NEW YORK, United States — When Kimberly Guilfoyle, the American conservative television personality, girlfriend of Donald Trump, Jr. and advisor to the Trump presidential re-election campaign, took to the Republican National Convention stage two weeks ago, her fiery speech garnered ridicule and praise alike. And Guilfoyle’s bodycon red dress, made by the Italian fashion brand Chiara Boni, was certainly a part of the performance.

The low-cut shift aligned perfectly with Trump’s reported expectations on how women should look; it was also a nod to “red” Republican states. Like everything related to Trump, reactions to the outfit were split.

“I had been following this designer… unfollow now,” one shopper tweeted. “I’m putting on my red dress and headed to the polls. MAGA,” wrote another on Instagram.

Boni, for one, plays both sides — at least when it comes to commerce. Her clothes are popular with the women in Trump’s circles, frequently worn by First Daughter Ivanka Trump, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Fox News stars, including Jeanine Pirro. But the label, which is sold on its own website, as well as department stores including Saks and Bloomingdale’s, is worn by Democrats too. Jill Biden wore a yellow style from the brand to a presidential campaign rally in Philadelphia last year.

The dresses are expensive, but not prohibitively so, with a price tag that hovers around $700: a sweet spot for political figures who are expected to look polished and refined but often ridiculed if their clothes are too expensive.

Boni, 72, admitted that her own politics are aeons away from the Trump administration’s. She refers to herself as “liberal,” and has spent decades pushing for women’s equality in Italy. But she isn’t bothered that women in Trump’s circles wear her clothes. 

“Personally, I think you can be political but I don’t think your business should be,” Boni told BoF.

Personally, I think you can be political but I don’t think your business should be.

Boni is an example of a designer that’s had success thanks, in part, to visibility in politics, even if it means enduring occasional backlash. Lauren Rothman, a Washington D.C.-based stylist and author, said the brand has become a go-to for women in politics and on television because its form-fitting silhouettes are flattering, and its colours and fabrics look good on television. Sales at Chiara Boni in 2019 hit $25 million, a 30 percent growth from the previous year.

While having a piece in the political spotlight can catapult a brand’s presence — Michelle Obama helped many emerging brands gain national exposure — it can also lead to controversy. Shoppers on both sides of the aisle feel strongly about supporting their parties and keep dragging fashion into the political sphere.

For designers, this can pose a serious challenge: who do you dress, and what do you do when someone whose values don’t align with yours flaunts your collection? Fashion has been put in a sticky situation with Trump in office, bumping heads with the administration on issues like tariffs and immigration. Designers like Marc Jacobs, Zac Posen, Naeem Khan and Philip Lim have all said they won’t dress women in the Trump administration.

Some have navigated dressing political figures by taking a bipartisan approach — several designers, including Tory Burch, Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow, designed t-shirts for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign through an American Vogue-initiated project. (More are expected to do the same for Democratic candidate Joe Biden.) Others simply ignore it when an unsavoury character from “the other side” wears one of their wares. Major designers including Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta and Caroline Herrera are frequently worn by both sides of the aisle. And who could forget Kellyanne Conway’s Gucci look at the Trump inauguration?

Who do you dress, and what do you do when someone whose values don’t align with yours flaunts your collection?

More recently, Melania Trump wore both Jason Wu, a favourite of Michelle Obama’s, and Valentino to the 2020 Republican National Convention.

Regardless of how these placements come about, either organically or strategically, a political figure can have a significant effect on a brand’s sales and overall awareness. With the rise of social media and a heightened sense of activism, more shoppers are hyper-tuned into the style choices of the political figures they idolize, be it Ivanka Trump or Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The Ups and Downs of Getting Political

Sometimes, there is indeed a price to pay. On the first night of the Democratic National Convention last month, after Michelle Obama wore a ByChari gold necklace that spelled “vote,” Jamaican-born designer Chari Cuthbert said her company did more sales in the four days after the convention than in her company’s eight-year history.

“Having her wear the necklace would have been enough for me,” Cuthbert said. “But the reaction was overwhelming in the best way possible.”

Along with an avalanche of orders, though, also came criticism from customers who felt isolated.

“We got messages like, ‘my ByChari piece just got less pretty’ and ‘I was a big fan until of the brand until now,’” she said.

Nina McLemore, a designer whose workwear is worn by Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, former Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, has received similar feedback. Some customers reached out to shop after seeing Clinton and Warren wearing McLemore’s clothes. Others had negative reactions to Warren wearing the designer’s blazers at the presidential debates last year.

“Elizabeth Warren is a fighter; she’s going to bruise people,” McLemore said. “At [trunk shows ], people will walk up to me and say they won’t buy from the collection anymore. Some other people won’t say anything at all, and just won’t shop.”

Irene Neuwirth, an accessories designer whose jewellery was worn at the Democratic National Convention by both Kamala Harris and American comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has also been hit with negative comments from Trump-supporting shoppers on its Instagram account. “Supporting one party, have you given any thought to the number of customers you leave behind?” one wrote. (Neuwirth declined to comment.)

Sali Christeson, the founder of direct-to-consumer suit brand Argent, worn by Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said the brand has benefited by affiliating with powerful women, even if they are polarising. In 2017, Clinton wore an Argent basketweave blazer for a portrait in The Economist, and the jacket sold out.

“With Hillary and Kamala, we’ve even gotten feedback from our community that ‘I don’t love her but I love that you dress these powerful women,’” she said.

Taking a Stance on Dressing

Designers are divided on whether they should align themselves with the political figures who wear their pieces. ByChari’s Cuthbert said she was proud Obama wore her necklace but noted that she does not want to alienate shoppers.

I don’t think I should be putting my political views on anyone else; that can be very isolating to customers.

“We’re non-partisan, and that’s important to me,” Cuthbert said. “I don’t think I should be putting my political views on anyone else; that can be very isolating to customers. I prefer to address topics than either party.”

Cuthbert added that if Melania Trump’s team would reach out for a piece of jewellery, she would be just as enthusiastic because “I would not want to take a stand against any customer, and every woman has a right to jewellery, no matter who they are.”

McLemore agreed.

“We aren’t supporting these women because of their politics, we’re supporting them because they are in the public service,” she said. “Most women in politics are well-intended and they believe in good governance. We might disagree on what that governance is, but I still believe they are leaders trying to do good. My interest is in furthering women, not picking one party over the other.”

Not everyone is as diplomatic. Christeson said Republican politicians have approached Argent about discounts or borrowing suits and that it “declines the opportunity.”

“I feel very strongly about being protective over your brand and your community, so if I recognise that there is someone working against our mission, I am not okay to put clothes on that person or be associated with them,” she said.

If I recognise that there is someone working against our mission, I am not okay to put clothes on that person or be associated with them.

Jonathan Cohen, a New York-based fashion designer whose Spring/Summer 2020 collection was inspired by Mexican design and a comment on Trump’s immigration and border policies, said he too would decline associations with the Trump administration.

“At the end of the day, we do run a business, so it’s scary when you lose clients, but I wouldn’t want to censor myself because I was afraid of what it would do to my career,” he said. “It’s important to stick to our beliefs, especially in these times.”

Rothman, the DC-based stylist, believes designers who actively dress politicians should take a bi-partisan approach.

“In this day and age, your clothing on an up-and-coming political leader or on a First Lady can do a lot for your brand, and saying you’re only going to dress one side of the aisle marginalises you,” Rothman said. “My clients are looking for clothes that help them appear authentic and confident on a world stage, and if you as a brand can align with that, you’ll be a success.”

I wouldn’t want to censor myself because I was afraid of what it would do to my career.

Christeson, on the other hand, believes voicing political opinions is good for brand-building.

“We’re absolutely willing to be political and bat causes that are ‘controversial’ because from day one, the brand is an extension of us and we have intimate knowledge of who we are and what we are willing to be vocal about,” she said. “That breeds loyalty and shows authenticity. The people we are alienating probably aren’t a good fit for the brand.”

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