France first for US First Lady

Above: Mrs Melania Trump (with United States President Donald Trump) dressed in a long hot-pink gown from Christian Dior to a Red Cross ball last Saturday. Left: She wore a red Givenchy cape dress to complement his tie as well as mark National Wear R
She wore a red Givenchy cape dress to complement his tie as well as mark National Wear Red Day last Friday.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mrs Melania Trump has been seen in recent days decked out in French labels Givenchy and Christian Dior

NEW YORK • That was fast.

Two weeks after her "America First" fashion statement at the inauguration, Mrs Melania Trump emerged last weekend from the relative seclusion of her life in New York to join her husband at Mar-a- Lago, also known as the winter White House/exclusive golf club in Florida. And as far as her sartorial language went, America was - well, pretty much last.

Last Friday, greeting United States President Donald Trump as he disembarked from Air Force One in Palm Beach, the First Lady wore a short red Givenchy cape dress. Last Saturday, at a Red Cross ball, she wore a long hot-pink gown from Christian Dior (both brands connected, by the way, to LVMH, the French luxury conglomerate led by Mr Bernard Arnault, the only foreign luxury mogul to have made a post-election pilgrimage to Trump Tower).

But on Sunday, for a Super Bowl party at Trump International Golf Club, she wore leather pants from The Row - the brand of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen - and a thin knit sweater by Derek Lam, both names at New York Fashion Week.

Does it matter?

On one hand, Mrs Trump has been explicit about her desire to eschew, at least for the moment, the Washington spotlight. Perhaps her clothes are a part of that and thus the point was simply to look elegant and not to bother with more complicated billboarding. If so, she achieved that aim.

Above: Mrs Melania Trump (with United States President Donald Trump) dressed in a long hot-pink gown from Christian Dior to a Red Cross ball last Saturday.

However, she has also said she intends to meaningfully inhabit the role of First Lady, and certainly, this appearance was part of that goal. The choice of the red dress - which made for a compelling visual next to President Donald Trump's red tie as the two walked together along the tarmac - was consciously symbolic, according to Ms Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, Mrs Trump's senior adviser, who said it was in honour of "National Wear Red Day, which is to highlight the importance and raise awareness of heart disease". So, it is not like they have not been thinking this through. Or that they are not aware of the symbolic value of dress, especially when it comes to a first lady who prefers to let her clothes do the talking.

If so, there is a contradiction implicit in her choices of clothing, given her husband's promise in his Inaugural Address that "Buy American" would be a tenet of his administration. But the Made-in-America dress requirement for first ladies, historically held dear, was largely taken off the table during the Obama administration and transformed into a vehicle for cross-border outreach. It was Mr Trump who made it an issue again, and in a forum arguably more public, and permanent, than Twitter.

When asked about the issue, Ms Winston Wolkoff e-mailed the following statement: "Mrs Trump is a proud and long-time supporter of American fashion. She appreciates fashion as art. As a former model, she has always been a patron of the world's most distinguished designers here and abroad. Mrs Trump buys from an international mix of brands because that is what reflects her uniquely American life experience and style. She is more excited than ever to make a platform for American designers as she did on one of the most important weeks in history, the inauguration, showcasing the extraordinary talents of American designers."

In other words: Buying European is a reflection of the American shopping experience.

For anyone who has walked down any main shopping street in a big American city - such as Fifth Avenue in New York, where Mrs Trump lives - it is hard to argue with that. Though it also seems like something of a contorted rationale and one that could be exploited by companies seeking to relocate some factories overseas. That choice is, after all, also a part of the American industrial story.

In any case, it is worth noting that Givenchy and Dior have been playing possum since the weekend, another indication of fashion's still- ambiguous relationship with Mrs Trump. Neither fashion house issued the de rigueur news release trumpeting the First Lady's appearance in one of their dresses.

Asked whether the brand had worked with the First Lady on the red dress, a spokesman for Givenchy said that the company had no comment and that the dress had been bought from a store, without any interpersonal discussion (It is for sale on the Neiman Marcus website, among others, for US$2,095 or S$2,971). Dior did not respond.

As for Lam, who last November told fashion magazine WWD, "I really don't see myself getting involved with the Trump presidency", the situation pretty much shows the problem with that stance.

After all, the First Lady is free to buy his product, whether he wants to get involved or not. Which is another American story, of sorts.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'France first for US First Lady'. Print Edition | Subscribe