Having a voice. Many prominent figures of popular culture view it as a privilege, a right, a duty. Yet sometimes, having a voice kind of sucks. Like when you really want to pass on a question that keeps coming back at you. Just ask the American designer community. Because now that the “would you dress Melania Trump?” query is out there — thrust into the social media fray by one of their own, no less — it’s not going away. But oh, they wish it would.
Most of them, at least. Some designers answered directly, thoughtfully and without equivocation. Tommy Hilfiger and Thom Browne would be honored. Phillip Lim and Zac Posen, not so much. Marc Jacobs, not at all. Diane von Furstenberg, who at the WWD CEO Summit shortly before the election voiced her trepidation about a possible Trump presidency on stage, offered an elegant response.
This story first appeared in the November 30, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
But first, something else sucks, too — procrastination. After Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in July, I asked numerous designers, most of them well-known to be Hillary supporters, if they would dress Melania. About half of those queried either declined comment or never responded. Of the other half, several gave answers resonant with at least measured affirmation, not in direct endorsement of Trump, but out of respect for the presidency and the role of first lady; some sounded outright enthusiastic. Instead of jumping on those early responses, I held out in foolish hope of more. I then lost focus and never wrote the piece, delaying myself into not being first with what has become a major story.
I note my error for its pertinence now. Especially since so much nasty campaigning went on in the interim, it’s journalistically questionable to print previously unpublished, four-month-old responses to a then-hypothetical question. So I won’t. Instead, last week, around the time of Sophie Theallet’s now-famous, impassioned plea to her designing colleagues to refuse to dress Melania, I followed up with those who answered me back in July (and one or two more). The second-round reaction surprised. I expected the hypothetical affirmations to turn concrete, and that most of the stalwart Hillary supporters would have some answer at the ready, if only a public relations-prepared platitude, to what seems an obvious question. Wrong twice.
Hilfiger stood by his early enthusiastic assessment which he would soon repeat at the Angel Ball: “Yes, I would dress Melania. I think she is a beautiful woman who would make any designer’s clothes look great.”
Von Furstenberg’s nuanced response captured why she has been so adroit in leading the CFDA. Equally adept at advocacy and diplomacy, she engaged in the latter without negating her previous partisan stance. “Donald Trump was elected and he will be our president,” she offered. “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.”
But rather than an increase in such responses, numerous designers continued to decline comment, while others retracted previous “out of respect for the office” answers. Though some of those queried cited their grave disappointment over the election, personal fear for the fate of the country wasn’t the only concern at play.
The reality is that politics and business make discomforting bedfellows. Or do they? Many designers and brands — even those of well-known political persuasions — are unwilling to test the issue. “Are you following the New Balance situation?” one brand representative offered as the reason for withdrawing a former affirmative answer. The person referred to the social media vivisection of New Balance after a media relations person suggested in an interview that the Trump presidency might be good for trade. Enraged reaction included calls for a boycott and accusations that the brand is the go-to step-lively shoe for white supremacists.
Extreme vitriol — absolutely. And such social media histrionics are unlikely to calm down anytime soon. But will they result in significant fallout at the checkout, especially when the quantifiable polarization — the popular vote — was split in near-equal halves (albeit with the increasingly widening edge to Hillary)? To paraphrase a probably apocryphal quote about sneakers, Trump supporters buy frocks, too. Those shoppers aggrieved to the extreme by examples of brand partisanship on each side may in fact cancel each other out. Yet so far, though Hilfiger and Theallet triggered plenty of opinionated online conversation, neither has been excoriated in the manner of New Balance. Still, fearful of alienating potential customers, most designers have gone silent. That’s understandable; ultimately, they’re in business to move merch. Yet since most are on the record as pro-Hillary, their newfound reticence rings somewhat sheepish.
Kudos to those willing to go post-election public. Browne offered that, “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.” Conversely, Jacobs has “no interest whatsoever in dressing Melania Trump.…I’d rather put my energy into helping out those who will be hurt by Trump and his supporters.”
Others gave voice to genuine personal conflict. Zac Posen and Cynthia Rowley tried to argue that the question is, in Rowley’s words, “somewhat irrelevant,” given that Melania or anyone else can buy anything online or in a store. Posen called it “the fashion retail democracy.” Yet both know that full-price, real-woman shopping isn’t the issue. More to the point, Posen added, “I have not been asked to dress her, and I am not necessarily seeking this.” Rowley acknowledged an approach to business open to political currents: “Some people say fashion and politics should never mix, but when given the choice, I think you should address and dress your conscience.”
Derek Lam, too, noted the difficulty of making decisions on matters that walk the line between business and personal values. “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,” he said.
Lim said when his company collaborates with individuals, they are people “we have authentic relationships with — ultimately, women and men that a share similar set of values, desires and ideologies: inclusion, diversity, justice, consciousness, innovation,” and that he doesn’t see such a relationship developing with Melania Trump.
While devoted Hillary gal Vera Wang skirted the issue of whether American fashion designers should step up to dress the incoming first lady, she identified a reverse mandate. “We have not been contacted by the Trump campaign or administration thus far,” Wang said. “But the first lady-elect should support American fashion, as did her predecessors.”
More: Read full comments from the designers quoted here.