Designers and politicians have long appreciated what can be gained from occasional alliances.
For decades, American designers and their European counterparts have competed to dress leading political figures and their spouses for key photographs such as inaugurations, gala dinners, weddings and other media-centered occasions. But in the last few years, creatives and political figures increasingly see how they can help each other.
Gabriela Hearst, for example, is not only first lady Jill Biden’s favorite designer: she also participated in the presidential campaign. Prabal Gurung, who routinely dresses Michelle Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris and other high-profile Democrats, counted on another party insider — his friend Huma Abedin — to present him with Fashion Group International’s humanitarian award at its “Night of Stars” last November. .
With millions of followers on social media, household names such as Ralph Lauren, Christian Siriano, Brandon Maxwell, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera and Vera Wang can potentially offer political figures with much more than refined design. While some like the current FLOTUS have avoided identifying their favorite designers for select public appearances, the fact that fashion can connect people of all political persuasions is undeniable.
Such alliances inevitably overlap with their audience, but more often than not there is an opportunity to attract new people to both parties. David Schweidel, professor of marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business, said: “It goes both ways. A politician partnered with a designer already has a core following. But this is another way to reach a wider audience that they may not have direct access to.”
Numerous public social media posts and global media coverage of recent political family weddings — Naomi Biden’s White House nuptials and Tiffany Trump’s seaside Mar-a-Lago affair — reflect just how high interest levels in fashion can rise.
But back to the connections between designers and politicians: while designers could potentially attract new customers, political figures can attract new donors who want to support their party or certain candidates, especially as micro-fundraising becomes more important. Schweidel said: “Absolutely. Being located in Georgia, we’ve seen a lot of social media fundraising on both sides [in the U.S. Senate runoff race],” He said.
As designers continue to routinely collaborate with political figures for special events, they often align themselves with those with similar views and beliefs. “Again, it goes both ways. Politicians will seek to establish a partnership that goes beyond the clothes they might get from that designer. If you partner with a designer who is known for their work on certain themes, there’s an opportunity to tap into that donor base and make this more than just a get-a-photo-to-share-online. They also use it to boost their platforms,” Schweidel said.
Acknowledging that social media is the main source of information for the younger generation, not only from a business point of view but also from a social point of view, he expects that designers and politicians will increasingly join forces to spread their common messages. Having studied social media for more than a decade, Schweidel noticed how we’ve moved from text content to video content, which is much more engaged with consumers. Just as designers figure out how to “knock the show off the runway [footage] in a slightly smaller size” to give people a similar experience, they are trying to go beyond using a static photo of a political figure wearing their label. Although a photo of a designer dressing a politician for an event is a one-off media release, they want to deepen that connection with a story or video behind it.
Boston College professor Michael Serazioa expects designers to align with more left-leaning people. “It may be my wrong bias to assume that the fashion industry leans left. I think that assumption is probably correct on certain issues — environmentalism, LGBQT rights. I wonder how many designers are interested in working with Trump-style Republicans like Marjorie Taylor Greene or a more conservative politician,” he said. (However, while former first lady Melania Trump has polarized several American designers, others like Ralph Lauren have been bipartisan in dressing political figures over the years. It dressed Trump in a custom look for Donald Trump’s inauguration, and most recently Joe Biden’s eldest granddaughter Naomi for the day her wedding.)
“Generally speaking, there has been a shift in American politics toward highly symbolic, performative gestures of office. This means the look you would see in fashion. “There is currently a school of thought in political culture that people vote as much based on seeing their identity as reflected in a particular politician as they do on the policies that politician might represent,” Serazioa said. “If that’s true, of course it would make sense to associate with certain designers who might share your values or ideology.”
On the other hand, there is a wealth of consumer research on how people spend based on brand equity or targeted marketing. Well aware of recent studies showing how customers will buy products based on a brand’s political values, he said: “It’s definitely been an increase in brands wanting to insert themselves into more controversial topics, whereas in previous periods most brands wanted to sell both sides of the aisle . It’s partly a product of everything – more things are openly politicized.”
A chapter in his book, “The Authenticity Industries,” due out next year from Stanford University Press, explores how advertisers, politicians, social media companies and entertainment companies try to make things look authentic. “It’s everything from reality TV casting directors to political consultants, brand managers and influencers. It basically argues that America is currently obsessed with authenticity. And behind the scenes in media and culture there is an entire industry whose job it is to effectively sell us the appearance of authenticity,” said Serazioa. “It’s disturbing and fascinating. The conversations were really interesting.”
Rahul Bhargava, an assistant professor of journalism and art and design at Northeastern University, noted that many politicians are using lessons from influencers and others to gain attention online — whether from people or the media, and fashion is a big part of that. Referring to research on gendered coverage of politicians, he said: “There is a long history of misogyny and gendered coverage that hides female politicians in one respect, trivializes them in another, or treats them as celebrities in another. When we research it, we see more fashion coverage than before,” he said.
What is the cause of this? Politicians collaborate more with designers, which gives more coverage. But the opposite trend is to choose clothing that identifies them with middle-class Americans, as Michelle Obama and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have sometimes done to their advantage, he said. Granting that both women have taken a high-low approach to fashion, Bhargava said the choice of brand names and designers can be seen as an effort to appeal to different segments of the audience they are trying to appeal to.
“It’s happening more and more. Some of it reinforces their political message and policy. The other part of it is just something that is very different from them being politicians. I think it’s very difficult to tell the difference,” he said.
While Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s choice of a Brother Vellies “Tax the Rich” dress for the 2021 Met Gala was a fashion statement and a reflection of her politics, Obama’s FLOTUS dress code for brands and designers was less about politics and more about image and aesthetics , according to Bhargava. Sinema often follows a similar path with choices that are about optics and identity, not related to political goals, he added. “Of course, this coverage, perception and conversation happens much more to women candidates in social media and online news.”
From his point of view, treating politicians as celebrities has historically been a way to diminish their political standing. “That may be changing, but look [2008 Republican vice president nominee] Sarah Palin. Her coverage was very large [about] treating her like a celebrity, and that was one of the ways in which any of her policies were dismissed. This is very different from all members of Congress who wear white [to the 2019 State of the Union address] in relation to the suffragettes.”
All in all, some studies have shown that there is more talk about the fashion of female politicians than their male counterparts, and that they are mostly trivialized or treated as celebrities, which makes them less taken seriously, he said. Noting how the late former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used her affinity for brooches to her advantage, Bhargava said Sinema uses fashion more as an influencer — and less as a politician. As the identities of our politicians increasingly reflect our complex world, their fashion statements will be more diverse and symbolic of their identity, he said.
“Look at our vice president. She is American, Asian-American, in a mixed-cultural family, and she is also African-American. It’s a lot of identity,” he said.
The more people like Kamala Harris get elected, the more effort there will be to figure out how to express those identities through fashion without trivializing their choices as what they wear. “They would rather talk about it as a reflection of part of their identity,” Bhargava said.