x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Michelle Obama makes waves in Fashion politics

Michelle Obama's choice of a gown by a British design house caused outrage among the US fashion elite. We look at the politics of fashion and the modern brand ambassador.

Michelle Obama, Hu Jintao and Barack Obama.
Michelle Obama, Hu Jintao and Barack Obama.

Michelle Obama's choice of a gown by a British design house caused outrage among the US fashion elite. Julia Robson looks at the politics of fashion and the modern brand ambassador

When Michelle Obama wore a certain red evening gown by the British brand Alexander McQueen to a state dinner for the president of China, Hu Jintao, in Washington in January, sparks flew.

Mobama's fashion crime was not that she wore a racy, off-the-shoulder frock in a colour meaning good luck in Chinese. Simply that her dress wasn't American - it had been designed by the British designer Sarah Burton, who is now at the helm of the quintessentially British brand, McQueen.

The headlines of the US fashion industry's newspaper, WWD, shrieked Brit Pick! Here, the story appeared to end.

Several days later Oscar de la Renta, the elder statesman of US fashion became the first to question Flotus's (the First Lady of the United States) choice of "lovely" gown.

"My understanding," de la Renta told WWD, "is that the visit was to promote American-Chinese trade - American products in China and Chinese products in America. Why do you wear European clothes?"

By the time Diane Von Furstenberg, the president of the CFDA (the Council of Fashion Designers of America) had waded in, the fashion blogosphere had already coined a name for the fashion scandal: McQueengate.

"CFDA believes in promoting American fashion. Our First Lady Michelle Obama has been wonderful at promoting our designers, so we were surprised and a little disappointed not to be represented for this major state dinner," said Von Furstenberg.

The fact that the "First Lady of Fashion" was stripped of her title by the very pack of wolves that had given it to her in the first place (the CFDA), drove home the very real politics of fashion.

Meanwhile the council, previously an industry-only body no one gave two hoots about, has emerged as a national hero, tackling the real business of America (business, obviously.)

"I tweeted and put on my Facebook page I thought Mrs Obama looked great when I first saw THAT dress," the British designer, Bruce Oldfield told me.

"I didn't know it was a McQueen who I think would be highly amused by all the fuss. I guessed however there would be a problem."

Bruce Oldfield, who has dressed generations of royalty and female dignitaries, understands the politics of dressing. He dressed the late, Princess of Wales during a period when she only wore British designers and was considered a clothing ambassador for her country.

Following her divorce from Prince Charles and the stripping of her HRH title she began to wear foreign designers which many (particularly within fashion) saw as the ultimate betrayal.

"I would say in general it's a good thing for the figurehead of a country to support the industry of that country but I don't think it should be written in stone," says Bruce Oldfield.

"Oscar de la Renta and Diane Furstenberg's words appear to have more to do with business than patriotism," says Oldfield who has also worked in the American capital and is familiar with its codes and practices.

"Ten years ago fashion was a different place," explains Christian Blanken, a designer who shows his collection during London Week but who previously staged a show for 6 seasons in New York.

"When I used to show in New York there were still Guerrilla type shows. It was haphazard. Guests just turned up. Now schedules are 'official' and vetting committees in fashion councils have a lot of power."

The New York collections, which kicked off last week, are organised by the CFDA, which officially only began in 1993 with 35 shows and has now doubled in size. In 2009 they effectively ploughed $773 million into the coffers of New York City where over 800 fashion companies have their headquarters, more than double the number of Paris, its next closest competitor.

If New York is about business, Milan is about full-on glamour. The Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, founded in 1958, is the second oldest of the four fashion capitals besides Paris.

Unlike Britain, Italy has held on to its manufacturing heritage, so far. Having established clothing empires like Gucci Group, Armani, Prada and MaxMara on home turf helps.

Covering the ready to wear shows for fifteen years, I was witness to the heyday of the mighty Milan megashows from Versace's supermodel fests to Tom Ford's Gucci catwalks. Shows were spectacular. Parties decadent. Getting to them and back was impossible thanks to the Italian taxi system. Shows ran late, organisation was shambolic, glamour was omnipresent. One evening I danced with Britney Spears at Donatella Versace's palazzo following a show where A-list celebrities outnumbered guests.

In contrast, Paris is a serious affair. The Fédération française de la couture, du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode, also known as the Chambre Syndicale De La Couture, can be unfriendly to strangers. Created in 1973 from an older trade union dating back to 1868, founded to protect craft and copyright, the French understand fashion because it's ingrained in the national identity.

French giants like Richemont, PPR and LVMH, have injected old establishment brands with new blood and resisted the temptation to only cherry pick from home grown French talent.

"I wouldn't even know how you might try getting onto the French schedule? Money? Power, being Julia Restoin Roitfeld?" says Christian Blanken.

A crucial role of the fashion council is to organise the schedule during fashion week.

The last time the four major fashion councils got together was in 2008 for "crisis talks". London was in danger of being squeezed out because New York and Milan wanted to add a day to their fashion weeks to accommodate more designers.

Happily, Harold Tillman, the dapper owner of British bastion brands, Jaeger and Aquascutum, and chairman of the British Fashion Council (the BFC) stepped in and using British diplomacy salvaged London Fashion Week, the showcase of an industry valued at £21 billion.

No doubt he used the trump card unique to London; its seemingly endless stream of creative graduates from British art schools that supply the entire industry.

"Promoting British designers globally is the key role of the BFC," Harold Tillman tells The National, "along with showcasing the best of British design talent twice a year at London Fashion Week (LFW). We also set up initiatives to support emerging designers including giving them the opportunity to showcase their work abroad to key buyers who might not be at London."

"Such activities not only support and strengthen the UK's reputation for developing design excellence but assists in the growth and economic impact of the designer fashion industry to UK PLC, enhancing its international, cultural and creative reputation."

"New York, Milan and Paris have more rules than London but London is the capital to watch," believes Blanken. "It's very cool. Tom Ford is rumoured to be showing in London last minute. Its very hush hush."

Aha! Now we are getting somewhere…was it the fact Mrs Obama was wearing a British designer that hit a raw nerve?

"Michelle Obama wears a broad range of designers from many countries but has been incredibly supportive of US designers," said Harold Tillman, ever the diplomat, who raises the point that many designers showing on London's catwalks weren't born in the UK but have studied and built businesses there (on the morning of the day Mrs Obama wore the McQueen gown she had chosen a suit by Roksanda Ilincic, a Serbian-born, London based designer). "Fashion is a truly international industry," reaffirms Tillman.

"I am sensing a backlash to globalisation," says Bruce Oldfield. "The idea that you can buy the same Jimmy Choo style in Beverly Hills as on the Via della Spiga, has harmed the luxury market. My clients like the fact I am London-based. They don't want to find my clothes in a boutique in Washington."

On the touchy subject of Britain's newsiest fashion ambassador, Kate Middleton, both Tillman and Oldfield, a designer tipped to be creating the wedding dress of the future British Queen, both agree.

"I believe it is important that a British designer is selected," says the BFC Chairman (well he would wouldn't he?).

"There is no question Kate Middleton will choose a British designer, anything else would be inappropriate," says Oldfield (and he would too).

Perhaps the bigger question to ask is will Mrs Obama wear an all American outfit to the wedding?