Barack Obama and Sarah Palin inspire international fashion designers

Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 29/10/2008

Designers are turning to the US election for inspiration, says Celia Walden

A Barack Obama dress by Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and a preppy dress reading 'Obama' by Sonia Rykiel seen at Paris Fashion Week
A Barack Obama dress by Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and
a preppy homage dress by Sonia Rykiel seen at Paris Fashion Week

Forty years after Che Guevara's death, the fashion world has finally found a replacement. Obama - a new political cause coupled with the physique of a catwalk model - described in The New York Review of Books in Messiah-like terms: "[he has] arisen out of a plain of scorched earth, a longed-for rebirth."

The fashion world has always hoovered up religious imagery - and if Obama wins next Tuesday, the catwalk shows in February will be littered with his image.

The political T-shirt (pace Che) is nothing new, but as Obama bags, ties, trainers and babygros multiply, the big guns have joined in.

  • In pictures: US election outfits
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  • At Paris Fashion Week this month, French designer Sonia Rykiel paid homage to the Democratic candidate with a series of preppy outfits, as did Jean Charles de Castelbajac, an old friend of Andy Warhol's.

    The centre-piece of his runway show was a sequinned dress emblazoned with Obama's aquiline features. "I made it because for me, Barack Obama is the most charismatic leader in politics today," he tells me.

    "He is incarnate of hope, changes and youth. The ovation the dress received amazed me - as did the amount of insulting letters I have received from the United States. But I'm pleased to see that fashion has become such a powerful medium."


    Politics has used fashion to convey a message for centuries, but our age of transparency means that an outfit is imbued with more significance than ever.

    The morning after a rally or debate, newspapers will dissect a politician's outfit just as they do a celebrity's at the Oscars - only rather than examine cuts and hemlines they will be looking for anything that might turn a dress or suit into a story.

    If your clothes are too expensive, you're out of touch; if they're not home-grown, you're disloyal; and woe betide anyone whose favoured designer runs into ethical issues of the animal-related variety.

    For example, Cindy McCain dealt a blow to the Republican Party by appearing at the convention in £140,000 diamond earrings and a £1,500 gown by designer Oscar de la Renta, while the revelation that Sarah Palin's new wardrobe cost £92,000, including suits by Christian Dior (French) and Valentino (Italian), was seen as seriously off-message in a time of financial insecurity.

    Men are not immune either: when word got out that JFK's Savile Row suits had cost more than the average working man's monthly salary, Kennedy was forced to switch to cheaper, made-to-measure tailoring.

    Obama's insistence that all his suits were purchased at the national retail institution Barney's, and made by a variety of unidentified US designers, was a smart move.

    But hang on a second, the purists will argue, is this election about image or conviction?

    Perhaps the two are no longer distinguishable. Like Obama's rhetoric, his look is deceptively simple.

    But those slim-cut suits, tapered ties and rolled-up shirtsleeves are all about walking a stylistic tightrope, in a way a white politician does not have to. Politically, Obama has to reassure potential conservative voters - hence the suits.

    But it's important for him not to come across as the excessively fogeyish, Bill Cosby-like black man, and so he uses subtle details to attract a younger, more stylish constituency.

    The well-cut, single-breasted suits, and that dimple in the knot of the tie, had Halle Berry in raptures: "I like his suit," she cooed. "I'd vote for his suit."

    Obama had no viable style threat until Sarah Palin came along in her pencil skirts and patent heels described as "pretty, polished... and, most importantly, electable".

    Where Obama appears lofty, even in casual wear, she seemed everyday and accessible. It was up to her to promote the Republican image, and let McCain get on with spreading the detailed message.

    Celia Walden in a Barack Obama dress by Jean-Charles de Castelbajac
    Celia Walden wears the Jean Charles de Castelbajac dress emblazoned with Obama's features

    And she has done this well: her custom-made Kawasaki glasses (£170 for the frame alone) have sold out across middle America, while working mums are still demanding "the Palin" at hair salons.

    But much of her success lay in her attainability. So, after that well-publicised spree in Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, the political cost of her new wardrobe turned out to be far greater than the published figure.

    "Fashion has always been political since the days when sumptuary laws prohibited people of lower rank from wearing certain fabrics," says Caroline Evans, professor of fashion history at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.

    "But there are new, unwritten laws as to what kind of clothes political figures choose to wear. Like it or not, in a media age they will be judged by their appearance as much as by their convictions."

    But politicians need to play the game carefully, insists Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys. "Image is vital, but people need to feel gravitas from their politicians - and you don't feel gravitas from a politician who's wearing Dolce & Gabbana."

    • For more information on Jean Charles de Castelbajac visit www.jc-de-castelbajac.com; 0207 287 6406.

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