Over 100 years ago, Coco Chanel transformed herself from peasant orphan into the founder of a fashion empire. She was the avatar of a new century — unmarried and independent, a woman who took lovers and took off her corset. Chanel’s alluring life became her most bankable commodity. Women clamored for Chanel products (or inexpensive imitations of them) not just for their sleek looks, but because those products seemed to grant entry into the designer’s enviable world. By turning her initials into a logo — those famous interlocking C’s — Chanel crystallized her marketable identity into a recognizable badge of prestige.
Chanel invented a business model that fashion companies still use, wherein success depends as much on a glamorous life narrative as on particular garments. Within this model, which I call “immersive dreamscapes,” customers buy not just products but also aspirational identities. By acquiring merchandise bearing logos or signatures, they label themselves with the desired identity.
Not coincidentally, Chanel’s movement peaked in influence between the two world wars, precisely as fascism became a pan-European force. Like luxury-logo fashion, fascism enticed followers with an alluring narrative about an exclusive world(the myth of the superior Aryans)and a logo(the swastika)betokening membership in that world. Chanel traveled in fascist circles and invented her double-C insignia in 1921, just one year after the Nazis adopted the swastika, which they treated like a fashion label, stamping it on jewelry, clothing, even lingerie, in addition to military uniforms.
To be clear, wearing Chanel does not make one a Nazi. But the joint rise of her brand and fascism came about because both tapped into and manipulated certain all-too-human, paradoxical yearnings, particularly resonant at the time: to belong to a select elite and to lose oneself in a crowd, to conform. Chanel was deeply in dialogue with her era’s politics; as is Ivanka Trump.
We can trace the descent of “dreamscape” businesses from Chanel, to Ralph Lauren (Bronx-born Ralph Lifshitz, peddling a dream world of polo-playing WASP privilege), through Tory Burch, directly to Ms. Trump, whose brand, which she announced this week was shutting down, employs both her full signature and an initial insignia, although her logo feels rather unmemorable. (Her “IT” motif bears a curious resemblance to back-to-back C’s.)
Ms. Trump’s attraction to aspirational branding makes sense — it’s the linchpin of her family fortune. Donald Trump’s empire was always more about branding than building. He based his entire career on an outer-borough fantasy of aristocratic privilege. This is why he bought Mar-a-Lago, once the estate of the socialite-philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post. This is why he created an imitation heraldic Trump family crest, to ennoble cuff links, shirts and cologne. Mr. Trump’s success has always derived from the implication that to embrace him, to buy into his brand, was to enter his fantasy luxury universe.
His presidential campaign extended this idea: While thin on policy, it enticed the nation (or a subset thereof) to rebrand itself with the Trump logo and thus magically obtain mass privilege via osmosis. In Donald Trump we elected a (faux) luxury brand logo come to life.
Like Chanel, Ivanka Trump understood the craving for both status and community. In response, she created an aspirational universe geared toward working women who yearned for advancement, wanting to fake it till they make it. It was a pasteboard “C-suite” feminist look — pastel-toned sheath dresses; structured bags conjuring Céline or Prada, but often made of vinyl; pumps and flats that closely imitated higher-end shoes (including Chanels). A preponderance of baby pink, ruffles, bell sleeves and other girlish touches undermined any real power-feminist vibe. Over all, the brand offered watered-down simulacra of luxury goods, accessibly priced, elite-seeming but poorly made.
Ms. Trump was really selling her own pampered life, as her father sells his own. That she is more refined and soft-spoken than he, as well as delicate-featured and blond, only enhanced the fantasy she marketed.
Even after assuming White House duties, Ms. Trump was unabashed about acting as a corporate advertisement, conflating branding and presidential politics — just as her father does. Recall her Republican convention speech: She wore a pink sheath, made available for purchase immediately after, while a fan blew her hair gently back, lending the whole scene the air of a fashion shoot. This slightly unreal, magazine-ad feeling still pervades much of Mr. Trump’s presidency.
If Ivanka Trump’s brand rode to success on the same forces that drove Trumpism, could the end of her logo-branded company also suggest diminishing tolerance for our logo-branded presidency? Perhaps.
Yet President Trump continues to ask us to regard his administration as we would a glossy magazine advertisement — with fascination, awe or envy, and no investigation into what lies behind the staged décor. He asks that we accept increasingly fictional narratives, to believe the literally unbelievable, enjoining supporters in Kansas City to disregard their own senses. “What you’re seeing,” he intoned Tuesday, “is not what’s happening” — a chillingly apt instruction for losing yourself inside an aspirational branding narrative. Dreamscape politics may linger a while yet.
Rhonda Garelick (@rkgar) is the author of “Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History,” and is writing a book on fashion and presidential politics.
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