If there’s one tradition that hasn’t been uprooted in this Trump presidency, it’s the one surrounding the First Lady’s wardrobe. Most first ladies have historically laid low when it came to broadcasting strong political views, opting for subtle cues, instead. Michelle Obama was the primo example of that. We’ve written before about the innumerable ways that she used her clothing to communicate values, like inclusivity, globalism, and supporting small businesses. Those efforts often translated into lucrative opportunities for the designers whose work she wore, too. During the Obama presidency, any time that the fashion industry and FLOTUS converged, the benefits were felt across both The White House and the retail floor.
How First Lady Melania Trump and the fashion industry converge in this new world order presents a complicated problem for Melania, who wants to be seen as stylish, and the fashion industry, which wants to avoid controversy. As a former model and fashion insider, Melania is the very picture of a put-together first lady, and she is personally liked by some designers and critics. But her connection to an administration that the fashion industry has by-and-large denounced has created tension between them. Designers and the brands they represent are questioning whether it’s worth it to promote their own clothing if and when she wears it. Given the foreseeable fallout — brand credibility, the potential for boycotts — the stakes are high. Which leaves them with another possibility: not engaging with her at all. For the next four years, we'll attempt to measure whether this non-engagement becomes an enduring aspect of her tenure, by keeping tabs on whether designers and brands decline to self-promote when FLOTUS wears their wares.
To understand why this is such a big deal for brands, it helps to understand how a first lady usually receives the clothes she wears in the first place. For official events like state visits or balls, designers often offer clothing as a gift, which the first lady would accept on behalf of the U.S. government. After she wears them, all gift pieces are stored by the National Archives as historical artifacts — not in her closet.
First ladies also do not “borrow” clothing the same way that celebrities do for red carpets, since that could lead to questions of ethics, becoming a liability for POTUS. Anything that isn’t a gift is typically purchased out-of-pocket — and not using federal, tax-collected funds. Nevertheless, any First Lady Moment is typically a big press moment, and PR agencies will immediately blast out press releases about her outfit to fashion media following an event.
Judging from appearances on the campaign trail and her short time as FLOTUS, it seems that Melania has had a far smaller circle of designers willing to work with her on custom “gifts” than Michelle Obama. She worked with former Carolina Herrera creative director Herve Pierre on her inaugural gown and Ralph Lauren on her Inauguration Day suit. She has also tapped into indie designers, like Alice Roi and Norisol Ferrari for other daytime events. During the campaign, she purchased the majority of her clothing, which has left certain liberal designers, including Roksanda Ilincic in tough positions. While some designers have answered questions from the press for articles about their pieces, the brands themselves have opted out of sending the typical PR email blasts and have avoided sharing images on their social media accounts. This stark lack of press — a black hole — is unprecedented in modern coverage of a woman in the White House.
Melania's public persona is largely that of a blank slate. The populist view of her is that she has no opinions about politics (aside from the ironic one, like “people shouldn’t bully”); that she might not even want to be first lady. Her greatest fault is staying married to someone who has many.
Because of Melania’s intimate connection to Trump and his politics — and because she’s never given any reason for us to think otherwise — it’s impossible to separate what Melania stands for from what Donald does. And in many ways, fashion designers are finding that they have to wrestle with the same kind of guilt by association. When Melania purchases designers' products and wears them, it sullies the image: At worst, it can come across as a passive endorsement of Trump’s politics. At best, it’s confusing for brands that make progressiveness and inclusivity part of their mission. Either way, the easiest tactic for brands to take is one that Melania herself has perfected: staying silent.
To see if Melania’s fashion PR black hole exists in the first place, and if so, how big it grows, we’re going to keep tabs on what she wears during her husband's administration and whether the brands themselves actively disengage with self-promotion. We consider emailed PR blasts as publicity, as well as tweets and Instagrams from brands' official accounts. Where appropriate, we will note if designers and brand representatives have given interviews to media about the looks, which we do not consider self-promotion, but is important to note nonetheless. Ahead, take a look at the changing relationship (or lack thereof) between the First Lady and the fashion industry.