Politicians and Fashion Designers Increasingly Team Up to Benefit … – WWD


Designers and politicians have long appreciated what can be gained from the occasional alliance.

American designers and their European counterparts have vied for decades to dress leading political figures and their respective spouses for key photo-ops like inaugurations, state dinners, weddings and other media-centric occasions. But increasingly in the past few years, creatives and political figures alike are recognizing how each can help the other.

Gabriela Hearst, for example, isn’t just a preferred designer for First Lady Jill Biden: She also pitched in on the presidential campaign. Prabal Gurung, who routinely suits up Michelle Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris and other high-profile Democrats, counted on another insider from the party — his friend Huma Abedin — to present him with the humanitarian award from the Fashion Group International at its “Night of Stars” last November.

With social media followings in the millions, household names like Ralph Lauren, Christian Siriano, Brandon Maxwell, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera and Vera Wang potentially can deliver political figures with much more than a refined design. While some like the current FLOTUS have shied away from identifying her preferred designers for select public appearances, the fact that fashion can connect people of all political persuasions is undeniable.

Such alliances inevitably have some overlap with their respective audiences, but more often than not there is the opportunity to attract new people for both sides. David Schweidel, a marketing professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, said, “It goes both ways. The politician who is partnering with the designer already has their core following. But this is another way to reach a broader audience that they might not have that direct access to.”

Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff.

The public’s rampant social media posts and the global media coverage of recent political family weddings — Naomi Biden’s White House nuptials and Tiffany Trump’s Mar-a-Lago waterfront affair — reflected how high interest levels in fashion can climb.

But getting back to the designer and politician bonds: While designers could potentially reel in new shoppers, political figures may attract new donors looking to support their party or specific candidates, especially as micro-fundraising continues to become more important. Schweidel said, “Absolutely. Being based in Georgia, we have seen a lot of fundraising through social media from both sides [in the U.S. Senate runoff race],” he said.

As designers continue to work more routinely with political figures for special events, they are often aligning with those with similar views and beliefs. “Again, it goes both ways. The politicians will be looking to form a partnership that goes beyond the clothing that they might be getting from that designer. If you are partnering with a designer who is known for their work on specific issues, that’s where the opportunity is to tap into that donor base and make this more than let’s-get-the-photograph-that-gets-shared-online. They are also using that to amplify their platforms,” Schweidel said.

Acknowledging how social media is the go-to source for information for younger generations from not just a business standpoint but a societal one, he expects that designers and politicians will increasingly team up to spread their shared messages. Having studied social media for more than a decade, Schweidel noted how we have moved on from text-based content to video content, which is much more immersive to consumers. Just as designers are figuring out how to “collapse down runway show [footage] into something more bite-sized” for people to get a similar experience, they are trying to go beyond using a static photo of a political figure wearing their label. While a photo-op of a designer dressing a politician for an event is a one-off media post, they are keen to deepen that association with a narrative or video behind it.

Boston College professor Michael Serazioa expects that designers are aligning with more left-leaning folks. “That may be my mistaken bias presuming the fashion industry leans left. I think that assumption is probably correct on certain issues — environmentalism, LGBQT rights. I would wonder how many designers are interested in working with Trump-style Republicans like a Marjorie Taylor Greene or a more conservative politician,” he said. (However, while former First Lady Melania Trump polarized several American designers, others like Ralph Lauren have been bipartisan in dressing political figures through the years. He suited up Trump in a custom look for Donald Trump’s inauguration and more recently Joe Biden’s eldest granddaughter Naomi for her wedding day. )

“Broadly speaking, in American politics there has been a shift toward highly symbolic, performative gestures of holding office. That translates to the appearance that you would see in fashion. There is a school of thought in political culture right now which is that people vote as much based upon seeing their identity reflected in a particular politician as what policies that politician might stand for,” Serazioa said. “If that is true, of course it would make sense to align yourself with particular designers who might share your values or ideology.”

In turn, there are troves of consumer research about how people are spending based on brands’ values or purpose-driven marketing. Well aware of recent studies that indicated how shoppers will buy products based on a brand’s political values, he said, “That has definitely been an uptick in brands wanting to insert themselves in more controversial subjects, whereas in previous eras most brands wanted to sell to both sides of the aisle. That is partly a product of everything — more things are politicized openly.”

A chapter in his book “The Authenticity Industries,” which is due out next year from Stanford University Press, explores how advertisers, politicians, social media companies and entertainment companies try to make things seem authentic. “It’s everything from reality TV casting directors to political consultants, brand managers and influencer agencies. It’s basically arguing that America is obsessed with authenticity right now. And there is a whole industry behind-the-scenes in media and culture whose job is to effectively sell us the appearance of authenticity,” Serazioa said. “It’s disturbing and fascinating. The conversations were really interesting.”

Rahul Bhargava, an assistant professor in journalism and art and design at Northeastern University, noted how a lot of politicians are using lessons from influencers and others to get attention online — either from people or the media, and fashion is a big part of that. Referring to research about gender coverage of politicians, he said, “There is a long history of misogyny and engendered coverage that hides female politicians in one aspect, trivializes them in another one or treats them like celebrities in another one. When we investigate those, we see more coverage of fashion than we did previously,” he said.

What’s causing that? Politicians are working more with designers, which yields more coverage. But an opposite trend is choosing clothing that identified them with middle-class Americans, as Michelle Obama and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have done to their advantage at times, he said. Allowing that both women have taken a high-low approach to fashion, Bhargava said that choosing brand names and designers can be perceived as efforts to appeal to different pieces of the audience that they are trying to speak to.

“That’s happening more and more. Some of that is reinforcing their political message and their policies. Another part of it is just something that is very different than them being a politician. I do think that telling the difference is really hard,” he said.

ivanka trump, tiffany trump, lara trump, tiffany trump wedding

Lara Trump, Marla Maples, Tiffany Trump, Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle attend Tiffany Trump’s wedding at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on Nov. 12. Photo Courtesy

Whereas Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ choice of a Brother Vellies’ gown imprinted with “Tax the Rich” for the 2021 Met Gala was a fashion statement and a refection of her policies, Obama’s FLOTUS days dress code of brands and designers was less about policies and more about image and optics, according to Bhargava. Sinema often takes a similar route with choices that are about optics and identity and not related to policy goals, he added. “Of course, this coverage, perception and conversation happens far more to female candidates in both social media and online news.”

Photo by: NDZ/STAR MAX/IPx 2021 9/13/21 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion. (New York City)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wearing a Brother Vellies gown at the Met Gala. NDZ/STAR MAX/IPx

From his standpoint, treating politicians like celebrities has historically been a way to diminish their policy positions. “That may be changing but look at [2008 Republican vice president nominee] Sarah Palin. Coverage of her was very much [about] treating her like a celebrity, and that was one of the ways that any of her policies were dismissed. That is very different than all of the female members of Congress wearing white [to the 2019 State of the Union address] in reference to the suffragettes.”

All in all though, some research has shown that female politicians’ fashion is talked about more than their male counterparts and that mostly trivializes them or treats them as celebrities, which lessens them being taken seriously, he said. Noting how the late former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright leveraged her affinity for brooches to her advantage, Bhargava said Sinema uses fashion more as an influencer — and less like a politician — would. As the identities of our politicians become more reflective of our complex world, their fashion statements will be more diverse and symbolic of their identities, he said.

“Look at our vice president. She is American, Asian American, in a mixed-culture family and she is also an African American. That is a lot of identities,” he said.

As more people like Kamala Harris are elected, there will be a greater effort to figure out how to express those identities through fashion without trivializing their choices as purely what they are wearing. “They would rather speak to it as a reflection of part of their identity,” Bhargava said.

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