Prabal Gurung, who is participating in Runway to Win but who has not donated to the campaign, said the president’s backing of same-sex marriage has deepened his support for him.
“I was already sold on him, but his recent support for gay marriage took courage,” the designer said.
But there’s no doubt that being worn by the first lady gives designers — and their companies — a boost.
David Yermack, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, examined Michelle Obama’s 189 public appearances between November 2008 and December 2009 and found that the appearances coincided with spikes in the stock prices of the companies whose clothes she wore. Yermack’s analysis says a single appearance by the first lady can generate $14 million in value for a company.
At a fundraiser held months before the 2008 election, designer Tracy Reese met the would-be first lady. “She gave me a big hug and said, ‘I’d love to be wearing your things,’ ” Reese recalled. Reese donated to the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012. After Michelle Obama wore Reese’s raspberry-colored lace dress on the cover of People in April 2009, interest in her line soared.
“I definitely saw a sales spike, particularly in the styles she’s photographed in,” Reese said. “I think everybody loves the idea of being able to wear something she’s wearing.”
While the Obama campaign has embraced designers, Vogue and its editor have helped to organize them. In 2008, Vogue staff members Luisana Mendoza and Sylvana Ward Durrett developed the idea for a designer campaign store, and the Runway to Win model — called Runway to Change four years ago — was born. The duo came up with a roster of designers after working with campaign officials. “And Anna, of course,” Mendoza said. “Just to be clear, this is not a Vogue initiative. It’s an Anna Wintour project.”
With Wintour’s guidance, they recruited designers and chose the 25 participants — a mix of established designers and newcomers. The store launched in September 2008 and raised more than a million dollars in the few months before the election. (The campaign launched the 2012 store in February, giving supporters an opportunity to buy earlier.)
Ward Durrett, who is now Vogue’s director of special events, said the goal was to galvanize the growing ranks of fashion-savvy young voters: “At the time, young people were responding to the world of fashion. Designers are becoming celebrities now.”
The 2008 campaign marked Wintour’s first public foray into presidential politics. According to the Obama campaign, she is a top bundler, raising more than $500,000 for the Obama Victory Fund. (Wintour’s spokeswoman was unaware of the exact figure, and Wintour declined to comment for this article.) In 2010, she hosted an intimate affair to benefit the DNC at her New York townhouse, where designers including Marchesa’s Chapman and Diane von Furstenberg paid up to $30,400 to attend. In addition, she has attended high-profile White House events, including two state dinners, and she serves on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
Last Friday, the Obama campaign released a video of the Vogue editor wearing a $95 Thakoon Runway to Win silk scarf. “I’m so lucky in my work that I’m able to meet some of the most incredible women in the world: women like Sarah Jessica Parker and Michelle Obama,” she says, before inviting viewers to enter a raffle for a chance to attend dinner with the first couple at Parker’s home.
The Republican National Committee responded quickly, issuing a video criticizing the Obama campaign for releasing the “glitzy fundraising video” on the same day the unemployment rate went up. The exchange signaled that the president’s close ties with the fashion industry could become a liability.
Whether or not Wintour’s power has affected designer turnout, it’s clear the fashion industry’s political clout is growing.
“The fact is that Obama now does fundraisers themed around fashion,” Collins said. “You’ve got to wonder why no one bothered doing it in the past.”
Staff writer T.W. Farnam and researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.