ON THE RUNWAY
Ivanka Trump’s first official public appearance in her new position as a special adviser to her father, President Trump, was, as with many things related to the Trump administration, not without controversy. This time, at the W20 Summit in Berlin on Tuesday, the focus was on the boos she received while defending his attitude toward women.
But in some ways, what she wore to the panel discussion — and what her choices said about her role — were even more telling.
On the one hand, her trip wardrobe was notable for the way it supported a Buy America platform and acknowledged that her job is partly to ease negative perceptions of her father’s attitudes (and not just because the white dress she wore to the gala dinner on Tuesday practically screamed “new leaf”).
As you might expect from someone who built a fashion brand on social media and her own carefully shared story, Ms. Trump is as aware as anyone that a dress is never just a dress — especially when you know the world will be watching. And especially when every time you step outside, someone takes your photograph.
On the other hand, her clothing reflected the same conflicts that have bedeviled Mr. Trump’s government from the beginning.
Consider her appearance onstage for a panel discussion in a floral dress, suede high heels and simple jewelry. Before she had said a word, the choice telegraphed an unapologetic and unmistakable femininity (flowers!) in direct contrast with those of the other panelists: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, wore more traditional, armorial jackets, while Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, was in a power-red dress. Ms. Trump’s choice suggested that when it comes to female strength, disguise is no longer necessary — though she did cover it with a somber black coat when she visited the Holocaust Memorial.
So far, so interesting. Especially because the dress was by the American designer Michael Kors; it’s part of his spring collection that, when shown on the runway in September, was set to the tune “Get Happy,” sung live by Rufus Wainwright — in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton victory in the presidential campaign.
After the election in November, Mr. Kors was not among the designers who overtly announced that they would not be dressing the Trump administration, although he has maintained a discreet distance. Still, the first lady, Melania Trump, has worn his clothes on at least two occasions: arriving at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and his wife, and more controversially, during her husband’s joint address to Congress in February.
Mr. Kors is being strategically drawn in, whether he likes it or not. (People are free to buy what they want, no matter the politics of a designer, after all.)
Yet in Berlin, at an occasion meant to promote, at least in part, female entrepreneurship, the dress was a surprising choice. Granted, Mr. Kors is an American designer, but he is both established and — to state the obvious — male. It’s hard not to think that Ms. Trump missed an opportunity to practice what she preaches. (She did deplane in Germany wearing a skirt by Misha Nonoo, an up-and-coming name who ticks both the American and the female boxes, so Ms. Trump presumably was thinking about that on some level).
Further complicating the matter was the fact that when Ms. Trump was asked, “What is your role, and who are you representing, your father as president of the United States, the American people or your business?” she responded “Certainly not the latter.” Nevertheless, according to White House Wardrobe, a website that purports to be a “Nonpartisan fashion lover following the style of #MelaniaTrump and #IvankaTrump, and recreating White House looks for less!”, she appeared to be wearing shoes from the brand that bears her name, as well as jewelry from her now-defunct high jewelry collection.
Ms. Trump’s office declined to confirm whether the accessories were, indeed, from her former brands, but White House Wardrobe posted photos on Instagram of similar items from both lines so that viewers could “get the look,” a development that underscores the continued difficulty Ms. Trump might have in extricating herself from her brand.
Although she has resigned her position with the company, placing her holdings in a trust, and although the jewelry brand has been discontinued, the fact that both lines were conceived to reflect her taste and her wardrobe means that whether or not she is wearing one of the brands, or just something that resembles it, her appearance acts as a promotional opportunity — intentional or not. She has been careful to wear big American brands (Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Michael Kors) on major public occasions. But she was, and remains, the best model for the brand that bears her name, even without a formal relationship to the company. Given the label, it’s unavoidable.
During the event in Berlin, Ms. Trump acknowledged that her governmental role was still very new, and that she was learning how to be effective. And it is an unprecedented situation. So if there is confusion, perhaps it is understandable.
But optics matter. Ms. Trump understands that as well as anyone. The question is how she uses them.