Where to begin in the dumbfounding tale of Paul Manafort and his fashion habit? The gluttony. The indulgence. The preening bad taste.
The pathetic pretentiousness of it all.
His is the story of a man’s inexorable slide into a nauseating spectacle of insatiable consumption — a parable, or perhaps, a farce that included salivating merchants flying across the country to cater to his appetites. There are so many enticing, beguiling entry points in this story of unbridled decadence: the use of wire transfers from foreign bank accounts to pay his clothing bills, the capacity to spend more than $929,000 on suits in a five-year period, a perplexing fixation on plaid sport jackets. But ultimately, the one thing that most folks will remember from the first week of Manafort’s trial on bank and tax fraud charges is his $15,000 ostrich-leather bomber jacket.
The jacket is an atrocity — both literal and symbolic. It’s a garment thick with hubris and intent. For the prosecution, it was not an opening statement; it was an opening salvo.
As a matter of aesthetics, it’s worth stipulating that most clothes would not look particularly enticing dangling from a wooden hanger hooked over the back of an open door. And the government’s photographer is not exactly Richard Avedon. But hanger appeal is not the problem. The jacket, with its white topstitching and white satin lining, lacks finesse, artistry and sophistication. It’s simply a celebration of ostrich leather, which is to say that it is a celebration of money and excess. Ostrich, after all, is an expensive, exotic skin. Manafort also owned python, which he had stitched into an equally unimpressive but expensive jacket.
When the ostrich skin jacket was introduced as evidence, Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye described it only as “ostrich,” which called to mind some fluffy extravagance covered in colorful plumage and underscored the point of bringing up the jacket at all: Manafort isn’t just a spendthrift. He’s a peacock. A showoff. The devil who wears ostrich.
The presiding judge, T.S. Ellis III, is playing the Everyman in this trial, declaring his ignorance of one of Manafort’s beloved labels, House of Bijan, known for its 1980s advertising about being the most expensive store in the world, while speaking knowledgeably about Men’s Wearhouse with its constant sales. Ellis isn’t keen on the prosecution turning the trial into a public disquisition on luxury brands and fabric content. “It wouldn’t matter if he spent the money on Men’s Wearhouse clothes,” Ellis said. “All the evidence of the fancy suits really is irrelevant and besmirches the defendant.”
“Most of us don’t have designer suits,” Ellis continued. Referencing them “engenders some resentment.”
This is true. High-end fashion stirs up a kind of anger that $2 million worth of home TV and Internet setups do not. (And yes, this was part of Manafort’s spending spree.) The high-priced suits make Manafort look especially bad. But that doesn’t make them irrelevant. The reason people get outraged about a $15,000 ostrich jacket is part of the reason someone buys a jacket like that at all. It’s not an expression of rarefied craft; it’s a declaration of one’s ability to afford something that most people cannot. It’s about elevating oneself.
Manafort knew the statement he was making when he went out of his way to purchase — and purchase and purchase — some of the most expensive suits and jackets on the planet.
A man should not be prosecuted for his fashion choices; but those choices say a lot about whom the man believes himself to be. Manafort wasn’t interested in bespoke fashion as a public statement of his style acumen. He wasn’t buying designer brands as proof of tribal membership. He wasn’t hunting down elusive products as testament to his cultural cachet. For him, fashion is akin to a stack of Monopoly money. It’s about accumulation — about not just having the most stuff but the most expensive stuff.
Of course the prosecution wants to wade into the flashy details of Manafort’s clothing habit. It makes a psychological difference to observers that the garments he was spending his money on were high-end. Someone who spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on a truckload of suits from Men’s Wearhouse would probably be considered a troubled hoarder. There’s a certain sympathy in the story of some out-of-control shopper who goes into debt stocking his garage with cases of Hanes Underwear and Wrangler jeans from the local Costco. Perhaps, they are yearning for something fundamental in their lives. Someone stockpiling custom-made suits? A jackass who already has everything they could possibly want.
Prosecutors argued that the luxurious nature of Manafort’s purchases was important because it offered the jury insight into it their case. That Manafort “had an expensive lifestyle that required lots of money to maintain is important proof as to why he would commit the bank frauds,” prosecutors wrote. Manafort had grown accustomed to Bijan, ostrich and python and when his income declined “he resorted to bank fraud as a means to maintain his lifestyle.”
Perhaps. But prosecutors missed a more significant argument. The fashion industry has long recognized and exploited the fact that its customers are not just buying accoutrements to a lifestyle. They are buying the building blocks to a public identity.
And when those blocks elevate a man to the tippy-top of the pyramid, he might do just about anything to prevent a perilous fall.