April 26, 2013 6:13 pm

Public image versus private finance

‘I can’t begin to speculate on the cost of, say, Michelle Obama’s wardrobe’

The recent move by President François Hollande to make cabinet members disclose their holdings and net worth has created something of a ruckus in France, though it has also received enough positive attention that David Cameron is suggesting the UK does the same. We may get to know, as we do with some of Hollande’s crew, all about their houses, art, boats, cars, bicycles and jewellery. What we won’t know about, however, is their clothes.

And yet clothes, especially for those in public office, require real investment these days.

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Vanessa Friedman

Now, granted, this is most often the case with the partners of the people in question – Samantha Cameron, for example, or the wife of Hollande’s predecessor, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy – and they are not the policy-making individuals. However, in the same way that property can be a joint investment and requires disclosure, it seems to me that clothing, especially clothing effectively purchased and worn as part of one’s partner’s job (clothing that you wouldn’t have had to buy, and certainly not in the quantities demanded, if he or she had not had that job) also qualifies as a joint asset class.

Even taking into account the J Crew and Talbots pieces she wears, I can’t begin to speculate on the cost of, say, Michelle Obama’s wardrobe – or that of Bruni-Sarkozy, who favoured Dior and Hermès during her husband’s term in office. And I wonder about Samantha Cameron, who yes, loves the high street, but also Erdem, Burberry and Peter Pilotto. If $54,000 was spent in the first six months of 2012 on the Duchess of Cambridge’s wardrobe, the prime minister’s wife may well have shelled out half that. Which is still a lot – especially when you consider Michèle Delaunay, French minister for the elderly, who opted to reveal ownership of €15,000 in jewels plus €10,000 of watches.

Historically clothes are not considered “wealth” for a few reasons, some practical, some image-related. First, there’s the issue of depreciation over time. The more you wear something, the less value it theoretically has – unless it is worn by a famous person at an important event, at which point its value goes up. This is why, for example, the suit worn by Margaret Thatcher on the day she became Conservative leader was sold at auction in 2012 for £25,000 – even though it probably cost her less than £700 to buy. But how do you value this in advance?

Second, as a friend pointed out, regardless of the cost of a garment when new, for a public figure it is almost impossible to monetise latterly. I mean, they can’t exactly sell it on eBay; can you imagine the public reaction? Despite a thriving resale market for almost all name-brand clothing and accessories – now known as “vintage” as opposed to “used” – and despite the fact that auction houses such as Christie’s hold regular fashion sales just as they do Old Master sales, this is largely off-limits to the famous unless it is a sale for charity – see, for example, Princess Diana, Daphne Guinness, the estate of Elizabeth Taylor. In a charity situation, anything goes except recouping the money for yourself (though you do get the tax credit, at least in the US, so there’s some financial upside).

. . .

Beyond the actual difficulty of valuing a garment, however, is the question of a politician revealing just how much it costs to dress for their country. After all, on the one hand they are supposed to look good – they represent their people. And they are supposed to fly the flag for local businesses and brands. They are, effectively, advertisements for industry. And they are certainly critiqued (and not just by people like me, but in discussions across the internet) for how well they do or do not fulfil this implicit duty.

But said duty costs money – and they don’t get clothing allowances. Most constituencies would be shocked if they knew how much their leaders’ wardrobes cost, even though they could easily estimate it via Google. A brief foray online reveals, for example, that a long lace dress by designer Alessandra Rich, similar to the dress Samantha Cameron wore to last year’s British state dinner at the White House, costs $2,750; a long silk chiffon print gown from Alexander McQueen, a little like the one which Mrs Obama wore to the Chinese state dinner in 2011 is approximately $5,395 on Net-A-Porter; and the YSL shoes that Valérie Trierweiler, François Hollande’s partner, wore during her jaunt to the G8 last May are $1,030. I could go on, but you get the idea. The dresses, I might also point out, have yet to be worn again.

Most politicians would never want that discussed – even if they had negotiated a lesser wholesale price as “a gift to the people” or something. After all, that’s no good either; you’re damned if you do (get special treatment) and damned if you don’t (if you pay full whack). Hence the current solution: don’t ask, don’t tell.

Except there’s this little problem, particularly in Europe, with fashion currently being elevated to the level of art. The industry is arguing, successfully in many cases (the EU has formerly recognised luxury as a discrete sector), that it is part of the cultural heritage of a country, just like its churches and monuments and art. If that becomes the accepted view then its products have value over time, which suggests in turn they can be valued – and said value disclosed. After all, some French ministers included art in their recent big reveal. By their own logic, they should include clothing, too.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com.

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