Regardless of her personal style, the first lady of the United States is almost always on the fashion industry’s radar.
For designers, dressing the commander in chief’s wife is an opportunity to associate their brand with “American royalty” and to make it visible to millions — if not billions — of people worldwide.
Still, being FLOTUS is inherently a controversial role: Her husband represents one end of the political spectrum and always has a sizable crowd of opponents who support other political groups and perspectives.
But the election of the unconventional and provocative presidential candidate Donald Trump has brought an arguably unprecedented wave of backlash from the fashion community toward a president’s wife.
Depending on what you believe, fashion designer Sophie Theallet either shed light on the conflict or created it altogether when via Twitter she shared an open letter to fashion designers, following Donald Trump’s victory in November, asking them to join her in refusing to dress or associate with the incoming first lady.
“The rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia unleashed by [Melania’s] husband’s presidential campaign are incompatible with the shared values we live by,” Theallet wrote.
Since then, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Phillip Lim and Derek Lam, among other designers, have also spoken out to say that they have no interest in dressing the soon-to-be first lady. Meanwhile, Diane von Furstenberg, Carolina Herrera, Tommy Hilfiger and Thom Browne say they would happily outfit Melania Trump. Others — including Tanya Taylor, Cynthia Rowley and Vera Wang — have remained on the fence.
So what do designers and fashion brands really have to win or lose if they dress Melania Trump?
According to Los Angeles-based retail industry analyst Jeff Van Sinderen, the risk in dressing her boils down to the political divide.
“For those who are not fans of the new political regime, they may associate a given designer brand with that and avoid it altogether,” Van Sinderen explained. “Association is a powerful thing, and designers need to remain cognizant of that.”
(If it’s any indication: President-elect Donald Trump and soon to-be first daughter Ivanka Trump have already experienced some of the consequences of Trump’s campaign rhetoric on their own eponymous labels. Both fashion brands have been the subjects of a call for a boycott last year.)
At the same time, those who have a positive association with Melania and the Trump Administration may be more inclined to buy a given brand if they like what they see, Van Sinderen added.
But perhaps this has always been the case when it comes to dressing FLOTUS. The real question is whether or not Melania Trump is a particularly controversial future FLOTUS and, therefore, carries a greater risk for brands than those who came before her.
Maria Pesin, CEO of New York-based fashion business consulting firm Vibe Consulting, doesn’t think so.
“We’re not talking about [imprisoned mass murderer] Charles Mansion here: We’re talking about a woman who speaks five languages, who conducts herself very nicely and is a good mother,” Pesin said.
And since celebrities “drive fashion, and the first lady is celebrity,” Pesin doesn’t believe brands and designers have anything to lose if they dress her.
“Branding is important — so if you’re dressing the first lady and she is totally the antithesis of your brand, then that’s not so great,” Pesin said. “You need to make sure that the person that you’re dressing reflects the brand.”
Otherwise, Pesin’s advice to designers — particularly up-and-comers — is to “go for it.”
“[As a brand or designer], I think it can only get you more exposure,” Pesin said.
But is all exposure good exposure? And in the case of Melania Trump — for brands and designers — is “having nothing to lose” the same as having something to gain?
First lady Michelle Obama, for example, has been credited with reinvigorating and even creating momentum for several commercial fashion brands — most notably J.Crew, which saw its sparkly cream silk cardigan sell out within hours of Mrs. Obama being spotted in it.
And similar gains have been afforded to Lilly Pulitzer, courtesy of Jacqueline Kennedy.
Only time will tell whether Melania Trump is capable of bringing that level of positive attention and acclaim to a brand. Other factors — whether a brand is new or established, its overall image and identity, whether it has a history of making political statements — will certainly play a part.