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Mrs Trump's fashion challenges

January 18, 2017 09:45 IST

Though Melania Trump, the incoming US First Lady, is a former model who has retained all the glamour of the ramp, there is a curious radio silence on the subject of who's offering their sartorial services for her time at the White House, notes Kanika Datta.

Melania Trump 

IMAGE: Melania Trump with Donald Trump in the US Capitol Rotunda. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

By this time in 2008, the big names from the haute couture world were queuing up outside the White House for the privilege of showcasing their creations on the most charismatic and stylish of First Ladies, wife of America's first black President.

Here's a little noticed curiosity (among the many oddities) of the current presidential transition process.

The incoming First Lady is a former model who has retained all the glamour of the ramp.

But on the subject of who's offering their sartorial services to the wife of a billionaire who will represent the United States for at least the next four years there is radio silence.

That became noticeable only because one designer has come out with an emphatic declaration of intent, and a negative one at that -- Sophie Thealet, owner of an immigrant-origin family firm that occasionally provided clothes for Michelle Obama.

In an open letter on November 17, she declared, To Whom it May Concern, that she would not 'participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next First Lady.'

This was, Ms Thealet wrote, on account of the racism, sexism and xenophobia of Melania Trump's husband's campaign, which were incompatible with the values of her company. 

As strange is the mute response from the fashion community after this announcement, a somewhat suo motu one since Ms Thealet doesn't speak of an approach from the gilded fastness of Trump Tower.

Only Tommy Hilfiger has responded with the singularly gormless comment that Melania Trump was a 'very beautiful woman' so any designer should be happy to dress her. 'I don't think people should become political about it,' he added.

Poor Tommy, his fashion nous is not the only thing that's a tad out of date.

If the last elections proved anything it's that the fashion and the arts communities have been animated participants in the political process, serving as the benign counter-culture that reminded Americans of their better selves against the crass assertions of the alt-right.

The cast of Hamilton provided the most memorable post-poll aide-memoir (though Donald Trump seemed more concerned that Brandon Dixon hadn't memorised those lines).

But think also Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna stumping for Hillary Clinton.

Just three months ago, Ann Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue and acknowledged First Lady of Style, arranged a fund-raiser for Ms Clinton. No doubt she had, like most others, assumed a Clinton victory and appreciated the prospect of being associated with the first Woman President.

Mr Trump's unlikely victory may be awkward since Ms Wintour moves in the same social circles as the Trump clan. She is enough of a close friend to provide a blurb for Ivanka Trump's 2009 trivial memoir-cum-business etiquette advisory The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Work and Life.

Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama

IMAGE: TOP: Michelle Obama in a strategically chosen Naeem Khan creation at the State dinner for Dr Manmohan Singh.
ABOVE: A Jacqueline Kennedy dress at the Field Museum in Chicago.
While Jackie stuck to the conventional -- Dior, Chanel -- Michelle's patronage of a range of edgy young designers brought excitement and flair to the First Lady's wardrobe.
Photographs: Pete Souza/The White House; Tim Boyle/Getty Images

During her time in the White House, Michelle Obama took to another level the trend set by Jacqueline Kennedy of enabling the fashion industry to subtly monetise the sartorial choices of the First Lady.

Ms Kennedy stuck to the conventional -- Dior, Chanel -- but her well-groomed look launched a thousand imitators.

Ms Obama's patronage of a range of edgy young designers brought excitement and flair to the First Lady's wardrobe.

She created a style uniquely her own, limiting her fashion advice to Ikram Goldman and her trendy boutique in Chicago and, later, to Meredith Koop, an Ikram employee.

But implicit in her choices were social and political statements too.

Names like Bibhu Mahapatra, Jason Wu, Prabal GurungNaeem Khan, Joseph Altuzarra and the many other couturiers who span the race, gender and LGBT spectrum in rainbow profusion suddenly found support from the Executive Residence of the White House.

Ms Obama, vital and fit, was effortlessly able to carry off bold colours, ditzy patterns and unconventional cuts.

True, the results were not always felicitous -- such as the nude-coloured sheath she chose to wear to a State dinner in Washington and Mr Mahapatra's clunkily patterned dress for her India visit.

Ms Trump may have chosen the conventional black dress for her maiden visit to the White House, but Ms Obama's outfit, a blue dress (Democrat colours, in case you missed the point) shot through with a jagged golden streak, dimmed the glamour of the incoming First Lady.

Melania Trump and Michelle Obama

IMAGE: Melania Trump, left, may have chosen a conventional black dress for her maiden visit to the White House but Michelle Obama's outfit, a blue dress (Democrat colours, in case you missed the point) dimmed the glamour of the incoming First Lady.
Photograph: Chuck Kennedy/The White House

Ms Trump admittedly has a sense of style.

The evidence on the campaign trail suggests that her tastes are proforma chic -- she rarely ventures beyond a pastel palate and the sheath dresses that set off a rigorously dieted and surgically enhanced figure.

Her wardrobe shows little scope to unleash the kind of creativity displayed by the designers Ms Obama patronised.

And then, there's that same inconvenient conflict of interest that assails her husband. Like her first predecessor and her stepdaughter, Ms Trump has her own jewellery line.

This may not have been an issue had Ivanka Trump's marketing machine not sent out messages to 'shop the look' after several of the incoming First Daughter's public appearances.

Which makes it likely that Ms Trump's sartorial challenges going forward will go way beyond the clothes she wears.

Kanika Datta
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