photo courtesy the U.S. State Department
A lot of us get car-buying advice from salespeople at the dealership, even though it goes without saying that there is often a conflict of interest at play: The more we pay for a vehicle and its financing, the more money salespeople typically make.
Still, we don’t boycott car dealers or accuse salespeople of some sort of malfeasance. They are not doing anything wrong. Nowadays we can arm ourselves with plenty of independent information to determine what sort of terms are reasonable, and at the end of the day it is up to us to represent our own interests. There are some transactions in which, for one party to get more, the other must get less.
Another conflict of interest might arise if, say, a journeyman plumber who works for a leading local firm independently takes weekend plumbing jobs on the side. If some of that work would have gone to the plumber’s employer, she has a conflict of interest in taking on that work – and if she violates her employer’s policies or keeps her side gigs secret, she is definitely doing something shady.
We hear a lot about alleged conflicts of interest inside the Trump White House. (I am not using that term in the branding sense that applies to so many other Trump properties, unless there is some new signage at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue I don’t know about.) I will leave discussion of President Donald Trump, his many widely known business interests and his undisclosed tax returns for another day, because today’s topic is White House fashion.
The president’s main contribution to American style consists of “Make America Great Again” ball caps, not known for their role in couture. Ivanka Trump is another matter, however. The president’s daughter makes no money as an official adviser to the commander in chief – her position on the White House staff is unsalaried – but she is the proprietor of a well-known fashion brand. She is often photographed wearing her own designs; as a high-profile public figure, she is often photographed, period. The publicity value to her line of clothing and accessories is probably incalculable, but certainly substantial.
Is this a conflict of interest?
The Wall Street Journal seems to think so. In a recent news article (not an opinion column), the Journal profiled Trump’s fashion activities and characterized her representation of her brand as “an example of the conflicts that arise when government employees have both public and private professional interests.”
Really? The Journal article fails to identify the party with whose interest Trump’s fashion brand is in conflict. If Ivanka Trump stimulates sales of her clothing line by wearing herself what she offers to others, how does that hurt me? Or you? Or her customers? Or the United States government, its treasury, or its foreign or domestic interests?
Certainly no one is confused about Trump’s connection to her brand. Even though the company no longer uses her image in their advertising, the company still bears her name. As Wendy Liebmann, chief executive of consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail, told the Journal, “If you don’t like her, you’re not going to buy her clothes, whether she wears them or not.”
Of course, if you happen to own a competing fashion brand, you might feel Trump has an unfair advantage due to her high profile. My advice to you would be to get your own father to successfully run for president. Or find another way to publicize your line. An age-old formula, in fact, is to get the first lady to wear some of your merchandise. The Trumps offer a twofer: Melania Trump, the actual first lady, who has no official White House role, as well as her stepdaughter Ivanka.
“First lady” is not an official position, and it does not come with a stipend or clothing allowance. Yet, at the same time, a modern first lady is expected to dress well at an array of events, many of which are black-tie. Michelle Obama’s fashion choices grabbed the attention of the fashion world as well as that of everyday Americans, drawing comparisons to Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan. Obama purchased most of her outfits, though some were donated to the government and remain in the National Archives.
Designers know the publicity value of having the first lady sport their work in the national spotlight. As such, even when they did not donate their work, many offered discounts – a practice that originated long before the Obama family moved into the White House. Hillary Clinton’s 1993 inaugural gown likely listed for around $50,000, but the chances that Clinton paid that much for it are zero. That gown is now part of the Smithsonian’s collection.
It is not only top-level politicians and their spouses who enjoy such discounts, of course. A-list celebrities often rate discounts from designers hoping to use the celebrity’s fame to increase their brand’s exposure. Some brands even make outright gifts of gowns and accessories if they perceive that exposure as sufficiently valuable. For a member of the president’s family, however, such gifts might run afoul of ethics rules; thus the prevalence of discounts.
For practically as long as Americans have expected their first ladies to represent them well on the international stage, they have also asked questions about how much money doing so involves. Mary Todd Lincoln reportedly racked up tens of thousands of dollars in clothing bills during her husband’s time in the White House; Jacqueline Kennedy’s father-in-law financed her wardrobe in an effort to insulate JFK from political blowback over its cost. The Trump ladies can certainly afford to pay full price for whatever they wear. I doubt they are bashful about spending the money. No matter who foots the bill, though, the designers favored by any first lady – or, in this case, first daughter – generally benefit.
Does it really make a difference if the publicity value of a prominent White House occupant wearing expensive rags accrues to someone outside the first family? Clinton, Obama and others got the benefit of a wardrobe they otherwise either couldn’t afford or would have found unseemly to purchase while their spouses sought the votes of ordinary working men and women.
I don’t feel injured by Michelle Obama’s or Hillary Clinton’s fashion choices, any more than I do about Ivanka Trump’s. The reality is that it makes no difference in my life what any of these women wear. Unless you are one of very few exceptions, it makes no real difference in your life either.
Of course Ivanka Trump wears her own fashions. In my line of work it’s called “eating your own cooking.” Nobody can represent her style better than the creator herself. And in the process, she – and all the other well-dressed men and women who preceded her in the Executive Mansion – represents us pretty well, too.
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