Fashion critic Robin Givhan and Wharton's Denise Dahlhoff discuss why the fashion industry is avoiding the Trumps

A designer’s fortunes could take-off after outfitting the First Family for an incoming President’s inaugural event — like Jason Wu’s soared after he designed for Michelle Obama. But for the first time, top fashion designers are shunning the money and exposure, and have refused to make outfits for Melania and Ivanka Trump for the January 20 inauguration. They have followed the lead set by Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli and actress and singer Jennifer Holliday, both of whom the Trumps approached to participate in events, but who backed out after a backlash on social media. However, some leading designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Thom Browne have said they are willing to dress the Trumps. Many top fashion designers are in fact small businesses, and historically, outfitting the First Family has given them “a profound place at the table, in the conversation about fashion,” says Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan. Many will eagerly wait to see what Melania and Ivanka Trump will wear for the inaugural event on Friday.

Fashion retailers, meanwhile, are closely watching the developments as they weigh customer sentiments about carrying apparel designed by Ivanka Trump or Donald Trump’s line of ties, says Denise Dahlhoff, research director at Wharton’s Baker Retailing Center. Dahlhoff and Givhan discussed the pressures fashion designers face in such scenarios on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge at Wharton: Tell us about the back-and-forth that you hear from people in the fashion industry about whether or not they should design outfits for the First Lady and Ivanka Trump for the inauguration.

Robin Givhan: In some ways it pertains a little bit more to Melania Trump in the sense that traditionally the gown that she wears to the inaugural balls ends up at the National Museum of American History. So there is this resonance to that dress because of that connection. But for a lot of fashion designers, it is a debate for them because they are trying to decide whether or not working with her on a gown is tacit approval of the administration, or whether or not it’s simply an acknowledgement of the role of First Lady and the history of the occasion. At least one designer, Sophie Theallet, wrote an open letter saying that she would not dress the First Lady and did not want to associate herself with her and took it as a moral stance.

Knowledge at Wharton: For many designers, it can be very well a way to get on the proverbial map, correct?

Givhan: Absolutely. In the past, or I should say before Mrs. Obama, the dress tended to be created in the recent past by the incoming First Lady’s hometown dressmaker, and also Oscar de la Renta was a big favorite. But with Mrs. Obama you started to have introduced lesser-known designers, or designers who were at the very beginning of their careers, for the inaugural gown and then other state dinner dresses and so on. It really put them on the map; it put them into the public consciousness.

As one of them said to me, it certainly gave them an uptick in sales for specific looks. But more importantly, it gave them a profound place at the table, in the conversation about fashion, about diversity in fashion, and about what it means to be a small business owner. It gave them a place at the table long before they would have been able to claim one.

“[Designing outfits for the inauguration gave designers] a place at the table long before they would have been able to claim one.” –Robin Givhan

Knowledge at Wharton: We haven’t seen this type of a back-and-forth between designers. We’re seeing it between people and musicians. This is really a first for designers, is it not, Robin?

Givhan: It really is as far as I can remember. Typically it doesn’t matter whether or not the incoming administration is Democratic or Republican, and designers simply said, “Sure, we’re happy to dress the First Lady.” As a case in point, Oscar de la Renta did inaugural gowns for both Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. This is really particular to this administration and to the campaign and the policies that are associated with Donald Trump.

Knowledge at Wharton: For the most part, individual designers are not necessarily linked to major retail companies. But I would think the retail companies are watching this as well.

Denise Dahlhoff: Most definitely they are watching this. We have seen the debates about Ivanka’s Trump line being in certain stores. Some customers are even asking for a boycott of Ivanka Trump’s line. [But as] Robin said, it’s more about the First Lady right now, although Ivanka is, of course, a very close associate and may be involved in the administration.

But what remains to be seen is how this all is going to play out. Of course many designers have voiced their opinion now, either for or against, or some have kept an in-between stance.

Knowledge at Wharton: But it doesn’t seem like we would see the same type of backlash [in the fashion industry] as from somebody like an Andrea Bocelli, correct?

Givhan: It’s a different situation. For the designers it is more a matter of their own personal beliefs, although certainly if they decided to do something special they could receive a backlash from their customers. What really is the distinction here is that the designers are not selling directly to a customer. They’re selling to a retailer. Anyone can go into a retail store and buy whether or not it’s Calvin Klein or Derek Lam or whoever that designer might be. So they’re not refusing service, per se. They’re continuing to sell their garments to retailers.

For this particular occasion it would be a one-off [outfit]. It would be a one-of-a-kind piece, something that is not part of their day-to-day work. So essentially what they’re saying is, “We don’t want to go out of our way to create something special.” But Mrs. Trump is certainly free to walk into any store and buy whatever it is she wants to wear.

Dahlhoff: Even then a designer might have an opinion. Like many have said, “I wouldn’t mind if she walked into my store and bought something,” but they might still have an opinion whether they want to associate their brand with that specific person. In fact I think it was Tom Ford who was offered an opportunity to dress Melania Trump years ago and he refused because he thought that she doesn’t fit the image of his brand. They might still be open to it, but maybe their customer base wouldn’t like it and so they might take a stance then.

Givhan: Or [they might] simply refrain from offering up an Instagram or a tweet saying enthusiastically that she’s wearing something that they created that she bought at Saks Fifth Avenue or Nordstrom, or something like that.

“Brands are now standing for more than just the products. People expect brands to have a stance. They’re involved in the discussion about culture and society.” –Denise Dahlhoff

Knowledge at Wharton: Isn’t it a norm that the dress that the First Lady wears on that night or other clothing that she may wear tends to end up being replicated? Maybe not in the exact replica, but very close to it and it is marketed by retailers in other locations?

Givhan: That tends to happen more so with the gowns that celebrities wear to the Oscars. Very famously retailers will knock off red carpet dresses and they’ll turn up in prom shops and things like that. With the inaugural gown there’s much less of knocking it off. It’s much more that the gown goes into a museum. The profile of the designer of that gown is raised exponentially because that dress typically appears on the front page of every newspaper. It appears on television. For one night it is the dress that everyone’s looking at.

Knowledge at Wharton: Have Melania and Ivanka Trump reached some agreement with a designer for their dresses for the inauguration?

Givhan: As far as I know they have not. The little bit of information that is trickling from Trump Land is that for Melania Trump it’s intended to be a surprise. In that way it would follow the rule of thumb with the Obama administration. No one really knew what Mrs. Obama was going to wear until she appeared.

In some ways this would not have become quite the issue it has for the fashion industry were we not coming out of an era in which the industry was so closely aligned with a First Lady who very enthusiastically supported a wide range of designers. And we all started to say, “Oh, I wonder what she’s wearing and what it means.” The interest in the inaugural wardrobe has also risen significantly because of that.

Knowledge at Wharton: So it’s taken that wardrobe almost to the level of the Oscars or some show like that?

Givhan: I would say close. With Mrs. Bush and Hillary Clinton there was interest in the dress, but there wasn’t this kind of feeling that it was deeply meaningful.

Knowledge at Wharton: The other interesting piece is Ivanka Trump has her own line of clothing and shoes. Donald Trump has his own line of ties. The question many people would ask of retailers is what they would do with those clothing lines, especially in the case of Donald Trump, considering that he is now the president of the United States and he would receive some compensation from the sale of his ties.

Dahlhoff: It’s a difficult question that every retailer has to answer for themselves. Macy’s early on pulled the Donald Trump lines from their stores after he made the first derogatory comment about Mexican immigrants. I guess every retailer has to see how their customers might feel about it, and what they hear from them.

But Ivanka Trump enjoys some popularity with some women. I don’t know whether her customers would start boycotting her. It depends how it all plays out and how much she will be aligned with the Trump administration. We have to see what the policies are to begin with.

Givhan: There is that on-line movement, GrabYourWallet, which has a running list of retailers that support both Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump and which calls to boycott those retailers. So for a significant portion of the population, those things are of deep concern and they probably will pull back. But there’s also probably an equal number of people who are even that much more enthusiastic about a retailer because they perhaps carry the Ivanka Trump line. I think she remains still in this gray area because she hasn’t taken on a formal role with the administration. People are still trying to get a sense of what she will really mean going forward.

Dahlhoff: One of the retailers on that list, Nordstrom, was called on to delist the Ivanka Trump line. But Nordstrom said, “You know, we have customers that actually like the brand so we’ll keep it.” So I guess every retailer has to see how it checks out for them.

Knowledge at Wharton: I guess this isn’t anything new in terms of the relationship between retailers and their customers. If a celebrity has a line of clothing or whatever the item may be, and that person gets into some sort of trouble, then the retailer does make that call of saying, “We need to pull this stuff for a while to let the heat die down,” correct?

Dahlhoff: Yes, that’s exactly right. You see it with all the endorsements from sponsored athletes that have done doping, and [each] brand has to decide whether it wants to continue that relationship.  Typically all these endorsements are carefully done. Every brand tries to find the right spokesperson for them that represents their values.

Knowledge at Wharton: What was the business impact, Robin, for the designer that worked with Mrs. Obama on her dress?

Givhan: The first inaugural gown was created by Jason Wu, who at that time was still in his early twenties and his business was maybe a year or year-and-a-half old. To say that he went from zero to 100 miles an hour would be an understatement. He was known within the fashion industry, but suddenly, he became a household name. He very wisely had some smart business backing and so was able to take advantage of that attention. He was able to grow his business in a way that made sense. And he didn’t over-expand. He has really been able to reap the benefits of that kind of exposure.

But there have also been cases where designers have been thrust into that kind of spotlight and they just haven’t had the structure surrounding them in order to make the best of it. They have found themselves really floundering, just overwhelmed by the publicity, by this desire to get the merchandise out there and not having the finances to produce it.

Knowledge at Wharton: You said in your writing that Melania may not necessarily need to be the focus of this. But then again, she is married to Donald Trump and getting ready to be the First Lady of the United States. So whether or not she deserves to be in this, she’s in it.

Givhan: She is. It may be that the day after inauguration she makes a beeline back to New York and we don’t see her again for months. But at least on this particular day, tradition holds that she is the one who is standing alongside him holding the Bible, or at least standing there as he’s being sworn in. She’s the one who will accompany him to the inaugural ball and there will be that first dance. So she will be in the spotlight….

What happens after that we don’t know. The indication seems to be that she very well may retreat from it. So this conversation may, in fact, come to an end or it may shift fully to Ivanka.

Dahlhoff: What’s interesting about Melania Trump is that she’s from the fashion world. She used to be a model. From the pictures that we have seen, you can always tell she’s very well dressed, very sophisticated and elegant. From that perspective people might also just be curious about her personal preference for dressing herself.

Knowledge at Wharton:  Are you surprised, Denise, that there is this uproar in the industry over this? This is not something many people would normally consider a topic that would draw these opinions from both sides of the fashion aisle.

Dahlhoff: Brands are now standing for more than just the products. People expect brands to have a stance. They’re involved in the discussion about culture and society. You have seen the discussion about health care laws, like the [arts and crafts retail chain] Hobby Lobby case [over providing insurance coverage for emergency contraceptives], or [fast food chain] Chic-fil-A closing on Sundays, or gay rights or whatever the discussion is that companies get involved in.

In this case, fashion companies take a stance. With some populations — millennials in particular — we hear that they like companies to take a stance on things and to be good corporate citizens. Of course we don’t know what that means in the context of the Trump administration.

Knowledge at Wharton: Did Tommy Hilfiger take a stand in favor of outfitting the Trumps?

Givhan: Yes. Tommy Hilfiger said that he would be perfectly happy to dress any of the Trump women and that he thought it was essentially inappropriate for the industry to turn this into something political. But it’s a reflection of the fact that the vast majority of fashion houses are not billion-dollar companies. Most of them are, by definition, small businesses. For many designers, not only is it certainly a matter of how the brand is represented, but there’s also an element that is very personal because they are still very hands-on with their product.

Knowledge at Wharton: Have you heard of any issues with the people that would provide tuxedos for Donald Trump and his sons?

Givhan: No. That’s a really great point. There has been a bit of radio silence on that end. Certainly some of the brands that spoke up about not dressing Melania or dressing her also do menswear. Tommy Hilfiger does menswear, and Tom Ford has a menswear line. You could theoretically extrapolate how they would feel about [designing for] the men. But part of it is that men can slide under the radar in these circumstances because any one of them can pull a tuxedo from the back of their closet and that’s the end of the story.

“For a lot of fashion designers, it is a debate for them because they are trying to decide whether or not working with [Melania Trump] on a gown is tacit approval of the administration….”–Robin Givhan

Knowledge at Wharton: The designer of Mrs. Obama’s dress [for the last inauguration], I read in your article, talked about her fashion being a way of communicating her world vision. Maybe we don’t talk about it as much, but these designers, just like any other American citizen, have the right to express their feelings in this situation. That these comments are being made should not be a surprise to anybody.

Givhan: I don’t think it should be a surprise. People felt very strongly about the outcome of this election. I absolutely believe that they have the right to speak their mind. If they do so through their design work, then they should voice it in that manner. I don’t think though that anyone has the right to discriminate based on various reasons. It is important to recognize that none of these designers is saying that they don’t want to sell clothes to someone. They just don’t want to do a favor.

Dahlhoff: I read today that Ralph Lauren seems to be the designer of choice for both Melania and Donald Trump. Let’s see whether that’s going to be true.