What would the clothes look like?
That’s not the most pressing question raised by the libel lawsuit that Melania Trump filed last week against the website of The Daily Mail. The suit, however, did inadvertently reveal maybe-possible plans to “launch a broad-based commercial line in multiple product categories,” conceived to leverage Ms. Trump’s position as “one of the most photographed women in the world” and make millions. That led to both an uproar and a tantalizing moment of speculation about what shape a Melania Trump-branded fashion line might take.
While some people expressed shock! horror! over the possible monetization of a first lady, Mrs. Trump’s office later clarified the issue, stating that the filing had been misinterpreted and that “the first lady has no intention of using her position for profit and will not do so. It is not a possibility.”
Still, you can understand why it seemed so believable: The move would be entirely in line with Trump family values and the belief that the individual is a brand — a belief to which they devoutly adhere, and which they have never really repudiated.
It was at the core of the Nordstrom brouhaha last week when the store was caught between those who want to boycott it because it said it was dropping the Ivanka Trump brand in response to low sales and those who want to boycott it for selling Mrs. Trump’s lines in the first place. It was the reason the president waded into the battle via Twitter. And it was behind the T. J. Maxx controversy over whether the store had instructed employees to remove signs promoting Ivanka Trump products.
In all cases, fashion became a proxy for the lightning rod that is the Trump name — and possibly its casualty.
So when Mrs. Trump got drawn into the cross-fire, it seemed only natural. The first lady has already, in fact, been involved in an assortment of Melania-branded ventures, and she remains listed as the chief executive of a domestic business corporation registered with the New York State Department of State and headquartered at 725 Fifth Avenue. Though her office said the company was no longer doing business, it was formerly the licensing vehicle for her QVC jewelry line, introduced in 2010 (originally mentioned in her White House bio but now deleted) and her skin care line, which made its debut in 2013, both of which are no longer in existence. While that corporation is on effective hiatus, it could easily be revived when Mrs. Trump is a private citizen again.
In that context, creating Melania “apparel, accessories, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care, skin care and fragrance,” as the libel lawsuit posited, does make a lot more sense as a potential post-White House business venture for this particular first lady than, say, publishing a memoir. Especially since she has been positioning herself as something of a tradition breaker by remaining in New York.
It’s quite plausible that her legal team, in writing the complaint, did not think of a fashion line as being that different from, say, “Millie’s Book,” Barbara Bush’s best-selling dog’s-eye tome about life in the White House, published in 1990 when George H. W. Bush was still in office (though the Bushes donated their substantial royalties to charity), or the many post-White House multimillion-dollar-advance memoirs published by first ladies from Nancy Reagan to Laura Bush. Mrs. Trump is not married to a man known for his reading, after all.
Besides, to assert that making money off a book is somehow less tainted than making money off a shirt is arguably an example of exactly the kind of elitism that helped get Mr. Trump elected in the first place. To a certain extent, former first families have always profited from their service to the nation, and they probably started thinking about that well before the end of the term.
If so, well, the whole electorate can play at that game. Think of it not as fantasy football but as fantasy brand extension.
A glance back through Mrs. Trump’s jewelry line — inspired by her three homes in New York, Palm Beach and Paris, according to an interview she did with Fox Business in 2010 — suggests that when it comes to product, the first lady is most comfortable using her own wardrobe as inspiration. You can understand this, if the assumption is that what she is selling is the chance to live like her, albeit at a lower price point. This is the same principle that seems to guide Ivanka Trump’s shoe and clothing lines, though not her high-end jewelry.
Though she wore a Marie Antoinette-worthy Dior gown to her wedding, the first lady has, since the campaign began, favored a look that is less informed by the décor of Versailles and President Trump’s penchant for splashing his name in large gold letters on everything than by a preference for the understated and sleek, albeit in bright colors.
Sheath dresses and belted raincoats, blouses, pencil skirts and capris seem to be her go-to items, by designers such as Michael Kors, Balmain, Ralph Lauren and Givenchy. Plus high-heeled pumps (always a pump), and some flats for the weekend. A possible Melania line might well function as a kind of memoir as told through clothes: Kennedy Center Honors gowns! Easter Egg Roll capris! State of the Union suiting! Air Force One aviators! Outreach outfits! And so on.
Though the fact that there is already a website that has sprung up devoted to chronicling the first lady’s and the first daughter’s fashion choices and finding less expensive versions — whitehousewardrobe.com — and that its Twitter account, @whitehousedress, has fewer than 300 followers so far, may not bode well for sales.
Which suggests another possible approach to the Melania Collection concept. Maybe Mrs. Trump could actually make a selling point of her status as the most silent, least embedded member of the first family. Instead of hewing to the traditional first lady narrative with a traditional post-first lady line of clothing, she could use one of the many alt-narratives taking hold around her image. You know, the ones that cast her as a quietly subversive, cutting-edge rebel. Imagine a collection of pussy-bow blouses. Or made-in-Russia leather jackets. Or I (heart) Nordstrom tees.
Would people be outraged then, or would they line up to buy?