Unbuttoned: Is Fashion’s Love Affair With Washington Over?
At the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund awards last Monday night, the traditional potpies were dusted with paprika letters urging “vote” and festooned with little paper “Hillary for America” flags (in case anyone was wondering for whom). Ralph Lauren became Mrs. Clinton’s de facto sartorial consiglieri, helping her shape her image from the Democratic National Convention to the debate floor.
It was to be the culmination of a relationship that began with Mrs. Clinton’s appearance on the cover of Vogue in December 1998, the first time that a first lady had done so.
The relationship gained momentum through the Obama administration, with Michelle Obama’s embrace of the fashion world writ large, from accessible brands such as J. Crew to young designers such as Jason Wu and Christian Siriano and established names like Michael Kors and Vera Wang. (Mrs. Obama also appeared on the cover of Vogue, in March 2009 and April 2013, and she will also appear, for the third time, in the December 2016 issue.)
In understanding how she could use fashion to “express ideas” — as Joseph Altuzarra, who made clothes for Mrs. Obama and contributed a T-shirt to Made for History, said — Mrs. Obama elevated the industry beyond the superficial to the substantive. She framed clothing as a collection of values: diversity, creativity, entrepreneurship. Mrs. Clinton seemed primed to continue that trend.
The Trumps, however, may not.
As their Washington revolution dawns, designers are assuming, Mr. Altuzarra said, that the main players “will have a different relationship to clothes” than fashion has come to expect from the White House, and on which it had placed its bets.
Not to mention a different relationship with the designers themselves. The political and social establishments are not the only establishments the Trumps have ignored.
It was striking that on election night, for example, while Melania Trump also wore Ralph Lauren (a white jumpsuit), the outfit was, according to the brand, one she had bought off the rack, as opposed to one that she had worked with the designer to create.
Indeed, all the clothes she wore on the campaign trail seem to have been part of a shopping spree, as opposed to a strategic plan. There’s nothing wrong with that. Arguably it is part of what makes a woman who lives in a gilded penthouse seem more normal (she buys, just like everyone else!) But it reflects her distance from the industry.
And it is striking that while Ralph Lauren is an American brand, which may indicate a decision to support homegrown talent and promote local industry, Mrs. Trump has also worn Fendi (Italian), Roksanda Ilincic (British) and Emilia Wickstead (British) on the campaign trail. When she went to cast her vote, Mrs. Trump threw a gold-buttoned camel Balmain military coat (French) over her shoulders.
Neither her wardrobe nor that of the rest of the family has been used in the traditional way (see: Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan), to telegraph the virtues of Made in America — though that has been one of Mr. Trump’s most vociferously promoted platforms.
Mr. Trump himself has stuck closely to his uniform of Brioni suits and made-in-China fire engine red ties from his own brand. His daughter and public surrogate, Ivanka, has worn an assortment of styles and high-fashion names, including her own label, the Roland Mouret asymmetric top she wore to the third debate, and the Alexander McQueen dress she sported at her father’s acceptance speech, though they can all be pretty broadly categorized as “power sheath.”
If there is a unifying message to the Trump wardrobes, said Marcus Wainwright, chief executive of Rag & Bone (and another Made for History contributor), it is not about the on-shoring of manufacturing, but rather “looking rich.”
Indeed, on election night, when the family stood on stage surrounding the triumphant candidate, the lasting visual was not of the white (on Melania and Barron), blue (Ivanka and Tiffany) and red (Donald and daughter-in-law Lara) the Trumps wore — in part because they seemed more incidental than calculated, given there was also black and greige in there — but rather the sea of “Make America Great Again” red baseball caps in the wildly cheering audience.
Ultimately, it was the baseball cap that became the sartorial symbol that represented the winning campaign; that was the accessory imbued with meaning.
This may have to do with the fact that both Mr. Trump and Ivanka Trump have clothing lines of their own, and hence regard the products more as products than as vehicles for political expression. It may have to do with the fact that as far as Melania Trump goes, as a private citizen she has not really had to reflect on the way her choice of dress is interpreted.
(Though there was a flurry of excitement around the Gucci pussy-bow blouse she wore after the leaking of the vulgar Trump tape, in the end, given that she doubled down on it for her final debate appearance, it seemed less a piece of insider commentary than a nod to more conservative female attire, and how she sees her role.)
And it is possible, Diane von Furstenberg said, referring to Mr. Trump’s conciliatory victory speech, that this attitude will change when he gets into office. Maybe, Mr. Wainwright agreed, Mr. Trump will use clothing to show his commitment to the idea of supporting the garment district and homegrown factories. But he didn’t sound very convinced.
This new reality has left fashion feeling bereft, in a way that goes beyond backing the losing candidate and to the core of the industry’s identity.
It ”makes you realize how powerless we are,” said Stefano Tonchi, the editor of W. According to Mr. Wainwright, it’s hard to see what fashion is going to have to do with the new administration. Clothes are a tool, but if they are not used where everyone can see them, can they have an impact?
Now the industry has to wrestle with what happens next: how it defines itself if it is marginalized — reduced to mere decoration — in a Trump administration, and whether there will be repercussions for either its pledge of allegiance to the president-elect’s opponent or some of the more angry postelection statements designers have made on social media.
Dao-Yi Chow of Public School and DKNY, for example, vented on Instagram, noting in part: “Thank you America for the wake up call. Thank you for setting the record straight. Thank you for smashing the grace and beauty I grew up around so I could see how much work I have to do to educate my children so they don’t get lulled to sleep like I did.”
Pointedly, Anna Wintour (who had attended Mr. Trump’s wedding to Melania in 2005 and featured her on her cover, dressed in a couture Christian Dior bridal gown designed by John Galliano) declined to comment for this article.
Spokespersons for Ralph Lauren and Alexander McQueen, while acknowledging on background that the Trumps had worn their clothes, did not issue the usual press releases boasting about the relationship.
But Ms. von Furstenberg quoted Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, and said fashion should heed her words and “do what we can” to accept a democratic result and work with the president.
Which is different from the president and his family wanting to work with them.
The first great test of both sides will be the inauguration: a time when the eyes of the world will be on the first family and what they wear — and if, especially for those family members who do not speak, there is more to the clothes than just, well, clothes.
Not one designer contacted said they would not dress Mrs. Trump if she asked, though Ms. von Furstenberg noted that Mrs. Trump may not need anyone’s help. “I’m sure she knows what to do,” she said, given that Mrs. Trump is a former model.
Mr. Altuzarra, who pointed out that Ivanka Trump has worn his clothes, got a little tangled up in his negatives but said, “I don’t want to not dress people I disagree with.”
Mr. Wainwright echoed his words: “It would be hypocritical to say no to dressing a Trump. If we say we are about inclusivity and making American manufacturing great again, then we have to put that before personal political beliefs.”
The question may prove moot: Given Mrs. Trump’s past choices, she may continue her own tradition of wearing a European high-fashion brand to what will probably be the most-watched black tie event of her life.
That would be a declaration of independence, of a sort.
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