Populism has a dollar sign attached

Ivanka Trump arriving with her husband Jared Kushner and their children in West Palm Beach. Her fine jewellery line was either shut down or transformed into Ivanka Trump Fashion Jewelry, which is sold at a lower price.
Ivanka Trump arriving with her husband Jared Kushner and their children in West Palm Beach. Her fine jewellery line was either shut down or transformed into Ivanka Trump Fashion Jewelry, which is sold at a lower price.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • It has been a complicated time for politicians and luxury fashion on both sides of the Atlantic. First, Mr Francois Fillon, the embattled conservative candidate for president of France, was accused by Le Journal du Dimanche of having received "presents" from an unidentified friend in the form of €13,000 (S$19,600) in custom suiting from Arnys, the tailor that LVMH acquired in 2012 to merge with Berluti, its menswear label.

Cue multiple headlines along the lines of this one from ledauphine. com: "The very expensive clothes of Francois Fillon."

Then it transpired that Ms Ivanka Trump's fine jewellery line was no more, having been, depending on how you look at it, either shut down or transformed into Ivanka Trump Fashion Jewelry (that is, no longer involving precious gems and metals, created with a different licencer, and instead of costing US$428, or S$600, to US$47,000, costing US$28 to US$198).

Both these developments underscore an unavoidable reality about life in the public eye: With populism on the rise, what politicians and their families wear (or put their name on) increasingly has a dollar, or euro, sign attached.

And therein problems may lie. Price sensitivity is not limited simply to objects on shelves in stores; it now goes with wardrobes too.

Better take it... well, into account. Ms Trump apparently did. After all, though the general attitude towards any Trump-related product these days is to treat sales as a referendum on United States President Donald Trump and whether people are buying the lines he (and his family) is selling, note that, according to a statement from the brand's president, Ms Abigail Klem, the decision to discontinue the fine jewellery had nothing to do with revenue generation, but rather was made "as part of our company's commitment to offering solution-oriented products at accessible price points".

In other words, to make the jewellery consistent with the rest of the brand's positioning. The question being: Which brand?

Because, according to a company spokesman, this decision was actually made in December. That is, after Ms Trump had separated her personal social media accounts from her brand's social accounts, but before she had taken a formal leave of absence from the company. Which is interesting. Because segueing from high-end jewellery does not just bring the collection in line with the rest of the Ivanka Trump product portfolio - the clothes, bags and shoes - but it also brings it in line with what is increasingly emerging as the Ivanka Trump personal portfolio: the issues of childcare, working parents and sacrifices made.

Rhodium plate is consistent with her message in a way that diamonds and 24-karat gold would not have been. This was probably first brought home to her during the outcry over her appearance on 60 Minutes in a US$10,800 bracelet from her own line, one her company subsequently marketed (oops).

Then there was the social media controversy over her appearance in January in a US$4,990 silver Carolina Herrera evening dress just after her father's travel ban on immigrants and citizens of seven Muslimmajority countries went into effect.

Mr Fillon, on the other hand, has something of the opposite problem: His gift suits are consistent with a message; it is just the wrong one. He was voted 15th of the 20 best-dressed men in France last year by French GQ and is known for his penchant for red socks from Gammarelli, the Italian company that makes socks for the Vatican.

So the fact that he would wear very expensive suits is not a surprise. (Besides, Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier wore Arnys too; former French president Francois Mitterrand used to wear its hats.)

The problem is that he would get someone else to pay for them, especially when he is in the midst of pushing an austerity plan. Taken with allegations that he enriched family members by employing them in non-existent jobs, the clothing freebies underscore the perception that he is elitist and corrupt.

His response to the revelations - in an interview published in the newspaper Les Echos, he effectively said, "so what?" - did not help. Arnys had no comment.

Meanwhile, his closest competitor, independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, now believed to be the front runner, is known for wearing suits by Jonas et Cie, a favourite of many local diplomats, which sell for €340 to €380. This is a choice he made after formerly wearing custom suits from Lagonda, which retail from €800 to €1,200, during his earlier career as an investment banker - a canny exchange probably based more on constituency than aesthetics. (He still came in 20th on GQ's best-dressed list.)

Historically, we want our elected officials and their families to represent their countries as elegantly and admirably as possible, while at the same time representing the electorate as genuinely as possible. And these two imperatives often come into conflict, especially as the factions they serve grow further apart.

While this has been an issue in the past, it has never been quite as microscopically chronicled, as undeniable or as generally accessible as it is today.

Want to know how much your leader's clothes cost? Look it up on Google. Budget negotiations may never be quite the same.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Populism has a dollar sign attached'. Print Edition | Subscribe