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Fashion’s Political Gap

Without first ladies Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron, the fashion industries in the US and UK are missing strong political advocates.
Samantha Cameron with BFC chief executive Caroline Rush in 2012 (left) and Michelle Obama with American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour in 2014 (right) | Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Osman Ahmed

LONDON, United Kingdom — Many in fashion are mourning the departure of Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron. The two women, wives of American and British heads of state, did much on either side of the pond to support an industry that has returned their affection. After all, Cameron was a regular on the front rows of London Fashion Week and became an official ambassador for the British Fashion Council. Meanwhile, Michelle Obama introduced a roll call of American designers, as well as under-the-radar international labels, to audiences in the US and abroad, appearing on the cover of American Vogue several times.

The impact was tangible. Cameron helped provide a platform for London-based labels like Roksanda Ilincic and Erdem, driving both awareness and sales, while Obama's outfit choices buoyed everyone from Jason Wu and Reed Krakoff to Derek Lam and Isabel Toledo. Then, of course, there was her penchant for J.Crew. David Yermack, a professor of finance at New York University's Stern School of Business, famously tracked the correlation between what Michelle Obama wore and sales of the same or similar items in a study that was published in the Harvard Business Review. He determined the average value to a label of Obama wearing one of its products was $14 million.

Importantly, neither Obama or Cameron showed a particular affinity for one designer, as was so often is the case with first ladies. Just look at Jackie Kennedy and Oleg Cassini; Nancy Reagan and James Galanos; Hilary Clinton and Barbara Bush's reliance on Oscar de la Renta. Instead, Obama and Cameron had style advisers – Obama's was Meredith Koop and Cameron's was Isabel Spearman. As a juror for the BFC Vogue Fashion Fund, Cameron had an active hand in the careers of many designers — and they, in return, were happy to lend her samples for official outings. Her involvement with the fashion world was the antithesis of her predecessors. Cherie Blair "couldn't give a damn about what she wears," said Fiona Millar, a former aide. "She's an intellectual. Why should she be interested in clothes? She's not Posh Spice, for God's sake."

In a time of Trump and Brexit, when the fashion industry is facing a wide range of challenges, who will fill the void left by Obama and Cameron’s exit?

In the UK, prime minister Theresa May is an avid fan of bold footwear, bright colour and British brands — and a clear supporter of the local fashion sector, evidenced by a reception she held for industry insiders at 10 Downing Street soon after coming to power. "Having a prime minister who is female and has an interest in fashion is something that is a great benefit to us. We feel that she has a natural empathy towards our industry, which you can see in her dress choices," said Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council.

But May lacks the sophisticated tastes of Cameron and Obama. She is also limited in her sartorial choices by her position as prime minister as opposed to a first lady. Indeed, last year, May faced a public backlash for wearing a pair of leather trousers from Amanda Wakeley, which cost £995 (about $1,250). One female member of parliament, Nicky Morgan, berated her for it and was forced to donate her own Mulberry handbag to charity after being accused of hypocrisy.

In the US, several designers have decided against dressing first lady Melania Trump in response to the extreme policies of her husband, US president Donald Trump. Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs and Sophie Theallet are just some of the designers who have taken a stance, although, of course, Ralph Lauren dressed Melania Trump for the presidential inauguration and a Roksanda Ilincic dress she wore before the election sold out almost immediately. A recent lawsuit also revealed plans to launch a lifestyle brand during her "unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" as America's first lady. But it's clear that Melania is no Michelle.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the void left by both Obama and Cameron is unlikely to be filled. Both women were ultimately unicorns in the way they embraced and were embraced by fashion. And the fashion industries in the US and UK are now missing strong political champions at a time of great uncertainty.

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