President-elect Donald Trump has not yet been inaugurated, but he and his wife, future First Lady, Melania Trump have caused no shortage of controversy since election day. Putting Mr. Trump’s controversial antics aside, former model Melania has caused a significant rift in the fashion industry, with designers at war over whether or not to dress her. Some have come out firmly against the prospect; New York-based designer, Sophie Theallet, a favorite of First Lady Michelle Obama, wrote an open letter swearing against it and urging others to do the same. The designers behind Italian label Dolce & Gabbana, on the other hand, are fully in favor of it.
So, what exactly goes into a modern First Lady’s wardrobe and does it really matter in the case at hand who has pledged – or in many cases not pledged – to support Mrs. Trump?
Michelle Obama: A Fashion Darling
In her eight years in the White House, Michelle Obama has become known as a fashion fan. Mixing high fashion frocks from the likes of Jason Wu, Versace, Carolina Herrera, Gucci, and Givenchy with more accessible wares from J. Crew, she captivated the world, and particularly enchanted the fashion industry. She landed three Vogue covers during the Obama tenure, after all. Laura Bush did not nab even one; Hillary Clinton graced one in December 1998, reportedly at the insistence of the late Oscar de la Renta. (Vogue is, in case you were not sure, an openly Democratic-identifying publication).
As Vogue noted in connection with Mrs. Obama’s most recent cover, “She didn’t just wear designer clothes to look amazing (although she did); she championed young designers, often designers of color, that represented American innovation and ingenuity.”
Reflecting on Obama’s fashion legacy, Washington Post columnist Robin Givhan stated: “She connected fashion to the broader popular culture. She energized designers, editors and stylists with her fashion-forward wardrobe choices. She made industry insiders stand taller both at home and abroad. She’s been an exemplar of modern, fit and confident middle age. She instilled pride and kinship among countless black women.”
Andre Leon Talley, a fashion editor at Vogue magazine, spoke to the First Lady’s appeal, saying: “Michelle Obama embraced everyone. She embraced black designers, Asian designers, European designers. … She was very democratic in her choice of clothes.” And like her closest European equivalent – Kate Middleton – what she wore during Obama’s presidency has repeatedly and positively affected the chosen brand’s sales.
According to Tracey Reese, whose designs Obama has been photographed in some 20 to 30 times, after Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2012 – during which Obama wore a Tracey Reese dress – the designer’s phone began ringing off the hook. “We didn’t have inventory — we had made that dress custom.” And so the label went into production. “And people waited,” Reese says. “You know, so many people admire Mrs. Obama and they want to dress like her. We sold quite a few of those dresses.” She estimates the number at over 2,000.
In addition to sales, having a First Lady – one of America’s most visible women – in a design of yours, stands to send brand awareness into the stratosphere. Jason Wu, who dressed Obama for both Inaugural Balls, said, “Global interest for the Jason Wu brand peaked immediately and yielded tremendous recognition and publicity that normally would take years to grow as a brand.”
After Michelle Obama was photographed in one of New York-based brand Cushnie et Ochs’ designs the “Christmas in Washington” television special in December 2012, the brand saw immediate results. “Stores that thought we were too risqué before have booked market appointments after seeing Michelle Obama in our dress,” said the label’s co-founder, Carly Cushnie. “We booked approximately 25 additional appointments for the upcoming fall collection, including Harvey Nichols Hong Kong.”
Prabal Gurung, whose clothes the first lady has worn several times, most notably to the 2011 Governors’ Dinner, echoed this notion, saying, “Before she started wearing my pieces, I was just a new designer. Maybe there were five people paying attention. Then all of a sudden people knew who I was.”
Who is Footing the Bill?
Given all of these garments, most of which are designer-made, comes the oft-popular question of, who is paying? – a subject that has bedeviled presidents and their wives for centuries, as the position of First Lady does not come with a salary or a clothing allowance.
Per the Associated Press, “Mary Todd Lincoln racked up tens of thousands of dollars in clothing bills and considered selling manure from the White House grounds to pay them off, according to the National First Ladies' Library. Jacqueline Kennedy's father-in-law stepped in to finance her Oleg Cassini wardrobe to keep clothes from becoming a political liability for President John Kennedy. Nancy Reagan got grief for borrowing designer gowns and not always returning them or reporting them as gifts. Laura Bush, in her memoir, said she was ‘amazed by the sheer number of designer clothes that I was expected to buy’ as First Lady.”
As for Mrs. Obama wardrobe, there are, of course, mixed messages out there – because this is politics, after all. While the financing of the First Lady's wardrobe is something that the Obama White House has been somewhat tight-lipped about, Joanna Rosholm, press secretary to the First Lady, has said: "Mrs. Obama pays for her clothing.” She goes on to state, though, that “for official events of public or historic significance, such as a state visit, the first lady's clothes may be given as a gift by a designer and accepted on behalf of the U.S. government. They are then stored by the National Archives."
The First Lady's office chose not to comment on whether the couture gowns worn by Mrs. Obama for her six other White House state dinners were donated. Nor would it say how many gowns have been donated for the array of other big events for which the First Lady is expected to appear in couture finery, such as the annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremonies, governors' dinners and White House correspondents' dinners.
According to a 2014 Associated Press article, “That saves Mrs. Obama considerable money, although the White House refused to say how often the first lady wears donated clothes and the National Archives declined to say how many such items it has in storage.” The AP was also quick to note that wearing donated gowns represents a change in practice from the Bush administration.
In terms of the First Lady’s clothing, the question of who is footing the bill is less important going forward than who is getting the wardrobe together and how – exactly – is it coming together.
As for how Mrs. Obama comes into possession of all of her designer looks, she works with a stylist – or “personal aide.” Meredith Koop, the 35-year old Missouri native (and native of well-known Chicago boutique, Ikram) who has been with Mrs. Obama since day one in the White House, works on Obama's behalf "in arranging for purchases, including considering the best offered price and buying on discount if discounts are available."
[Come this month, Koop is set to part ways with Mrs. Obama. She told Harper’s Bazaar recently, “After this, I want to dress a range of inspiring women, from corporate leaders to artists to actors to musicians. I've been dreaming about creating an in-depth documentary series that explores the intersections of fashion, culture, politics, religion, and economy both domestically and abroad. I also want to be involved in the sustainability movement that is happening in fashion today. There is a lot to be done in this area and I want to contribute.”]
The War Over Melania
The questions remain: Where does Melania Trump fit into all of this and does it really matter if designers do not want to be associated with her? In terms of the latter, it does not seem to matter, at least not practically speaking, that designers are openly distancing themselves from her. As the New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman noted in November, Mrs. Trump “buys her clothes herself, rather than working through a stylist or brand.” As such, she does not need to rely exclusively on Republican-leaning designers to offer up their garments.
What about the designers and publications that have been so forthcoming in swearing off Trump? Joseph Altuzarra, for instance, told the New York Times, “I don’t want to not dress people I disagree with.” Tom Ford stated, “I was asked to dress her [Melania Trump] quite a few years ago and I declined. She’s not necessarily my image.” Marc Jacobs had the following to say: “I have no interest whatsoever in dressing Melania Trump. Personally, I’d rather put my energy into helping out those who will be hurt by [Donald] Trump and his supporters.”
Still yet, Derek Lam said: “I would rather concentrate my energies on efforts towards a more just, honorable and a mutually respectful world. I don’t know Melania Trump personally, so I don’t wish my comments to seem I am prejudging her personal values, but I really don’t see myself getting involved with the Trump presidency.”
Publications have not been immune to comment. “We currently have no plans to cover Melania Trump in InStyle,” said Laura Brown, editor-in-chief of InStyle. A spokesman for Vogue, on the other hand, told BoF: “While we never comment on future editorial, Vogue has a long, rich history, dating back to Mrs. Helen Taft, of covering America’s First Ladies, regardless of party affiliation.”
There are also those that are undeniably on board – mostly from some of the industry’s most established brands. Diane Von Furstenberg, who holds a particularly influential position in American fashion as the President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, stated: “Donald Trump was elected and he will be our president. Melania deserves the respect of any first lady before her. Our role as part of the fashion industry is to promote beauty, inclusiveness, diversity. We should each be the best we can be and influence by our example.”
Vera Wang, another established presence, has held: “We have not been contacted by the Trump campaign or administration thus far. But the first lady-elect should support American fashion, as did her predecessors.” Tommy Hilfiger is onboard, “I think Melania is a very beautiful woman and I think any designer should be proud to dress her … You’re not gonna get much more beautiful than Ivanka or Melania.”
Dennis Basso has spoken out in favor of dressing Mrs. Trump, telling the Daily Beast: “Melania is a very beautiful woman. She wears Dennis Basso beautifully, and of course to be able to dress the first lady is always a great honor, no matter what one’s political view is.” And Stefano Gabbana, one half of the Dolce & Gabbana design duo, made his stance known when he called Melania a “DGwoman” after she wore one of the brand’s dresses on New Year’s Eve.
But support for the future First Lady is not limited to some of the most established American brands. Younger figures have offered up with participation. Marcus Wainwright, one of the founders of Rag & Bone, said: “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.” And Thom Browne echoed this, saying: “Out of respect for the position of the first lady of our United States, I would be honored to be considered to design for any first lady of the United States.”
As for whether the most staunchly opposed will continue to do so over the next four years is yet to be seen. Yet if designer Carolina Herrera is right, then “in two or three months [designers will] reach out [to Trump], because it's fashion. You'll see everyone dressing Melania. She's representing the United States.” It sure is a big marketing opportunity to pass up, and at this point in time, we all know fashion largely tends to favor clicks, press opportunities, and sales (WWD’s Bridget Foley nailed this concept in a recent article) over just about anything else. With that in mind, I doubt Mrs. Trump will be wanting for much during her husband’s presidency.