Fashion Designers Hope to Stitch Up an Obama Win

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.

The campaign approved Reese's backup option of an applique T-shirt, which she estimated would be priced at about $80.

This represents the first time Reese has had such an active role in a presidential campaign.

"The opportunity just popped up out of the blue," Reese says. "I'm passionate about this candidate. And I knew I needed to be participating and not just watching and hoping for the best."

Von Furstenberg was an adamant Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter during the primary. But she shifted her allegiance after the senator from New York lost and after she read Obama's autobiography, "Dreams From My Father." Von Furstenberg, who established her brand in 1972 on the popularity of the wrap dress among workingwomen, created a tote bag adorned with Obama's words. Mizrahi, who has designed for both Bergdorf Goodman and Target and now is the creative director of Liz Claiborne, went with a tote bag, too.

And Lam created a cotton muslin bag silk-screened with a carnation print from his first successful collection, spring 2004, which he reworked in red, white and blue. It's inscribed "A fresh start: Obama '09," and he asked that it be stitched from organic cotton. Lam launched his brand in 2003 and in 2005 created the inaugural ensemble for First Twin Barbara Bush. Typically, his dresses sell for upward of $1,000.

"I knew immediately what I wanted to do. That print had such meaning for me. It brought me luck," Lam says. "It's definitely not a Hamptons tote. It's something you could walk through a green market carrying. Anyone can carry it."

Nolan remained uncommitted throughout the primary season because his partner, Andrew Tobias, is treasurer for the Democratic National Committee. "We had to stay neutral. People were so passionate," Nolan says. "But I'm a huge fan of his. His background is just what we need." Nolan contributed a wrap T-shirt.

His Chelsea studio will be the setting for "Runway to Change," a cocktail schmooze-fest for the Obama Victory Fund on Sept. 9, a day that lands in the thick of New York's Fashion Week. The designers have been asked to wear -- or in the case of bags, carry -- their Obama paraphernalia to the event.

In the past, designers have separately thrown their support behind particular candidates. During the 2004 race, Nolan left his job at Anne Klein to campaign for Democrat Howard Dean, and von Furstenberg opened her downtown studio to a fundraiser for Gen. Wesley Clark. Oscar de la Renta has been bipartisan, donating to George W. Bush in 2004 and, most recently, to Clinton. Earlier this year, Marc Jacobs sold T-shirts from his main Bleecker Street store in support of Clinton.

Evidence of their developing love affair with Obama can be traced to June, once Seventh Avenue's own senator was out of the running. The industry rallied around Michelle Obama when Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, designer Calvin Klein and Vogue Editor at Large Andre Leon Talley hosted a $1,000-a-person cocktail reception and a $10,000-a-plate dinner in honor of the potential first lady. The event reportedly brought in close to $1 million.

"I spent an evening -- not just me alone -- with Michelle Obama and became aware of what they were all about," Lam says. "They're incredibly inspiring."

If there are adamant supporters of John McCain within the design community -- Cindy McCain visited de la Renta's showroom over the summer but was just browsing -- they have been hush-hush in their enthusiasm.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company