Is fashion's love affair with Washington over?

Mrs Melania Trump's sartorial choices reflect her distance from the fashion industry

On election night, Mr Donald Trump wore his usual dark suit and red tie while Mrs Melania Trump wore a white Ralph Lauren jumpsuit, which she had bought off the rack.
On election night, Mr Donald Trump wore his usual dark suit and red tie while Mrs Melania Trump wore a white Ralph Lauren jumpsuit, which she had bought off the rack.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Last Wednesday, when Mrs Hillary Clinton stood in the New Yorker Hotel for her farewell speech, she did so in one of her signature Ralph Lauren pantsuits. Dark grey, with purple lapels and a matching purple shirt, it underscored, as so many of her fashion choices did in the run-up to the election, a point: the way two colours/ factions - red and blue - can unite to make something new.

But it also symbolised, perhaps, the end of what might have been an extraordinary relationship. And possibly the end of fashion's seat at the power table.

More than any other industry, fashion had pledged its troth to Mrs Clinton. Vogue magazine formally endorsed her, the first time it had taken a public stand in a presidential election. W magazine editor Stefano Tonchi declared his allegiance in an editor's letter.

Diane von Furstenberg, designer and chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue and artistic director of Conde Nast, had aggressively raised funds for her during fashion weeks and beyond: The week before election day, they chaired a fund-raiser in Washington at the Georgetown home of Ms Connie Milstein, a major Democratic donor.

Neither Mrs Trump's wardrobe nor that of the rest of the family has been used in the traditional way to telegraph the virtues of Made in America - though that has been one of Mr Donald Trump's most vociferously promoted platforms.

Designers including Tory Burch, Marc Jacobs and Prabal Gurung created "Made for History" merchandise for Mrs Clinton's campaign store and contributed to a runway show/benefit during September's New York Fashion Week.

Ralph Lauren became Mrs Clinton's de facto sartorial consigliere, 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 Mrs 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 such as Michael Kors and Vera Wang. (Mrs Obama also appeared on the cover of Vogue, in March 2009 and April 2013.)

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, Altuzarra said, that the main players "will have a different relationship to clothes" than fashion has come to expect from the White House.

It was striking that on election night, for example, while Mrs 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 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 is 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 home-grown 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, she threw a gold-buttoned camel Balmain military coat (French) over her shoulders.

Neither Mrs Trump's 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 Donald 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, 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.

If there is a unifying message to the Trump wardrobes, said Mr 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 what the Trumps wore, but rather the sea of "Make America Great Again" red caps in the cheering audience.

This may have to do with the fact that Mr Trump and Ms 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 Mrs Trump goes, as a private citizen she has not really had to reflect on the way her choice of dress is interpreted.

It is possible, 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 home-grown factories. But he did not sound very convinced.

This new reality has left fashion feeling bereft.Now the industry has to wrestle with what happens next: How it defines itself if it is marginalised 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 post-election statements designers have made on social media.

Pointedly, Wintour declined to comment for this article. Spokesmen 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.

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 von Furstenberg noted that she may not need anyone's help. "I'm sure she knows what to do," she said, given that Mrs Trump is a former model.

Given the future First Lady's past choices, she may continue her tradition of wearing a European high- fashion brand to what will probably be the most-watched black-tie event of her life, the coming inauguration. That would be a declaration of independence, of a sort.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline 'Is fashion's love affair with Washington over?'. Subscribe