Fashion Designers Hope to Stitch Up an Obama Win

A T-shirt designed by Tracy Reese appropriates the Obama logo. Reese expects it to be priced at $80.
A T-shirt designed by Tracy Reese appropriates the Obama logo. Reese expects it to be priced at $80. (Courtesy Of Tracy Reese)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008

It used to be that political campaigns would be satisfied if they managed to settle on an eye-catching font for their T-shirts and trucker caps. The merchandise wasn't so much designed as it was stamped out like a pile of red, white and blue bunting. Political paraphernalia was mostly about the message -- not the aesthetics.

Now it is enthusiastically and abundantly about style. The Barack Obama campaign, which has been actively courting the fashion industry, has coordinated some 20 or so designers who are creating official merchandise for the candidate's Web site. It is the first time, as far as Seventh Avenue long-timers can recall, that a quorum of the fashion industry has organized its financial resources and creative energy around a single presidential candidate.

The mix, available online next month, ranges from T-shirts to tote bags and will lend a bit of runway panache to the Obama brand. The list of participating designers, which includes Derek Lam, Isaac Mizrahi, Tracy Reese, Charles Nolan and Diane von Furstenberg, covers the full spectrum of the market, from high-end to inexpensive. Other names have been bandied about but not confirmed: Beyoncé, Russell Simmons, Michael Bastian, Vera Wang.

Few entrepreneurs are as adept at brand building and buzz creation as fashion designers. Theirs, after all, is the industry that transformed velour sweat suits into the status symbol known as Juicy Couture. Denim manufacturers convinced shoppers that there was nothing wrong with regularly paying $200 or more for a pair of artfully distressed jeans. And accessories designers prompted otherwise rational women to invest thousands of dollars in "it" handbags that contained neither that much leather nor that much labor.

All of the smoke-and-mirror marketing, prescient creativity and business acumen have the New York fashion industry generating $47 billion in sales annually. Imagine how much gloss fashion folks could apply to the Obama brand.

The junior senator from Illinois already is the candidate Ebony magazine declared "cool," the one who has rock stars, actors and Obama Girl swooning. Designing for his campaign is a long way from getting a red-carpet credit, but there's no small amount of warmth in his reflected glow.

The benefit to the candidate is a direct line to the "Project Runway" crowd. The risk, of course, is being perceived as highbrow or shallow. Obama's opponents have derisively dismissed him as an elitist and a celebrity. And it was the fashion industry that spawned the celebri-monster known as Paris Hilton. Having Seventh Avenue on his roster of supporters would not seem conducive to a Dockers-man image.

"We have supporters from all walks of life, from people who live in Indiana all the way to the West Coast and the East Coast," says Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "They show their support in a lot of different ways."

Fashion's seal of approval may not define Obama as average, but it could be invaluable. Designers know that fashion is ultimately about communication, and with the right hemline or well-placed seam, they can influence public perceptions about the Obama brand and develop an army of walking billboards.

The designer wrangling began at the end of July, after the idea was sparked by grass-roots supporters, according to the campaign. Designers had less than a week to commit to the project, present a sketch to the campaign for approval and then deliver a sample. They donated their time. The campaign is organizing the made-in-America manufacturing and contracting with suppliers.

Designers were free to use the candidate's image and his red-white-and-blue rising sun logo. And while they received no strict parameters on pricing, Reese's original idea of an Obama dress that would have retailed for about $400 was shot down. A one-shouldered silk georgette frock, it presented something of a production challenge, she said. Her company is known for its feminine day dresses "and I thought it would be nice for Michelle" Obama, Reese said.

One of her signature day dresses normally sells for about $500 in stores such as Bergdorf Goodman; in her less-expensive Plenty line, which is sold at Anthropologie, a dress costs about half that.

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