BUSH: THE NATION’S COWBOY-IN-CHIEF
Byline: Scott Malone
NEW YORK — In nine days, George W. Bush will stand on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building and be sworn in as the leader of the free world.
But will he be a fashion leader?
If he is, it could be a boost for the jeans business, executives contend. The former Texas governor over the past year has been frequently seen in blue jeans — more so than is typical for a politician of such standing — particularly as he was hanging out at his ranch outside of Austin during the weeks of legal wrangling in Florida and Washington following the closest U.S. presidential election in more than a century.
“I think people are influenced by almost anybody famous,” said John Heldrich, president and chief executive officer of Galey & Lord Inc.’s Atlanta-based Swift Denim division. “You have different factions of the population who follow whatever anybody famous is stepping out in. Almost half the population voted for this man and I think there will be a following to that.”
While no one interviewed suggested that Bush’s denim-wearing habits would be a negative for the jeans business, some predicted that he would have little influence on American tastes in clothing. Given the strong wave of casualization that has swept the country over the past decade in particular and in the past 40 years in general, they argued that most Americans aren’t surprised to see their command-in-chief in jeans and cowboy boots.
Gordon Harton, president of Lee Co. of Merriam, Kan., said: “Wearing jeans has become very acceptable everywhere, so I don’t think it will be that noticeable that he has jeans on because that’s what people wear in casual situations. I don’t think it will hurt, but I think that the evolution of jeans is such that it’s become very acceptable that people of all ranks and walks of life wear jeans. It’s just an everyday, normal thing people do.”
Some observers argued that presidents are more often fashion followers than fashion leaders. Norman Karr, executive director of Jeanswear Communications, who has been following Oval Office sartorial matters for decades, said presidents often put on jeans to send a message.
“A politician wears jeans because he wants to say to the voters, ‘I’m one of you,”‘ Karr said. “Jeans are a quick way of identifying with the average person.”
Given the Bush family’s strong desire to identify themselves as Texans, Karr said, it’s not surprising that the president-elect would make a point of frequently appearing in jeans, along with oversized-buckle belts and cowboy boots.
Since Lyndon Johnson, another Texan who went for western style, most Presidents have on occasion appeared in public in jeans, Karr said. While Karr said he didn’t recall ever seeing Richard Nixon in jeans, he pointed out that Jimmy Carter — in his cardigan days — often appeared in jeans, as did Ronald Reagan, especially when on his California ranch.
Both political parties use blue jeans as a symbol of the common man. Indeed, last spring the Democratic Party made a point of recommending blue jeans and cowboy boots as the dress for their major fund-raising gala, in contrast to the more traditional tuxedo or ball gown approach that the Republicans took.
David Wolfe, creative director with the Doneger Group, a New York-based buying office, also said it’s no surprise that Bush likes to be seen in public in blue jeans.
“Anybody who has been governor of Texas had better be photographed in jeans a bit,” he said. “It’s part of the culture.”
Asked whether the president of the U.S. has the potential to be a fashion leader, Wolfe replied, “Not with George W. Bush as president. If Mel Gibson were the president, that would be a different story. JFK certainly influenced people. He killed the hat industry single-handedly,” referring to John F. Kennedy’s modern, hatless look that showed off his blond hair at a time when most men wore hats as part of a suited attire.
Rather than elected officials having an influence on fashion, Wolfe suggested that things may work the other way round.
“Maybe [Bush] got elected because western fashion is coming in,” he quipped.
Ken Girouard, vice president of marketing and merchandising at Cone Mills Corp., agreed that Bush is unlikely to influence fashion.
“I would hardly consider him a fashion icon,” he said.
Still, he said Bush’s apparent affinity for jeans can’t hurt the denim business, but he suggested that he’d like to see the president-elect catch up with other trends.
“We need to get him a pair of nice dark jeans and a nice denim jacket,” he said.
Girouard also wondered about whether Bush’s jeans wearing would continue when he’s in the White House.
Most executives said they don’t expect to see Bush wearing jeans all that frequently while he’s actually in Washington, given that city’s buttoned-up style.
“Washington is kind of a very proper place to dress,” said Dutch Leonard, president of Burlington Industries Inc.’s casualwear division, based in Greensboro, N.C. “It will get casual eventually, but they won’t do anything earth-shattering.”
Karr agreed that Bush is unlikely to break much new ground in his jeans-wearing.
“I don’t see George W. coming up to Washington and having state dinners wearing jeans or anything,” he said. “But when he’s on the ranch, he will. He should, it’s a perfectly normal, natural thing.”
Some suggested that Bush’s choice of wearing jeans throughout much of the post-Election Day waiting period was a strategic move. In the weeks of uncertainty following the election, both candidates were trying to exude an aura of calm and relaxation, without appearing to be claiming the mantle of the nation’s next president prematurely. Wearing jeans was a way to broadcast that message, some sources suggested.
Executives said it’s unlikely that Bush’s predilection for jeans will convince Americans who don’t already wear jeans to start wearing them.
Still, many executives said they think the jeans business will benefit from an American president who regularly appears in public in his denims.
“The jeans business continues to be strong, because it’s such an important part of today’s popular life,” said Angelo LaGrega, president of mass market jeanswear at Greensboro-based VF Corp. “It only helps when someone with the visibility of the president is seen wearing it.”
Bush has been photographed wearing what appear to be Wrangler jeans, which are produced by LaGrega’s division. LaGrega said he hadn’t noticed that, but said it isn’t surprising given Wrangler’s strong consumer franchise in the Southwest.
Phone calls to Bush’s press office on the subject were not returned.
Still, while executives didn’t think that Bush’s wardrobe choice would result in a surge of jeans sales inside or outside the Beltway, they said that it can only give more momentum to the casualization of America.
“The trend is going in that direction in any case,” said Dick Gilbert, president of New York-based Mudd Jeans. “With the president on the north side of casual, there’s just going to be more of it.”