Obama by a Thread

With campaign merchandise designed by the likes of Marc Jacobs, Barack Obama has emerged as the fashion candidate.

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Obama's new style has been compared with that of JFK.

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Obamawear: The Democratic candidate has taken the campaign merchandise to a new level.

Obamawear: The Democratic candidate has taken the campaign merchandise to a new level.

Thomas Iannaccone

NEW YORK — When it comes to political endorsements, there’s support that candidates covet, and support they might prefer to keep quiet.

Then there’s André Leon Tally, the Vogue editor-at-large known for flamboyant personal style and a long-held place among the country’s fashion elite. Tally, an ardent Barack Obama supporter, is known to accessorize his often outlandish outfits with a small, candy-colored Obama pin.

And he’s not the only one. While John McCain undoubtedly has his share of fans in the apparel business, Obama has attracted the most visible support from the fashion world, with a host of designers—from Marc Jacobs to Rag & Bone—creating official merchandise for the campaign. Donatella Versace even appeared to dedicate her last men’s wear collection to him. She later explained that the collection was inspired not by Obama but by someone like Obama. Either way, it’s no mystery who’s the chicer candidate.

Nor is his appeal to designers much of a surprise. With his cosmopolitan appeal and subtly sophisticated style—expressed of late by a sleek yet presidential Hart Schaffner Marx suit—Obama seems tailor-made to pick up a fashion following.

But is this a following McCain should envy? In America, being the fashionable candidate could have a downside, especially for a man whose critics dismiss him as a Harvard-educated elitist with more style than substance. Just weeks ago—before the Wall Street meltdown—McCain picked at Obama’s popularity by condemning him as a celebrity, suggesting that electing him would be like putting Paris Hilton in the White House. Showing up on the cover of Men’s Vogue doesn’t exactly counter that argument.

Consider the view of Dr. Herb London, president of the neoconservative Hudson Institute, who said the Illinois senator is nothing but an empty, if well-tailored, suit. “Obama appears to be someone entirely superficial,” London wrote in an e-mail to DNR. “As a consequence, it’s difficult to judge whether there is a book underneath the cover.”

Even Obama’s own supporters admit he must be cautious about becoming too closely associated with style or celebrity. “He has to be wary of how he interacts with Hollywood or fashion,” said Morris Reid, a political strategist who has worked for Bill Clinton and appears regularly on MSNBC and CNBC. “Especially since he’s become a celebrity himself. He has to be shrewd and use it in the right way.”

So in wearing the Obama pin, Tally, despite his enthusiasm, raises a conundrum for the presidential hopeful. Obama’s seemingly natural sense of style might seem to confirm Dr. London’s charge that he lacks depth. In Obama’s case, is stylishness a liability?

There’s no avoiding the critical role of image in the democratic process. Do we elect a president based on his or her appearance, sound bites, and ability to kiss the proverbial baby? The McCain campaign certainly believes so. The Republican candidate’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, recently suggested that the 2008 election is not about issues. “This election,” he said, “is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”

Al Gore wouldn’t argue with that. His earth-tone clothes failed to aid his “composite view” during his bid for the presidency at the turn of the millennium. John Kerry too would agree. He made a stylistic blunder when he took his windsurfer for a ride during the 2004 election.

“You can be the most profound or amazing candidate, but if you don’t have the image to back up your substance, nobody will notice you,” said Evangelia Souris, a Boston-based consultant for politicians and Fortune 500 types.

McCain has had an easier job crafting his composite view than Barack Obama, according to political analysts. He is a war hero, and that grounds his persona in an archetype. How McCain presents himself is in a sense less crucial because his personal narrative is one we readily understand.

Obama—the man of mixed race who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, who has ties to Africa and is equal parts community organizer and Harvard intellectual—is not so easily defined. According to Reid, that means Obama’s image can take on more significance. “Simple things can turn into iconic moments,” he said. “Suddenly his everyday steps become extraordinary.”

Fashion icon has become part of Barack Obama’s composite identity. His style—marked by dark, slim-fitting, two-button suits and a no-tie, no-jacket look on the stump—has won approval from sartorial experts. Fashion writers, a left-leaning crowd even without a dashing candidate to support, have lavished praise on the junior senator’s ability to dress. One culture commentator describes Obama as if he were the winner of a beauty pageant: “He looks fabulous. He adds his natural grace, his deportment. He is one of nature’s gentlemen.”

Other stories praise the senator’s Ocean’s Eleven–like slickness and his confidently knotted ties. The Wall Street Journal published a service piece last year on how to achieve Obama’s suit-with-no-tie look. A British journalist cooed that the presidential hopeful reminded her of the iconic fictional character Jay Gatsby, and David Letterman was quoted saying that Obama’s looks alone are enough to win his support. “He’s been on our show a couple of times, and he wore a suit the second time he was on,” he said to Rolling Stone. “It was stunningly beautiful. So I’d vote for him on the strength of that suit.”

Donatella Versace can’t vote in the U.S. election, but it’s clear which side she favors. She said she created the spring ’09 collection for “the man of the moment” who “doesn’t need to flex muscle to show he has power.”

Not that Obama is likely to adopt the pastel hues and silky suits that comprise the latest Versace collection. In fact, the senator, who claims to own only five suits—all of them with fairly traditional labels like Hart Schaffner Marx and Burberry—is puzzled by his status as a style icon. During primary season when a reporter accused him of being too slick, he responded, “I think this is a fairly standard suit here. I haven’t changed my approach to dressing too much.”

Still, measured against most Washington wonks, Obama has a look. The custom Hart Schaffner Marx suit he wore during his speech at the Democratic Convention (which appears on the cover of this issue) is the model of how a contemporary suit should fit. The two-button jacket is shorter, the shoulder and lapel more narrow. And whereas most politicians sport voluminous pants, Obama’s are slimmer, but not slim. Barack stands out next to his colleagues’ baggy, traditional clothing. In shape and standing 6’3”, he also has the benefit of a model’s frame.

His opponent wins points for experience, but McCain has not earned the same kind of sartorial kudos. In fact, there is virtually no press about McCain’s style or the vendors who dress him—no positive press, anyway. Still, McCain tows the line for American political dress: loose-fitting sack suits and sweaters with khakis and a woven shirt on the stump. “With McCain it’s different,” said Souris. “He’s a lot older. You usually don’t associate fashion with someone who is a lot older. You expect them to look professional.”

The younger candidate’s look has made him a prime catch for men’s magazines, whose covers he’s graced more than any other politician in recent history. He’s been on the cover of GQ once and Men’s Vogue twice, most recently in the current issue. He will also reportedly appear on the cover of next month’s Men’s Health.

For the GQ story, which ran September of last year, he was photographed in his office in Washington, D.C., and dressed in his own clothes with little guidance from the fashion team. “We were delighted with his selection,” said the magazine’s creative director, Jim Moore. “You never know what you’re going to get when they bring their own clothes.”

The Obama camp has been reportedly wary of their guy being viewed as the GQ candidate, though not wary enough to keep the story off the cover. In the GQ story, one of the senator’s top strategists worried that Obama’s image could outstrip the man. “Frankly, I could do with fewer cover stories generally,” said David Axelrod. “He’s an incredibly magnetic and also photogenic person … And that had its utility at one point, but it can get overdone. This is a really profound guy in many ways, and you don’t want him trivialized.”

A year later, it seems that Obama’s chic manner of dress, support from the fashion world, and magazine-rack appeal have not diminished the seriousness of his candidacy. Some recent polls have him up nearly 10 points. 

His survival is due in large part to his ability to run a shrewd campaign, a skill he also applies to his dress. Perhaps the trickiest issue surrounding Obama’s image related to one crucial accessory: the American flag pin. Wearing the pin became a political necessity after 9/11, but Obama came to see it as a hollow gesture. As he told the Associated Press last October, the pin “became a substitute for … true patriotism.”

Since mid-May, however, when his victory over Hillary Clinton started to become a reality and the prospect of winning over the American people loomed, Obama changed his mind. He’s adorned his suit lapel with an American flag at many events since then. This may seem like much ado about nothing, but it reflects a simple truth: Obama is a politician, one who is able not only to harness pop culture through celebrity status and fashion cred, but also to turn clothes and accessories into a campaign tool.

Which leads back to André Leon Tally and his pin. Tally is not alone in showing support for Obama through apparel. The democratic candidate has spawned a vast new category of clothes: Obamawear. A wide range of Obama apparel, most of it not officially licensed, has flooded the market as younger consumers gravitate to the candidate’s message of change.

Urban Outfitters is selling a number of Obama-inspired graphic T-shirts, including one that reads “Obama for Your Mama.” Andrew Christian, maker of slinky swimwear and underwear, has put out a range of colorful briefs with Obama’s face stenciled on the side. And young men’s brands, like Obey and Sons of Liberty, have capitalized on Obama’s iconic appeal through their range of Obama T-shirts that have slogans like “Barack to the Future.” One shirt has Obama in basketball gear dunking over a diminutive McCain.

CafePress.com, a site that allows users to sell their own T-shirt designs, has an overwhelming amount of Obama gear. Since last November the site’s users have created nearly 2.5 million Obama garments, nearly twice as many as that of McCain.

“I’ve seen capsule collections with Obama graphics all over,” said Michael Fisher, men’s editor of Stylesight, a trend forecaster. “It speaks to how young people feel they can affect the state of the country by using their own personal style to express their support.”

Van Taylor Monroe, a custom artist, has been designing Nike sneakers with Obama’s image since February, selling the kicks to the likes of Sean “Diddy” Combs and Will.I.Am. “His speeches really spoke to me,” said Monroe. “I want to be part of this campaign, this historic movement.” A pair of Monroe’s Obama sneakers is set to be on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Maegan Carberry, a political commentator and former chief of staff for Arianna Huffington, is one Obama fan who shows her support through apparel, often wearing a pin that reads “Hot Women Vote Obama.” She sees Obamawear as an effective means of merchandising a message. “He’s a brand—a brand that means change and hope and progress. I wear it as a badge of my beliefs.”

So do countless others. Obama supporters are connecting to the candidate through apparel, wearing his likeness to show solidarity with his policies and his promises for change, all of which help shore up the grassroots movement that has grown up around his campaign.

The Obama camp has capitalized on the public’s taste for Obamawear. Last month the campaign unveiled “Runway for Change,” a range of Obama-themed T-shirts, hats, scarves and bags created by top designers and pop stars including Russell Simmons, Marc Jacobs, Pharrell Williams and Rag & Bone, as well as women’s designers Vera Wang, Tory Burch and Nanette Lepore.

It’s an unprecedented collaboration between a presidential candidate and fashion designers, one that highlights Obama’s ability to make the most of his fashionable appeal without appearing excessively concerned with fashion. “The [Obama camp] has been very smart,” said Reid. “[Runway for Change] allows them to support this movement but also keeps it at an arm’s distance. He’s crossed over into pop culture. If you want to reach voters under 40 you have to have a pop culture strategy.”

As a candidate who inspires fashion, Obama has used apparel mostly to his advantage, allowing clothes to help craft his composite image as a man with a fresh approach and a youthful appeal who can in turn inspire his supporters to broadcast his message through their personal style.

Where some see fashion as a liability for Obama, Carberry sees the industry as a worthy ally—one that shares key values with the candidate. “Every group represents an American experience,” she said. “Fashion is home to opinion leaders. They take ideas happening in the culture and render them artistically. Like Barack, they are in the business of change.” 

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