DiplomacyXDesign: The Intersection of Fashion & Politics

“Fashion can bridge the gap between seemingly great divides in the way no meeting can,” said Ambassador Peter A. Selfridge, Chief of Protocol at the United States, last week at DiplomacyXDesign, an event highlighting the role of fashion in diplomacy hosted by the U.S. Department of State and ELLE Magazine in Washington, D.C. Those of us working in trade already know this statement is true, but the event was enlightening for the several hundred diplomats and Washington insiders who attended the panel discussion followed by a reception at Blair House, the President’s Guest House. We were on the scene, along with our Board Member, American Eagle Outfitters, who sponsored the event, to discuss the cultural and economic power of fashion as a platform for global engagement.

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The U.S. Department of State’s Office of Protocol partnered with ELLE Magazine as well as designers, brands, retailers, and Washington industry insiders (including USFIA!) on the event, hosted at the exclusive Blair House, where presidents and royals stay when visiting the POTUS. Although the Office of Protocol has hosted public diplomacy programs focused on music, the arts, food, and sports, this was the first focused on fashion. According to the Office of Protocol, “fashion and apparel touches people in every corner of the world. Fashion is symbolic, transcends languages, and communicates across cultures." And, as Ambassador Selfridge said, it can truly be a tool in diplomacy—just think about the trade shows that bright together Egypt and Israel to showcase their apparel manufacturing businesses.

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American Eagle Outfitters sponsored the event. On the right, USFIA Board Member Helga Ying snaps a photo with a colleague at The Hay-Adams.

The event began at The Hay-Adams, overlooking the White House, where ELLE’s Editor-in-Chief Robbie Myers led a panel discussion with fashion designer Derek Lam, Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Steven Kolb, and The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan. They covered a wide variety of topics—Is American fashion too uptight? Will China or India ever emerge as a global fashion capital?—but the focus turned to how fashion can play a role in connecting people. “People are starting to see fashion not just as a niche industry, but as a global industry we’re all connected to,” explained Givhan.

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L to R: Robbie Myers of ELLE, Derek Lam, Robin Givhan of The Washington Post, Steven Kolb of the Council of Fashion Designers of America

And does what you wear matter in, say, the serious world of politics? The speakers said yes. While Derek Lam, the fashion designer who started his career at Tod’s and now has his own globally successful line, said Hillary Clinton seems to have found a style that works for her, Givhan remarked that a female commander-in-chief could finally give fashion the attention it deserves, saying she wishes a president would attend a fashion show the way they fill out their March Madness brackets. Nonetheless, for men—and for many women—“the suit is the language of diplomacy, much like English and French are the languages of the United Nations,” she concluded.

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American Eagle Outfitters' display at Blair House

Following the panel, attendees joined policymakers impacting the fashion industry, embassy social secretaries, socialites, and local media and bloggers to toast to fashion. In addition to showcasing traditional fashions from around the world, American Eagle Outfitters showed off their new Rock the Vote tees, while Brooks Brothers displayed coats and accessories worn by several U.S. Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln.

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The USFIA team and friends at Blair House. L to R: USFIA Washington Counsel David Spooner of Barnes & Thornburg LLP, Christina Anderson, Samantha Sault, Julie Hughes, and Josh Teitelbaum of Akin Gump

For more from the event, check out #DiplomacyXDesign on social media.

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