Illustration by Jennifer Choat
In 2009, The Daily Mail published a photograph of three style giants backstage of New York Fashion Week. Brit-girl Alexa Chung stands pigeon-toed at the edge of the frame. To her left, Karl Lagerfeld—with a waxen pout—clutches his latest acquisition: an 11-year-old fashion blogger from suburban Illinois. With dyed grey hair, round plastic spectacles and a matted black Kennedy-era skirt suit, she might be mistaken for a venerable Japanese designer.
Three days later, Tavi Gevinson returned to her junior high school in Oakfield and distanced herself from Fashion Week. Since then, she founded—and now edits—Rookie Mag, an online magazine and feminist creative collective. Last year she addressed sold-out audiences at the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. This column condenses a tumultuous five years into a few simple life lessons on staying humble, honest and fierce in the face of celebrity.
1. It’s okay to be a killjoy.
It is difficult to be critical of something you love. For feminists, it’s sex. For cinephiles, it’s Woody Allen. For Tavi, it’s the fashion industry. She acknowledges that some stalwarts of style feel threatened by a young woman without connections or qualifications. “I felt like, there were people who were [at fashion week] because of their name, their money or their family, and I didn’t have any of those things.” In an interview with New York Magazine, she called Fashion Week on its vacuity: “There are flaws with the industry that still really grind my gears… You can’t really see outside of yourself, and I was just like, this is bad.”
Tavi is still interested in fashion—from the swift, stark contours of Rei Isogawa to the painted lips and powdered coifs of Meadham Kirchoff’s living dolls. Although she is grateful for the things that have shaped her, she constantly and critically re-examines them.
2. Pleasures need not be guilty.
Gevinson confesses to being a “compulsive hoarder”. For Rookie Mag—and its creator—nothing is insignificant. In a 2013 editor’s letter, she wrote, “Archiving is not the same as dwelling in the past. It is not anti-living, but a part of life, even a crucial one”. Tavi recognises that young adulthood is an accumulation of phases, tastes and cult rituals, immortalised and lithified over the years.
Her posts about Snooki, Twin Peaks and pop tarts are not admissions of guilt. They are simply an honest reflection of her personality. A thick-necked rugby boy is no less a jock if he can dance the Charleston. An earnest literature student does not need permission to learn the entirety of Iggy Azalea’s Modern Classic unironically. All too often, we fear that indulging frivolous pastimes and trivial pursuits will distract from unearthing the ‘true self’.
3. Embrace the void.
Rookie brings oft-neglected subjects to the fore, including living with disability, female masturbation, coping with failure and the male gaze. Tavi bravely plumbs the unknown, fiercely optimistic that something, somewhere, will stick. If you find yourself hoping for something, make it happen—be it a group of like-minded birdwatchers, the Polignac conjecture or an NGO providing dental care to Amazonian tribes.
In an interview with Pitchfork, Tavi’s voice is characteristically heavy with cynicism, brittle and dry as a Melbourne morning. “There’s never really a plan,” she said, before adding, “I saw a void and I decided to fill it.”