The news that senior White House adviser (and first daughter) Ivanka Trump will shut down her eponymous clothing line was a minor development this week. On the tragedy scale, it’s squarely in microscopic violin territory, and it’s even a positive development for people who have boycotted her products as a protest of the Trump administration’s policies. But it is still surprising.
People are going to lose jobs — though not the president or Ivanka Trump, of course — and that’s never cause for celebration. Maybe they can sign up for the job-retraining programs that Ivanka Trump announced last week her father’s administration would set up. But there is something remarkable about a business that fails even when the founder has managed to leverage herself into a powerful position in the White House and proceeded to shamelessly exploit it for business purposes, likely in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, with no repercussions whatsoever.
In Trump’s case, she has even managed to induce Hatch Act violations from White House staffers so eager to enable her profiteering that they promote her products on cable news shows, as Kellyanne Conway did on national television last year. The executive office has presented numerous new opportunities for Trump to meet with potential new business partners, get trademarks approved in other countries and pursue new potential avenues of financing.
So how did Trump lose a game that was so heavily rigged in her favor?
The simplest and most obvious explanation for any business failure would be that the product is bad, that the business failed because the clothes are terrible, and no one wants to buy them. But what does terrible mean in that context? Is the quality low? Is the aesthetic unappealing? Is the brand ill-defined?
On all those counts, it depends on your standards. Much has been made about the fact that Trump’s clothes are manufactured overseas, with cheap labor and often cheap materials. But so are a lot of popular fast-casual brands.
The aesthetic has been partially pilfered from other designers. (Trump was sued by the Italian fashion brand Aquazzurra over allegations that she copied its iconic “Wild Thing” sandal that sold for nearly six times as much as Ivanka’s $65 version. The case was settled out of court in November.) It’s a hodgepodge of business-casual looks in colors that might be prefaced with “basic” as a primary descriptor and the kind of swingy floral garden dresses that could alternately be described as “fun and flirty” or “comfortable,” depending on the perceived insecurities of the target customer.
Inasmuch as the style has any coherence, the reviews are all over the place. I posted a photo of an archetypal Trump dress on Twitter asking for a description — a short-sleeved, mid-calf skirt with a large red floral print that would be, in Ivanka-speak, “suitable for day or night,” though maybe trending more toward book club than nightclub. Replies ranged from “country club casual” to “sofa.” Even the Ivanka Trump site, which is presumably written by people invested in particularly appealing descriptions of the products, seems confused. Nearly every item is described as “flattering,” which seems to imply that the primary appeal of the clothes is to mask the perceived physical flaws of the woman wearing them.
It is possible that secular developments in the retail market are more responsible for the demise of Ivanka Trump the brand than is Ivanka Trump herself or any of the potential problems with her products. Marshal Cohen, a retail expert and chief industry adviser for NPD Group, told me that retail in the apparel sector has been lagging behind overall growth in the market. The trend toward fast-casual fashion means that designs turn over at a brutal pace, and it’s hard to compete, especially in high-volume department stores, which are themselves struggling as brick-and-mortar traffic competes with direct and online sales.
Trump herself insists that the only reason the company is folding is that she won’t be returning to it, as she’s too dedicated to her (unpaid) job in her father’s administration. This is a bizarre explanation. People who want to disengage from companies that are working well tend to hire someone else to run them — something Trump in theory already did, if you buy the notion that she divested herself from the business — or they sell them to another company for yet more profit. They don’t, as a matter of course, build a well-functioning institution and suddenly decide to murder it in cold blood, putting their ostensibly successful employees out of jobs and forfeiting future earnings on a whim.
But you might fold the company instead of putting it on the block if the value of the assets were undermined by the amount of debt it had accumulated, if it became a political liability, or if its business activities were likely to be subjected to unwanted legal scrutiny in the course of, say, a federal investigation. Because it’s a private company, and because Ivanka Trump has been just as opaque as her father about her own business dealings, we have no way of knowing.
The kindest (if unlikely) explanation might be that it was all a vanity project and Trump was just bored with it. She wouldn’t be the first socialite to use family money to launch an eponymous fashion line, or the first one to decide that her time would be better spent elsewhere when it turned out to be harder than she thought. It wouldn’t even be the first time a Trump affixed the family name to a product he or she had no demonstrable ability to sell (see also: vodka, steaks, airlines), and when it didn’t work, quietly peeled the sticker off in the hope that no one was looking. In every case, whatever status was associated with the Trump name simply couldn’t compensate for bad products.
To be fair, it’s very difficult to build a sustainable business entirely out of status — even if you’re the Edmund Hillary of social climbing. It’s doubly so if that status is fragile because your father has chosen to use his position as the leader of the free world to diminish the status of the entire country internationally and the office of the president domestically. And when people start to notice that you may be enabling this erosion, there’s a good possibility that they don’t want to enable your financial success. A few months ago, I watched a woman pick up an Ivanka Trump shoe from an unlabeled clearance display at Bloomingdale’s and put it back down in disgust upon examination. I don’t think it was the price that turned her off.
Add to that a tough retail market, potential tariffs on Chinese-manufactured goods (thanks, Dad) and absentee management. In the face of all those obstacles, even with the endless opportunities for grifting off the privileges and free media the White House affords, it still might not work. We’ll see if her new vanity project — the Trump administration — turns out differently.