Fashion diplomacy

Fashion on the front line of US and China’s G20 rivalry

  • Melania Trump and Peng Liyuan’s choice of outfits – designer labels vs traditional Chinese styles – highlights their contrasting approach to fashion
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 December, 2018, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 December, 2018, 11:04pm

While much of the world was watching the meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Argentina this weekend another, more colourful, confrontation was taking place on the sidelines of the event in Buenos Aires.

For fashion watchers one of the main points of interest lies in the choice of outfits of their respective first ladies, Melania Trump and Peng Liyuan.

Although you may think it is sexist to shine the spotlight once again on their fashion choices instead of their work, you cannot deny that the two first ladies have been using fashion to their advantage, or some would say disadvantage, especially in the case of Melania Trump.

In June of this year, the former model attracted heavy criticism when she wore a Zara jacket saying, ‘I really don’t care. Do U?’ while boarding Air Force One to visit migrant children at the Texas-Mexico border.

She later said in a TV interview that the message was aimed at “the left-wing media, who are criticising me and I want to show them that I don’t care”.

Never one to shy away from controversy, just last week she wore a black Dolce & Gabbana lace dress at a Thanksgiving dinner in Florida.

‘I really don’t care’: Melania Trump’s jacket stuns on migrant visit

She had worn the Italian label’s clothes before, most famously a US$51,500 fur jacket to an event in Sicily in 2017, but this latest outfit choice came only days after the brand courted fury in China with a controversial ad campaign featuring a model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks and co-founder Stefano Gabbana’s now notorious social media rant calling China “a country of s***”.

Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the other hand, has been much more subdued with her fashion choices.

Shunning high-end foreign brands and showy outfits, the former folk singer is often clad in sober and some would say conservative Western-style skirt suits and coat dresses.

She has also displayed her patriotism at several high-profile occasions, opting for Chinese styles such as the qipao and choosing to wear Chinese designers.

Her most frequent choice is Exception de Mixmind (designed by Ma Ke), which she has worn on many trips abroad, helping boost the label’s profile around the world.

This is in contrast with Trump, who is often blamed for not championing American fashion, as her predecessor Michelle Obama did. Instead, she favours Italian or French luxury labels such as Gucci, Chanel, Dior and Valentino.

Eschewing comfort for glamour, Trump boarded Air Force One to head to Argentina clad in a US$6,000 brown leather coat from Ralph Lauren paired with a purple Derek Lam pencil skirt and a pair of towering snakeskin heels.

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For her first public appearance along with the other first ladies at the Villa Ocampo museum in Buenos Aires she wore a sleeveless pleated floral-print Gucci dress and green high-heeled shoes, standing out among her fellow first ladies, who all opted for more conservative outfits.

Peng chose an elegant qipao-style long-sleeved dress in ivory decorated with a brooch.

It’s worth pointing out that except for Trump, none of the other first ladies chose to “bare arms” (Michelle Obama famously made the sleeveless dress her default uniform during her years at the White House) and that the wives of Asian leaders all wore long sleeves and demure looks.

France’s Brigitte Macron and Argentina’s Juliana Awada displayed their impeccable fashion senses with white short-sleeved dresses.

At a gala dinner hosted by Argentine President Mauricio Macri and his wife at the Colon Theatre in Buenos Aires on Friday night, Peng chose a conservative silk evening gown in cobalt blue paired with a matching jacket while Trump chose yet another sleeveless brown dress paired with Louboutin heels, looking a bit dressed down for such a formal occasion.

But lest you think that it’s only first ladies who make fashion statements, Xi also made one with his outfit choice at a gala dinner in Madrid hosted by King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain on Wednesday night.

Instead of wearing Western-style suits, Xi and his cohort of delegates chose to wear Mao suits and traditional jackets with Mandarin collars – for once stealing the limelight from the women in attendance.