Presidential style: Fashion gets political in run-up to election


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Sometimes clothes can make more than a fashion statement.

For Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, their running mates and families, fashion has become a potential source for help, humor and humiliation in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.

As in 2008, the fashion community has largely rallied behind President Obama. Once again, a group of designers teamed up to create a line of pro-Obama apparel and accessories to show their support.

"The Obama campaign has been very astute and clever in leveraging the power of the fashion industry in the run-up to the election," said Sally Lohan, U.S-West Coast content director for WGSN, a trend analysis and research company. In 2008, the collection raised more than $1 million dollars, she said.

This election season, Chanel Iman, Diane von Furstenberg, Vera Wang, Marc Jacobs, Beyonce and Tina Knowles, Tory Burch, Alexander Wang and Rachel Roy are among the designers who contributed limited-edition pieces to the Runway to Win collection, available at store.barackobama.com.

These celebrity lines are on trend, Ms. Lohan said, because they tap into the tendency for high-end designers to create special limited lines, or capsule collections, for mass retailers such as H&M or Macy's.

Mr. Romney's official website also includes a section for shopping apparel and accessories, but there are no designers listed. A few from the fashion world have backed the presidential hopeful with donations. Joseph Abboud, whose suits have been worn by both candidates, has been named as a financial contributor to the former Massachusetts governor's White House bid, joining the likes of other celebrity supporters such as Meat Loaf, Kid Rock and "Clueless" actress Stacey Dash.

In addition to clothes and money, many fashion industry elite have invested ample time in getting the word out about their favored candidate. For months, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour has been jet-setting the globe organizing and attending fundraisers for Mr. Obama. One of the most hyped was a dinner in June at actress Sarah Jessica Parker's home in New York City's West Village. The $40,000-per-plate affair welcomed celebs including Meryl Streep, Michael Kors and Aretha Franklin. Politicking also popped up at New York Fashion Week in September, such as when designer Nanette Lepore adorned each guest's seat at her spring 2013 runway show with an Obama-Biden button.

Fashion isn't always friendly to politicians. Both candidates have received critiques for their clothing choices. Tommy Hilfiger told CNN's Piers Morgan in a recent interview that Mr. Obama should stick with suits rather than something more casual.

"He needs to be in a suit, and he's really professional and proper in a suit," Mr. Hilfiger said. "He's being photographed all the time so he should have his game on."

Mr. Romney has been criticized for appearing too stilted at times, which has led to the creation of blogs ruminating about what he could wear to look more relatable. A humor and culture blog at Current.com featured wardrobe suggestions from New York Fashion Week attendees, as well as images of Mr. Romney's head Photoshopped onto the bodies of models in over-the-top outfits, from a Speedo to orange-and-black striped tights, dress and stilettos.

When Mr. Romney does opt for a button-down shirt with rolled sleeves instead of a suit, it's likely not a haphazard decision, Ms. Lohan said.

"I think he's doing that to send out a message to say he's one of the people, that he is like them. They have been slightly criticized for their wealth and being out of touch. This is a good idea for him to do to signify that he's in touch."

Each politician's wife also has found her style sense in the spotlight.

"Michelle Obama wears things really well, and she's become a fashion icon," Ms. Lohan said. "When she wears something, it gives the designer quite a boost."

Her taste tends to resonate with many women because they can relate to her style. She has worn publicly the same outfit more than once, like most women who can't afford to wear something new every day, and excels at pairing high- and low-cost pieces, Ms. Lohan said.

Former Massachusetts first lady Ann Romney has garnered a mix of cheers and jeers for her selections. She's been praised for her Oscar de la Renta choices, Ms. Lohan said, "but I think she was criticized a little bit because it was expensive."

For some people, what a candidate wears speaks volumes about him or her.

"What they wear is a reflection of what they stand for," said Adriana Herrera, founder and CEO of Fashioning Change, an online marketplace that steers shoppers toward style choices that protect the Earth, their health and the rights of the laborers who produce clothes and accessories.

FashioningChange.com has launched a Said vs. Threads initiative, which compares the candidates' stances on issues such as domestic manufacturing, job growth and human rights to the corporate responsibilities of the brands of the clothing they wear.

"When our candidates are wearing a particular brand, they're connected to all the decisions that went into that supply chain," Ms. Herrera said.

In one instance, a photo of Mr. Obama in a gray Nike shirt and khaki shorts is juxtaposed with a quote about his thoughts on protecting the environment.

"We are not acting as good stewards of God's Earth when our bottom line puts the size of our profits before the future of our planet," he said.

Fashioning Change argues, however, that sporting selections from Nike, which has a history of using sweatshops for production and dumping toxic chemicals, does not align with the president's environmental views. The group then makes suggestions from its catalog of 22,000 shopping options that meet its standards for style, fit and a commitment to the Earth, human rights and health.

Searching for outfits from brands that are green or protect American jobs can require extra time and research, given how widespread cheap fashions cranked out overseas have become, but the presidential candidates and their camps should be willing to put in the effort, Ms. Herrera said.

"They are standing to be our leaders. They have just a huge resource accessible to them to really show that they are worthy of our votes and worthy of our trust," she said. "So looking at them in that light, I absolutely believe both parties should be breathing, living, wearing the platform that they stand for if they truly want to lead our nation."

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Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com. First Published November 6, 2012 5:00 AM


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