Sixteen-year-old fashion-blogging phenomenon Tavi Gevinson has already carved out a prominent place for herself in pop culture, appearing in the front rows of Paris fashion shows, the pages of The New York Times, and her own TED talk. Here, she opens up about girls, grinding, and getting shit done.
I'm a 42-year-old woman, and I work for a 16-year-old girl. This seems normal to me, as my philosophy on bosses has always been that I won’t work for someone who isn’t smarter than me, and Tavi Gevinson definitely fits my criteria.
I wanted to work for Tavi because when I started reading her blog, Style Rookie, three years ago, it was the most interesting thing going on in publishing. Here was a 12-year-old kid typing alone in her bedroom in the Chicago suburbs, churning out the funniest, most thoughtful analyses of style, fashion, culture, and girlhood that I had ever seen. And her loyal following of more than 50,000 daily readers agreed.
That blog, which she started when she was 11, made Tavi famous—designers started sending her free clothes and invitations to fashion shows and parties all over the world; she was profiled in The New York Times and The New Yorker; she wrote fashion columns for Harper’s Bazaar and POP. Then, eventually, inevitably, she started to grow out of her early obsessions. She still loves fashion, but her brain is more occupied these days with feminism, pop culture, and work—mostly on Rookie, the new website for teenage girls she founded last year and for which I’m an editor.
I know this sounds super braggy (because it is), but Rookie is a really special thing. It’s a feminist website for teenagers, but it never condescends to them (about half our staff are teenage girls themselves). We cover serious stuff like sexual assault, eating disorders, street harassment, and mental health, but we also do fashion stories and entire features about stickers and glitter. And we’ve had folks like Lena Dunham, Miranda July, Joss Whedon, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Hamm, Paul Rudd, Sarah Silverman, and Liz Phair offer advice to our readers on getting through the torture of high school.
Tavi and I have been working on Rookie together for about a year and a half now. From September to June, she would be in high school all day, come home at three and do her homework, eat dinner, then do her full-time job, being an editor-in-chief, till the wee hours. It’s a lot to ask of anyone, much less someone so young.
Our first business meeting was in the morning at a café in New York. Tavi ordered hot chocolate and a Nutella crepe. Candy for breakfast! That afternoon, she gave a lecture at the Met. She’s in this special moment when she’s a kid and an adult at the same time, like all teenagers are—Tavi, kind of more so than anyone: because she has so many adult responsibilities, I think she savors the sleepovers, secret crushes, and Nesquik (this girl drinks so much Nesquik) of adolescence more than most people her age.
I called Tavi to do this interview the day after her 16th birthday, at her family’s house in Oak Park, Illinois. It felt a little weird to interview my boss, but it was also a great opportunity to ask her questions that would have been inappropriate in any other context.
On New York magazine’s fashion blog in 2008, a writer accused you of being a fraud perpetuated by a team of grownups and said there was no way someone so young—you were 12—could write so well. Various fashion-magazine editors were also sort of snarky about you. I remember you were really sad about it. You were like, “I’m thinking of shutting down this blog.”
At that time, I didn’t have a criterion for what would make someone else’s criticism valid. And I also felt like I had really been trying to think about fashion in a way that was more sincere. I wasn’t trying to be an “Internet celebrity” or whatever, so I was bummed that it looked like this totally fake thing to some people.
You were a child, being attacked by adults. How did you get over that?
I came to realize that this was just a dumb thing on the Internet. I felt like, Ultimately, these are people who are sitting at computers forming very angry opinions about a 12-year-old. I think I was confusing to people, because it wasn’t like I was a child actor or whatever. There hasn’t been a well-worn trajectory for me to follow. I’ve never been able to be like, “Oh, I can’t make this move because when this other 12-year-old fashion blogger did that, this happened.”
I also remember when you wrote that you were about to tell your parents that Style Rookie existed, because you needed their permission to be interviewed about it for The New York Times. Do you recall what their reaction was?
I think I was like, “So, this is something I’ve been doing on the Internet, and I just post about what I like and, blah, can I be in this thing?” They were in total disbelief, because that is just not our world. They didn’t think that their kid would randomly ask, “Oh, by the way, can I be in The New York Times?” They didn’t really know that I was interested in fashion.
Your mom’s an artist, right?
Yeah, she weaves tapestries, and my dad’s an English teacher. But I wasn’t doing any real writing at that point. I think their perception of fashion was the same as most people’s who don’t know that much about it—The Devil Wears Prada was their idea of that world.
It wasn’t long after that happened that they let you skip school to go to H&M for the opening day of the Comme des Garçons collaboration sale. How did they go from surprise to acceptance?
At a family dinner I said, “This is why I love Comme des Garçons, and this is why it’s different, and this is why I love fashion,” and I think that explained a lot to them. They finally saw that [my interest in fashion] was the same thing as the kind of creative art projects my mom always had us doing when we were little.
How did you make them understand?
I just said that I thought [Comme des Garçons] was really interesting and that it meant a lot to me because it was not about looking attractive or looking cool or looking pretty. In retrospect, that must’ve been really comforting to parents who had a kid in middle school, when everyone else has, like, humping parties or whatever. I think my mom said, “Tavi, I think it’s so great that you come home and you do creative things instead of all these kids who are just hanging out.”
Are there actually humping parties?
Well, people have what they call grinding parties, which is literally like, “People will come to my home, and then we will rub our parts on each other, but we’ll be clothed and awful music will be playing.”
What do you say to people who think that fashion is just artificial and stupid or superficial?
Fashion can be used to assert your individuality and your control and power over how you perceive yourself and present yourself, and it can be a form of expression.
Feminists have insisted for a long time that women are more than the way we look. So the fact that a new generation of girls like you are blogging about hairdos and makeup might come across as though you’re throwing away everything feminists fought for.
Right. But in reality, everyone thinks about how they look. And it’s silly to expect anyone to completely disregard the ways in which they’re compelled to look a certain way. It’s better to turn it around and make it about expressing yourself and feeling comfortable with yourself. If you don’t want to think about what you look like at all, I also think that’s great! But caring about how you look and caring about how you look to other people are different. I mean, if Rookie did a post telling girls that they should get plastic surgery, I wouldn’t justify it by calling it self-expression. But being excited about mod eye makeup is not the same as plastic surgery. It’s just a fun, creative thing.
Last year, you wrote a post on Style Rookie where you were like, “Hey, guys—I’m not really that into fashion anymore.” It made some bloggers mad; they felt you were turning your back on the industry that had given you so much. What made you want to write that?
The more my blog’s audience has grown, the more I’ve had doubts about what I write. But I’ve always ended up happy when I’ve been honest. That one was the kind of thing where I just felt weird sitting down to write my blog all of a sudden. Something felt insincere about it. Basically, in this blog post, I talked about how I sat next to Anna Wintour at a Band of Outsiders show, and she asked me, “When do you go to school?” I just felt like, When do your models go to school?
You’re the same age as a lot of the models.
Right—I’m the same age as the models, and I’m missing school to travel and write and voice an opinion. But at the same time, I had a really weird moment of feeling like I missed my school and I missed my friends, and there wasn’t any real enthusiasm coming from the people who were there for what was going on around us, even though it should have been this exciting, creative thing. I felt funny about that experience. I wanted to start writing about other things on my blog, branching out from fashion.
Did you feel like you didn’t belong in that world anymore?
I never really felt like I belonged, but it hadn’t bothered me until then, probably because I was finally more aware of it. I mean, [New York Times fashion critic] Cathy Horyn said that one of her favorite fashion moments of 2010 was seeing all these confused rich ladies at Fashion Week in Paris who couldn’t figure out why I was there—but I hadn’t noticed them at all.
The fashion industry seems to love youth when youth is silent.
There’s a lot of hypocrisy. In a way, fashion had been this magical thing that I was obsessed with. I was just such a fan. But then I got a little too close to it, and that was kind of saddening.
What do you think about being called the voice of young fashion and young feminism?
That’s a lot of pressure. I mean, there are lots of other people who contribute to this conversation happening online about fashion and feminism.
Who are your favorites?
I like Arabelle from Fashion Pirate. I like Meagan from Latter Style.
Did you first start learning about feminism from the Internet?
I think so. I started reading Sady Doyle’s blog, Tiger Beatdown, and seeing stuff that went around on Tumblr and whatnot. And among the fashion bloggers I read, I would see things where they would refer to being feminists, and I think that helped destigmatize that word.
I’m surprised that the word carried any stigma for you—you come from a very feminist family.
Yeah, but my parents never used that word. They were feminists in their actions and how they supported my sisters and me. It was inherent in how we were raised but never really explicitly mentioned.
So it was really women’s and girls’ blogs and Tumblrs that got you thinking explicitly about feminism?
Yeah. Then I read Marisa Meltzer’s book Girl Power, and then [my friend] Laia gave me a book called Feminism and Pop Culture, which was intellectually stimulating because the same way that I was interested in how fashion could be reflective of society, I thought that the relationship between pop culture and feminism was interesting, too. It felt very natural for me to write about those connections because I was thinking more about feminism, and that became a lens through which I see pop culture and fashion and everything else. My sister Rivkah always tells me that I’m really lucky that I discovered feminism when I was 12, because I gained an understanding about it as I was hitting that teenage-girl self-esteem drop.
Did you totally skip over that drop in self-esteem?
Well, it came with high school. There are things that I’m insecure about now that either didn’t cross my mind or that I didn’t care about a year ago. And then there are things I obsessed over a year ago that I’m just way over now.
What were you obsessed about that you don’t care about now?
I remember being really anxious about what people at school thought of me. I worried that my awkwardness or shyness was coming off as my thinking I was above everyone, but then I would worry that if I was more outspoken, [people would think] I was trying to dominate every outlet available to me.
So you were supposed to keep your mouth shut at school because you had too much of a voice outside of school?
Yeah, I know, it doesn’t make sense. But now when I walk through the halls at school, I’m not thinking about if I look too confident or anything else. Now that just seems so silly. Hopefully the things that bother me now will seem silly a year from now. But then new things will come up, and it’s just an endless cycle, and we all die eventually.
Do your friends at school call themselves feminists?
There are a lot of girls who act feministly and are very aware of things like double standards when it comes to sexuality but who would probably not call themselves feminists. And, I mean, being able to act like a feminist and being able to apply it are more important than just calling yourself one. But there’s something to be said for actually identifying with the movement. Sometimes girls get together and talk about how pissed off they are that guys do this or that. But there are resources to understand those things better. Like, my school has a women’s history class and a feminist club.
Are you in the feminist club?
I’ve gone to a few [meetings], but I haven’t gone in a while.
Because you’re too busy?
Yeah. But one thing I really liked about the women’s history class was that, while the feminist club is people who are very politically involved in other ways and already call themselves feminists, I think the people who went into the class took it because they were just aware of sexism and interested in learning about it. And the teacher did a really good job of making [feminism] something that was personal, too. By the end of the class, because we had context and had been given resources, every person except one girl identified as a feminist.
Why do you think it took that much for them to identify as feminists?
For most people, being a feminist just sounds so complicated. It’s always more convenient to not be someone with controversial opinions. At some point, my teacher asked, “Do people ever make fun of you for taking this class?” And some girls said that their friends were like, “Oh, so you’re a feminist now?” To me, that’s just shocking. I guess that stuff exists in my school and I didn’t really realize it before.
How do you balance your career with school and social life and everything?
I feel like I get as much sleep and as much stuff done as I did before Rookie. But now my time awake is better spent. I don’t want it to sound like I live in this weird, isolated world where I’m like a tiny businessperson or I’m one of those overachiever kids who you’re kind of worried about. But I have just never really been someone who hung out with friends that much. So it’s not like I would have this super-active social life without Rookie. I don’t like hanging out every day after school. I’ve always liked going home and having time to myself. So that didn’t feel like a trade-off.
What is your mission for Rookie? What do you want the site to do?
Sometimes I feel like all I ever wanted it to be was just a place for reassurance for girls. And sometimes I’ve wanted it to be a really big motivator for them. Mostly, I just want girls to know that they’re already cool and smart. Also, I was so used to reading feminist blogs and feeling like they were very much for women who already knew they were feminists. I was thinking, Well, how do you get to that point?
I feel like this is a question on people’s minds: Tavi Gevinson, what are your plans? Are you gonna take over the world? Are we all going to work for you someday? Do you think about the future?
OK, do you want me to be honest? Because normally I’m just like, Ugh, I don’t know, I’m young, leave me alone, farts. But honestly, I think that I will probably finish high school and do a couple of projects that I’m excited about on the side. I love movies and TV, and it seems like that’s the best way to apply all of the aesthetics I’m interested in. I would really, really, really enjoy filmmaking or art-directing. Then, after high school, I think I want to take a year off and live in L.A., because I just really like it there and everything is pretty. But yeah, I need to take a year off from school after high school because I want to be able to focus on one thing: life or school.
Is that as far ahead as you’ve thought?
Well, for school, I’d like to stay in California, but I haven’t really looked at schools yet, and I’m a little worried that I’ll take a year off and then just never go to college.
In some ways you don’t need college, since you’re already working on the stuff you want to do. But you deserve that break to just think and hang out. Maybe you don’t need it, but you deserve it.
It just has to be a situation where I don’t have to take classes I don’t want to take. College is for studying things you are truly interested in. I don’t want to have to take another math class, and I don’t want dorm life. I know that much.
Interviewed by Anaheed Alani
Photographed by Glynis Selina Arban
Styled by Laia Garcia
Makeup by Lisa Aharon
Hair by Andrew Fitzsimons
Props by Alexis Anthony