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Styling Politicians in the Age of Image Wars

In today's political arena where image is vital, Anna Wintour is advising US presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton on her wardrobe in her campaign against Donald Trump, BoF has learned.
Hillary Clinton wears a beaded coat by Andrew GN to give a speech at the Jacob Javits Center in March 2016 | Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Kate Abnett

PHILADELPHIA, United States — "Trump has a budget, Sanders has a budget, Hillary has a budget," says Corey Roche, a personal stylist whose clients include politicians in Washington DC. "There is [campaign] money allocated to fashion and clothes, because that is a huge part of marketing and branding."

Indeed, in today's media-saturated world, image is a key communications tool for heavyweight politicians as they craft their personal brands and election campaigns. Like actors, athletes and other celebrities, many major American politicians employ stylists and other image consultants. But the business of dressing politicians — some of the most heavily scrutinised public figures — comes with a unique set of challenges.

At major political events like this week's Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where Democratic party nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to make her acceptance speech on Thursday, the level of scrutiny is higher than ever. For the speech, Clinton will likely wear a garment made by an American designer, chosen with the input of her team, including deputy communications director Kristina Schake, a former aide to Michelle Obama charged with shaping the candidate's image.

But advisors from the fashion industry can also play a role. Clinton has been consulting American Vogue editor-in-chief and Democratic party fundraiser Anna Wintour on her wardrobe choices for key moments of the campaign, BoF has learned. On certain occasions, Wintour has approached designers to procure outfits for Clinton, who has settled into a uniform of brightly coloured pantsuits and jackets by US designers. Unlike many celebrities, who are often lent or gifted fashion items, Clinton's campaign pays for her clothes.(A spokesperson for Wintour declined to comment. The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)

If a politician wears expensive labels, the public will absolutely eat them alive.

Meanwhile, Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has worked with personal stylists including Phillip Bloch in the past, has been wearing Brioni suits on the campaign trail. In the 2004 book Trump: Think Like a Billionaire, written by Trump and ghostwriter Meredith McIver, the candidate said: "They graciously supply me with my clothing for 'The Apprentice.'" Today, Brioni no longer gifts him its products and the candidate is a paying client of the company.

Indeed, in most cases, politicians pay for their clothing, but their stylists may call upon contacts at showrooms or brand ambassadors to procure items at discounted rates. Sometimes clothing is simply lent. “If it’s a designer who just wants his name to be shared publicly, that’s great because it means you don’t have to pay for the items and we can return them to that designer,” says Roche.

Whether it’s spent on garments themselves or the stylists who procure them, the money involved in dressing politicians — both candidates and elected officials — can be a controversial topic. In the UK, former prime minster David Cameron came under fire for using taxpayers’ money to pay the salaries of an "image consultant" for himself and a "special adviser" to assist his wife Samantha Cameron with her style and social diary.

"You cannot spend a lot of money. I have never seen, except for Donald Trump, a [male] politician wear a Hugo Boss or an Armani suit," says stylist Corey Roche, whose clients include a Democratic representative, a lobbyist and a public speaker on Capitol Hill. American brands like Brooks Brothers — whose off-the rack suits cost about $1,000 — are a safe bet, he says. If a politician wears expensive labels, he warns, the public "will absolutely eat you alive."

Clothing can support a politician’s agenda — most of Barack Obama’s suits are by tailor Martin Greenfield, whose Brooklyn business supports US jobs and cost a relatively modest $2,000  — or undermine it. Last month, Clinton was lambasted for wearing an Armani jacket that reportedly cost $12,000 to deliver a speech on income inequality. And yet Trump’s Brioni wardrobe — ready-made Brioni suits retail for $5,250 to $6,900 — has attracted little criticism in comparison.

Our role as a stylist is that they never have to worry about clothes.

In her first weeks as British prime minister, Theresa May has attracted column inches for eschewing plain suits in favour of items like jewel coloured shift dresses, Vivienne Westwood tartan suits, chunky statement accessories and, most famously, patterned kitten heels. But while the wardrobes of female politicians may receive a disproportionate amount of attention, compared to their male counterparts, Roche says "men and women are equally conscious about their brand and how they are seen in their party or event."

“They have an event, I research it and I bring options to them,” he continues. “We provide a white glove service. Nine times out of ten, the client is not with us choosing clothes. Nine times out of ten, the client has not met the designer.”

But not all politicians work with stylists. In 2014, during an appearance on BBC Radio show Desert Island Disks, May, then-home secretary, said she did not have a stylist: "I have a particular shop that I go to and they know the sort of thing that I like to wear, so they will sometimes ring me up and say there's something really nice in." That store is Fluidity in Henley, Oxfordshire, an independent boutique, which sells designers including May's favoured brands Amanda Wakeley and Roland Mouret.

Last week, May attended her first meeting as prime minister with French president François Hollande in Paris wearing kitten heels from LK Bennett's collaboration with Caroline Issa. "Neither [LK Bennett nor I] had any idea — the shoes and my collaboration launched three years ago and sold out after the season, so she got them then," says Issa. Neither LK Bennett or Amanda Wakeley — whose leopard print shoes and fluoro yellow coat were chosen by May for her first speech as prime minister — gift products.

But for many political figures who, unlike May, do employ stylists, the aim is often to reduce, rather than enhance, the role of fashion in a politician’s life: “Our role as a stylist is that they never have to worry about clothes,” says Roche.

Lauren Sherman contributed reporting to this piece.

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