybe even gain a little more respect for each other. 

Do you personally know any of the women profiled in Power Dressing? 
Ever so briefly, I met Sarah Brown, the wife of the former British prime minister when I was invited to the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street where she was hosting a celebration of British fashion a few years ago. And of course I’ve had a couple of close encounters, interviews and run-ins with some of the others in my book but I’m certainly not on a first-name basis with any of them, if that’s what you mean. Fashion is still a taboo topic for most people in politics so most of the women featured in my book – how do I put this diplomatically – they politely declined to collaborate. I had to seek out alternative sources and analysis.

What political women do you think are the best dressed and why? 
Rather than calling them ‘best dressed’, I’d be more inclined to talk about which political women are adept at using style as a way to successfully enhance their power – that’s power dressing as far as I’m concerned. The former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, for instance, was an adept dresser in as far as she took style risks that were successful in shoring up a lot of popular support quickly. Concocting a style based on seemingly opposite references like cosmopolitan luxury from Louis Vuitton and ancient folklore must have seemed crazy to onlookers from abroad but she apparently understood something very particular and very deep about the collective consciousness in Ukraine at the time of the Orange Revolution. You might find it surprising to hear that I also believe that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s look has also been a success of sorts – improbably though it may seem. Although she had been almost universally chided as dowdy for her sober suits and homely loafers at the start of her career, in just a few short years, Merkel managed to silence her fashion critics by staying true to her signature style and not bowing to their wisecracks. Consequently, she’d turned a style deficit into a political asset by demonstrating consistency and prudence, two qualities generally prized in German politics. What she proved was that her image was an honest reflection of her personality – a no-nonsense, rational woman partial to consensus politics. It’s often about authenticity. In terms of first ladies, besides Michelle Obama, Sheikha Mozah from Qatar and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy from France each have their fingers on the pulse when it comes to their husbands’ constituents. Both have a knack for using fashion wisely. In the case of Carla, a somewhat demure style was an antidote for the more provocative aspects of her personality and past career as a model. For Sheikha Mozah, the calculated vavavoom of her look works because it allows her to be an aspirational figure, someone who is seen as a risk-taker but within cultural boundaries that she is gradually helping to set herself in the Arab world –partly through her fashion choices. 

What political women are the biggest fashion disasters, and if they stepped into your office, what would you do to fix them up or are they beyond help? 
The First Lady of Zimbabwe, Grace Mugabe, made quite an impression on many occasions. A ferocious cheetah-print outfit – mixed with pearls, believe it or not – was Mugabe’s choice for the swearing-in ceremony of her husband’s arch-rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, as prime minister in February 2009. Although animal prints have been status symbols in Africa for centuries and popular on the international catwalks for a very long time, a dress printed with a pack of crouching cheetahs ready for the kill isn’t quite the same thing. And it’s not part of the first-lady style repertoire anywhere else that I know of. There was also the German politician Gabriele Pauli who once found herself in a fracas over a pair of gloves. In a fashion-magazine photo shoot, a stylist had given her a pair of long black latex gloves to wear as an accessory to a white ladylike Christian Lacroix blouse, and after the picture was published the stylist was hounded until she revealed that the gloves had come from a fetish shop. At first Pauli tried the rational approach: ‘Suddenly, they gave me latex gloves. I found the idea creative and artistically ambitious, and since the blouse looked like something I could wear to work, I thought it was respectable enough.’30 But as such headlines as ‘Can Latex be a Sin?’ mounted in number, Pauli became incensed: ‘Black gloves?! I ride a motorcycle too. Are these reasons enough to leave the party? Are we living in the Middle Ages?’ Some faux pas are very unfair and sexist. By now, women politicians are used to dramatic eruptions over hemlines and bad-hair days. But imagine the surprise of Portia Simpson-Miller, the former Jamaican prime minister, when she discovered that during a debate on the fiscal budget in 2009 a male opposition MP had leaned across the parliament benches to one of her colleagues and barked, ‘Tell your party leader she can’t wear that suit to parliament. That’s Versace.’ The label famous for its flashy, body-conscious designs, is a veritable style slander in political circles, but what seems to have caused the MP offence was not the cut of Simpson-Miller’s light indigo suit or its smart white piping detail and silver buttons, but the fact that the fabric had a denim-like finish. Yes, the fabric was considered a faux pas! Then there are would-be faux pas that turned into style successes like when Angela Merkel wore the super décolleté dress to the opera or Condoleezza Rice wore the “superhero stiletto boots” to an army base. And let’s not forget that style blunders aren’t always ‘faux pas’ – sometimes they can be life-threatening or cost you your career and liberty like with certain women politicians in Pakistan, Afghanistan and even Turkey who I’ve profiled in the book. 

What men in politics are the best and worst dressed, worldwide? 
Let’s put it this way. If I were to write a book about men’s power dressing, I’d like to tackle the whole spectrum. Of particular interest might be men with the touch of the dandy or cowboy in their tailoring like US Congressmen Charles Rangel and Ken Salazar or those like Russia’s Vladimir Putin who use off-duty outfits to effect public opinion. Others who might be interesting are former Brazilian president Lula da Silva’s mixing of the ‘common man look’ with sober suits or elegant-looking men like the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, whose outfit is a balancing act of ethnic and tribal allegiances. Then of course there are the villains with powerful signature styles like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-Il from North Korea. Definitely fascinating stuff there. 

What is the biggest mistake women make in fashion? 
To worry excessively over what is flattering and let that dictate their wardrobe at the expense of wearing clothes which may not be quite so flattering but which are very personal, inspirational and meaningful. Surely, life can’t only be about looking pretty.

What is the biggest mistake men make in fashion? 
To think that they can get away with not being bothered with fashion because they’re blokes and – and generally missing the opportunity to be expressive with what they wear. All those men who are used to looking sloppy are in for a rude awakening. One day soon, the standards for men’s fashion will be raised enough so that they’ve got to at least make an effort. 

Who dresses better: New York or London and why? 
It’s hard to say. Both cities have some fantastically dressed people on the street but, suffice to say that I choose to live in London in part for its individualistic and irreverent spirit – which I think comes out in fashion more often here than it does in New York.

Do you like Kate Middleton's style and how do you think she will influence fashion worldwide? It’s still very early days and she’s doing quite well to look youthful, sincere, modern and regal all at the same time. It’s no mean feat. But I do think that she could ‘wow’ us from time to time a bit more. While dressing as if you do it effortlessly is a compliment for most people, it may not be quite the accolade a princess is looking for. As for how she’ll influence fashion, that’s an entire book on its own. 

Who had the best hat at the royal wedding? 
Personally, I liked the more eccentric and outlandish ones worn by Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Princess Beatrice.

What can people in America learn from the English in regards to fashion? 
To be open to some clothes that are avant-garde and innovative even if they’re not necessarily conventionally beautiful.

What can people in Europe learn from Americans in regards to fashion? 
To be a bit more demanding about how comfortable their clothes are. 

What country are the best shoes made in and what shoe brands are your favorite? 
The most original and boundary-pushing tend to be designed by British shoemakers like Nicholas Kirkwood or up-and-coming London designers like Liam Fahy but the best quality and best manufacturing tend to still be made in Italy.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence? 
That’s a very tough one. I’m not entirely sure but in my pursuit of integrity – which might be one way of defining excellence – it would probably have to be one of my dearest friends who happens to be one of the most exceptional women in the fashion industry, Diane Pernet.

What are you proudest of and why? 
My grandmother because she overcame so much and never let it make her bitter.

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do? 
Funny you should ask – that’s something I’m trying to work out right now myself. But definitely something very, very different to anything I’ve done so far. As they say, watch this space.

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party? 
Many years ago, after a Jeremy Scott show in Paris, the late Isabella Blow invited me to an intimate little party at an Argentine restaurant and, after she plied me with champagne and egged me on, I somehow thoroughly embarrassed myself in front of a very famous designer sitting at the next table. Izzy was having the time of her life watching the absurd and devilish theatre she created.

Have you drank The Peachy Deegan yet and if not, why not?  
No, not yet.

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you? 
That I wear many hats in the fashion and luxury industries – journalist, consultant, editor, buyer, author… I have tended to shy away from being professionally pigeon-holed.  

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers? 
They can “like” the book’s page on Facebook and get in touch that way. The link is:

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