On Bastille Day, July 14, French citizens watching the giant parade on Paris’s Champs-Elysées will surely marvel at the taut precision of marching cadets, the rumble of the passing tanks and the daring flying formations overhead. But the $64,000 question—and feel free to add a few more zeros in terms of publicity value—is what first lady and former supermodel Carla Bruni-Sarkozy might wear to accompany her husband, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is often decked out in Prada or Dior Homme.
Political figures seem to be the latest frontier for designers, particularly in style-obsessed France. After all, it’s from there that Dior issued no fewer than five press releases detailing the outfits Bruni-Sarkozy wore during an official visit to London, and where Louis Vuitton tapped former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as a poster boy for its monogrammed leather goods, and where justice minister Rachida Dati looks red-carpet ready whether she’s visiting a prison or posing for paparazzi on her way to a state dinner.
The trend is likely to spread to other nations at a time when more women are gaining political power and a celebrity-obsessed public is scrutinizing the style of world leaders almost as closely as that of Hollywood stars. Whether this is a good idea is a subject that’s already generating lively debate, even as designers begin jockeying for credits.
“When powerful women start using glamour and style, things usually end in tears. Marie Antoinette—hello!” warns Simon Doonan, the outspoken creative director of Barneys New York. “If they start shilling for fashion houses, then I will go live in Patagonia. [Political figures] should strive to be unremarkable and uninteresting in their style choices.”
Try telling that to the media, which makes much ado about political style—good or bad—from the chic outfits and signature hair braid of Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to the swimsuit German Chancellor Angela Merkel chose for a recent summer vacation. (The cheeky British tabloid The Sun published a photo of her wearing it with the outrageous headline i’m big in the bumdestag.)
But Karl Lagerfeld, for one, isn’t surprised that fashion houses are in hot pursuit of high-profile figures from the political realm. “They have to wear something, and when they look good, people ask what they are wearing. It’s normal,” he says. “That is the way the world, our world, is today. We live in a visual world. You don’t have to be out of fashion to be taken seriously.” Smart politicos, he says, should not be “fashion victims, but women from today, chic and modern.”
Designers would prefer not to address the fact that certain political figures and first ladies are more gifted in the natural-assets department than others, Bruni-Sarkozy being at the would-look-good-in-a-gunnysack pinnacle. But everyone can benefit from good tailoring, says Lagerfeld, calling the proportions of the pants worn by Hillary Clinton and Merkel “terrible” and adding, “Someone should fit them—seriously.”