Bold platforms for France’s new agenda

Image of Vanessa Friedman

I am now going to write something I have never written before; something, in fact, I never would have thought it possible I would write. But here goes: OMG – the shoes!

The shoes worn by Valerie Trierweiler, partner of the new French president François Hollande. To be specific, Trierweiler’s towering Yves Saint Laurent platform shoes; her black suede peep-toe Palais pumps, and her brown leather strappy Tributes, the latter being every fashion editor’s favourite pair of shoes thanks to their ability to give you both extreme height and relative comfort, but not anywhere near the type of shoe normally favoured by a First – what?

What to call the female half of the unmarried new first couple of France has caused, apparently, all kinds of confusion among various news organs, but for the sake of this column let’s call her the First Partner. (Indeed, this works for all First Ladies – as well as Joachim Sauer, aka Angela Merkel’s husband – being gender-and-tradition neutral; I nominate it as the term to use for this role going forwards.)

First Partners, after all, tend to wear sensible shoes: pumps, not too high, not too eye-catching. Michelle Obama, for example, favours kitten heels from Jimmy Choo’s 24/7 line. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy famously wore flats so she didn’t tower too much over her husband. As far as I can tell, there has never been a First Partner who wore shoes like the shoes the new French First Partner wears.

And why does this matter? You ask. Are you not making a mountain out of a Manolo?

No. It matters because Trierweiler is not just any old First partner; she is the First Partner of the first Socialist to inhabit the Elysée since Mitterand in 1995. It matters because her partner was elected partly as the anti-Sarkozy, someone whose “un-trendiness” and “un-fashioniness” was supposed to usher in a new era of ... well, not austerity, but focus on content as opposed to decoration. It matters because she has positioned herself, in the few interviews she has given, as someone who “buys her clothes from stores like any normal person”; who doesn’t “wear dresses by grandes couturieres”; and who likes ... wait for it ... nice contemporary brands like “Georges Rech and Apostrophe”. And it matters because compared with the clothes she has worn so far – the black and beige wrap dresses, the suits and silk blouses – the shoes stick out a mile.

They’re racy. They’re sexy. They’re expensive (between $750-$1,095 a pair). They are not at all safe. They’re the sort of footwear that prompts columns in the Daily Mail, such as its piece that identifies her as the prototypical “man-stealing French woman”.

Yet there they are, just daring us (OK, people like me who spend large chunks of their day thinking about this) to draw some kind of conclusion. And it’s not going to be: “Oh, she just didn’t realise what she was doing.” I mean: Trierweiler is a political journalist. If anyone understands the semiology of clothing and how it is used as an image-making tool by public figures, she does.

So back to the shoes, and what they signify. I would guess primarily two things. First: in their refusal to (pun intended) toe the traditional First Partner line, they do underline Ms Trierweiler’s assertion that she is going to be her own person. Second: that despite her protests about fashion and past tendencies, she may well be laying the groundwork for the introduction of more high-fashion brands as part of her official persona and role as a representative of France and one of its largest, most successful industries. After all, Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Lacroix have already mentioned their desire to dress her.

Indeed, this could usher in a new stage in First Partner dressing, one that takes the high/low strategy of Michelle Obama to a different level. After all, the contemporary market in France is one of the most interesting and fastest growing segments of the industry, with brands that have broken out such as Vanessa Bruno, Isabel Marant and the Kooples being increasingly feted internationally. Trierweiler could use her stated fondness for Rech et al as a springboard to embrace other such contemporary brands, giving them all a moment on the world stage while combining them with some iconic French names to help reframe the industry in modern terms and grow a new sector of the national economy.

And you thought they were just shoes. C’mon now. In politics, an accessory is never just an accessory. It’s the instrument of an agenda.

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