Melania Trump's Style: Can We Expect a Boom in Business

As prominent public figures, first ladies throughout history have shaped the fashion world, using their unique position to popularize trends, bring publicity to up-and-coming designers and American brands, and even send messages through style choices. Recently, Melania Trump has drawn media attention for various fashion moments. In October 2016, she selected a style of shirt called a “pussy-bow blouse” just days after a recording of Donald Trump’s comments about groping women was released; in June 2018, she was photographed boarding a plane to visit immigrant children at detention centers in Texas while wearing a jacket with “I really don’t care. Do U?” written on the back; and most recently, she was seen with a pith helmet, a symbol of colonialism, while on a safari in Kenya earlier this October. The intentions behind these puzzling choices have been heavily debated: given the acute attention and widespread media coverage given to first ladies’ style, we must consider not only the social and political impacts of clothing, but also the effects on fashion brands and businesses themselves.

During her husband’s presidency, Michelle Obama quickly became known for wearing bold colors and styles, while modeling affordable brands and helping jumpstart the careers of emerging American designers such as Jason Wu and Christian Siriano. David Yermack, a professor at the NYU Stern School of Business, studied the effects of Michelle Obama’s outfits on the stock prices of fashion labels, finding that she brought disproportionate growth in sales and stock value to the brands she wore. Obama notably commented during a 2009 appearance on The Tonight Show: “This is a J. Crew ensemble. Ladies, we know J. Crew. You can get some good stuff online!” Yermack cites that by the end of the week, J. Crew stock prices had risen by twenty-five percent. Similarly, the brands and retailers that Michelle wore on a trip to Europe saw immediate increases in stock values relative to the S&P 500, and more generally, brands worn in public appearances saw increases in Google search volumes in the following five days. Across 189 public appearances studied, Michelle Obama was estimated to have generated an astounding total of 2.7 billion dollars of value for the companies whose clothing she wore.

Although Melania Trump has drawn praise for her sleek and sophisticated style and driven up sales in certain styles she has worn (the Gucci pussybow blouse she wore sold out online in a matter of days), it seems unlikely that she will maintain Michelle Obama’s level of market influence. Obama asserted her impact by making frequent appearances, wearing a diverse selection of brands to maintain an element of surprise, and outwardly supporting more accessible and downscale brands that appealed to a wider range of the population. On the other hand, Melania has stepped further from the spotlight in terms of public appearances, reducing her potential for influence, and she has shown a more consistent affinity for high end European fashion houses including Dolce and Gabbana, Dior, Givenchy, and Christian Louboutin. Melania’s choices seem to have more in common with Kate Middleton and Carla Bruni, also a former model and wife of the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Both women also favor traditional, high end styles from a limited set of brands, and their appearances, though similarly closely monitored by the public, have had much smaller effects on designers’ stock values. As a result, because of her lower frequency of appearances, almost exclusively designer wardrobe, and steady brand choices, Melania will likely not produce the same pronounced market effects as Michelle over her tenure.

Although Michelle Obama’s clothing was overall less expensive than that of Melania, it usually fell within a similar ballpark: she primarily wore designer and department store brands, interspersed with a small handful of affordable pieces from Target, JCPenny, or even Crocs. However, it was her unpredictability and care to announce and emphasize these moments that captured the nation’s attention, showing that the approach and attitude taken towards fashion can affect people’s perceptions more than the clothes themselves. When asked about her decision to wear the pith helmet, Melania commented that she hoped people would “focus on what I do, not what I wear,” highlighting the inherent sexism tied to the criticism given to first ladies’ wardrobes in comparison to their husbands, who do not face the same pressure to satisfy an entire nation with every outfit. Although hopefully in the future women will face less of this disproportionate scrutiny, for now, first ladies are in the unique position to use this media attention to influence markets and inspire people across the country by communicating their ideas and values, not only through words and actions, but also through visual identity.