WASHINGTON — How does fashion measure up as an American ambassador? That was the question posed here Friday night at “Diplomacy by Design,” a panel discussion and reception organized by the State Department and Elle Magazine.
Pretty well, if you ask the country’s top diplomat, John Kerry. In a video message, the secretary of state explained that the fashion industry has worked to empower women, encouraged investment and economic growth and strengthened freedom of expression.
Not a bad track record.
“It [fashion] speaks a universal language. Fashion changes our view of the world, and their view of us. Fashion and traditions are an integral part of how countries relate to one another,” he said.
In the wake of fashion weeks in Shanghai and Mumbai, Elle’s editor in chief, Robbie Myers, asked the panel to define the American fashion signature in an increasingly global economy, which is bolstered by $1.2 trillion from fashion.
Derek Lam said it’s our spirit of individuality and diversity, citing his own background as a Chinese American and the fact that most of his staff are from other countries originally.
“Two-thirds of the CFDA are from somewhere else,” explained Steven Kolb, the president and chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “They came here and chased the American Dream. In Europe there are systems that one has to maneuver. In New York, anybody, for better or worse, can be part of fashion week.”
Chief of Protocol Peter Selfridge explained that American rugged individuality infiltrating fashion dates back to the 18th century when Benjamin Franklin presented himself to the French court in an exotic fur cap, battered from his trip across the Atlantic.
“You saw that fur hat on the streets of Paris. Who knew Ben Franklin was our first fashion icon?” he asked.
All agreed Michelle Obama is a modern exponent of American style, while Steve Jobs in his black turtlenecks and Mark Zuckerberg addressing his Facebook shareholders in his hoodie and sneakers are symbolic of American trends.
How would the panelists advise a female president if included in her “fashion cabinet?”
“I want to see a Hillary Clinton who is willing to sit down and have a conversation about fashion in the same way Obama has a conversation about brackets in college basketball,” said The Washington Post’s fashion critic, Robin Givhan. “ I want to have someone who is just as willing to attend a New York Fashion Week show as she would be to throw out the first pitch. I want to see someone who is just as enthusiastic in talking about fashion as culture as they are talking about the steel of their car being from Cadillac. I want to see fashion be part of the full conversation that a commander-in-chief has. I think sometimes the fashion industry doesn’t get the respect it deserves because it’s perceived as a woman’s avocation and I think a woman commander in chief can change that.”
Kolb explained that Clinton has attended the CFDA Awards and has been a friend of the industry, but wondered if her close associations would continue in her administration.
He cited the reception hosted by British Prime Minister Theresa May for London Fashion Week as something he’d like to see brought Stateside should Clinton win next month.
At the after party, held at Blair House, Myers explained that the State Department’s Natalie Jones, deputy chief of protocol, reached out to her to cohost the event because they were looking to expand the definition of cultural diplomacy, which has traditionally focused on food programs and student exchanges,
Elle has made strategic partnerships in Washington, hosting an annual dinner for the city’s most influential female players, and focusing more copy on political features.
The reception showcased the pin collection from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a fashion presentation from City Center DC.
Embassies ranging from Afghanistan to Guatemala displayed their traditional and modern designs throughout the house.
Brooks Brothers provided a replica of the coat it made for Abraham Lincoln, which hung under his portrait at Blair House. Their brand historian Kelly Stuart-Johnson stood by to give guests an overview of the garment’s dark history (Lincoln was wearing it the night he was shot).
The fashion spirit clearly rubbed off on even the crustiest career diplomat. One high-level envoy from the Philippines proudly participated in Elle’s #whatareyouwearing social media campaign, which allowed guests to record a video message about their outfit.