WASHINGTON — Blue is the hot color for the fashion industry this election season.
An analysis of campaign contributions from executives and employees of 27 department stores and mass retailers and apparel vendors during the election cycle shows the industry lining up almost two to one in favor of electing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama to the White House over Republican nominee John McCain.
This story first appeared in the October 21, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Individual industry contributions reveal people from apparel brands, department stores, discounters and specialty chains gave a combined $357,865 to Obama and McCain from January 2007 through the end of this August, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Of that total, executives and employees gave $228,154 to Obama and $129,711 to McCain.
The list of companies included in the analysis by the nonprofit center ranged from such vendors as Liz Claiborne Inc., Jones Apparel Group Inc., Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., Calvin Klein Inc., Estée Lauder Cos., Nike Inc. and Levi Strauss & Co. to department stores J.C. Penney Co., Nordstrom Inc., Neiman Marcus Group, Macy’s Inc. and Saks Inc.; specialty retailers Gap Inc., Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., Limited Brands Inc. and Ann Taylor Stores Corp., and mass merchants Target Corp., Sears Holding Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
With only two weeks until Election Day, Obama and McCain are putting those donations to use, filling the airwaves with campaign ads and hiring scores of people to get out their blueprints on the economy and other issues in battleground states, fighting to color them blue, for the Democrats, or red, for the Republicans, and grab their electoral votes.
The two presidential candidates have spent the final stage of the election honing their positions on the economy — the defining issue in this campaign — unveiling new policy proposals aimed at helping the average taxpayer weather the turmoil in the financial markets that has severely cut into retirement savings and pensions, and the mortgage crisis, which has resulted in record levels of home foreclosures.
While retail executives continued to throw their support this year behind McCain and the GOP’s perennial small-government, no-new-taxes, pro-business policies, Seventh Avenue fashion designers and executives largely favored Obama and the Democrats’ emphasis on social issues and restoring the manufacturing base in America.
In a show of support for Obama, several New York designers recently collaborated with his campaign and donated their time and talents to an initiative aimed at boosting the Illinois senator’s image through fashionable and affordable merchandise.
Designers and brands such as Zac Posen, Nanette Lepore, Narciso Rodriguez, Charles Nolan, Tory Burch, Vera Wang, Marc Jacobs, Derek Lam, Tracy Reese, Isaac Mizrahi, Juicy Couture and Beyoncé and Tina Knowles for House of Deréon have lent their names to Obama’s campaign, producing a wide product line that ranges from “Dare to Dream” tank tops to various iterations of the “Hope” theme on T-shirts and tote bags. The merchandise, which was manufactured in the U.S., is being sold on Obama’s campaign Web site under the “Runway to Change” moniker, with all proceeds going to the campaign.
Federal election laws limit individual contributions to $2,300 for the primaries and the same amount for the general election. In this close presidential election, there was an anomaly affecting the overall contributions for each candidate that must be taken into account. McCain cannot raise money privately during the general election for his campaign because he accepted federal funding of $84.1 million. The one exception allows him to raise a limited amount of money privately to cover some legal and accounting costs.
Fashion executives who contributed the $2,300 maximum to McCain for the general election will have it either returned or redesignated to other committees or charities. Obama opted out of the public funding and has continued to seek private and individual contributions.
“Obama is such a vacuum,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “So much money is going to Obama on a scale that is not comparable to McCain or any other candidate back in time.”
Obama raised a record $150 million in September. Krumholz said Obama’s appeal to Seventh Avenue is in line with the demographics that typically vote for Democrats on social issues.
“Those in fashion live and work in urban centers on both coasts,” Krumholz said. “That is in keeping with the geographic patterns because Democrats tend to do well in the upper Northeast and in major urban areas.”
Last month, designer Charles Nolan hosted a fund-raiser for Obama dubbed “Runway for Change” featuring many of fashion’s elite. In June, Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour and her colleague André Leon Talley hosted a fund-raiser at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. gallery in Chelsea, where Catherine Malandrino, Erin Fetherston, Cynthia Rowley, Lisa Airan, Thakoon Panichgul, Ralph Rucci, Julie Gilhart, Amanda Brooks, Iman, Chris Benz, Yigal Azrouël and others were introduced to Michelle Obama. The Vogue pair then joined Calvin Klein in hosting a private dinner with Michelle Obama at Klein’s apartment.
Conversely, Republicans have traditionally fared better among retail executives because of their stance on tax and government regulation issues, she said.
“The GOP has long claimed the mantle of superiority on those issues, but their stranglehold has been reduced just like it was in the early 1990s when Democrats took the White House and had a majority in Congress,” Krumholz said.
Obama received $2,300 from Sidney Kimmel, chairman of Jones Apparel Group; $2,000 from Howard Socol, former chairman, president and chief executive officer of Barneys New York, and $2,300 from designer Michael Kors, who was an early supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) during the primaries, according to Federal Election Commission records.
McCain received $4,600 from Leslie Wexner, chairman and ceo of Limited Brands; $2,300 from Wesley Card, president and ceo of Jones Apparel Group, and $4,600 from Alex Dillard, president of Dillard’s Inc.
Obama represents idealism in America, said fashion designer Lepore, who created a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Hope” and a Victorian-inspired image of an anchor for Obama’s campaign Web site.
“He represents the person we think will treat the government like it should be treated, as an institution that is here to help the people and not just to further the [interests] of the cronies of the president,” said Lepore. “I have this image, hopefully, that he will pull all the bright minds together like [President Bill] Clinton did and get things in place” on a bipartisan basis.
She blamed the faltering economy on the Bush administration’s policies over the past eight years and said she could not vote Republican because of the malaise that has set in under Bush’s watch.
For Steven Kolb, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, who grew up a die-hard Democrat in a blue collar family in New Jersey, supporting Obama is almost a no-brainer. Kolb, who originally supported Clinton in the primaries, said he immediately switched to Obama when Clinton conceded in mid-June. He has since given $500 to Obama’s campaign.
“I think he brings a lot of fresh energy and hope, as well as [sound] judgment,” Kolb said. “He is someone who I would trust to make the difficult decisions. He also brings the most doable and genuine ideas to dealing with the economy and jobs.”
Kolb pointed to Obama’s recent economic proposal to allow people to withdraw up to $10,000 from their 401(k)s and IRAs without penalty. Kolb added that he believes McCain is less focused on “average Americans” and more focused on “business policies and tax breaks for the few.”
Joseph Levy, chairman emeritus of Gottschalks Inc., a department store chain based in Fresno, Calif., is an ardent supporter of McCain and his energy and economic proposals.
“I think part of the solution [on the economy] is confidence,” said Levy, who has given $1,000 to McCain’s campaign. “It’s not wishes and fairy tales. It is confidence in the total package. When Reagan came into office, it was just about as bad, but he put confidence back into the system and I know John McCain will do the same thing.”
Levy said he also favors the Arizona senator’s energy proposals and pledge to build several new nuclear plants, as well as his commitments to continue President Bush’s across-the-board tax cuts that expire in 2010, and to reduce federal spending programs.
Allen Gant Jr., ceo of Glen Raven Mills, a North Carolina-based textile company, has given $2,300 to McCain.
“I think McCain offers good, stable leadership at a time in which this country needs leadership,” said Gant. “He also offers a mature perspective and a seasoned position of leadership.”
Gant said McCain promotes the free enterprise system and policies that help businesses flourish.
“I believe his approach to less government involvement and more private enterprise is the best way to go,” said Gant, adding that McCain’s ardent free trade position does not deter him from supporting the Arizona senator.
“I think we would hope to help him understand what fair trade is,” he added. “We’re not isolationists [in the textile industry]. We’re free traders, but we want to make sure it is done fairly and on an equitable basis.”