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Fashion Diplomacy Makes Statement at Local Embassies

by Gail Scott

Diplomacy still takes place behind closed doors, but it also has a public face. Most embassies now use public and cultural diplomacy to spread (a positive) word about their countries. In Washington, public diplomacy can be seen in countless exhibits, seminars, cooking classes, open houses and even shrewd advertising on city buses (all dutifully chronicled by The Washington Diplomat and Diplomatic Pouch).

Another effective avenue for showcasing national pride is fashion. Makeshift runways have popped up at several diplomatic missions around town as ambassadors highlight not only the native attire often worn at National Day receptions, but also contemporary styles making waves back home.

A model walks down a makeshift runway at a fashion show held at the Turkish Embassy Residence for Sarar, a Turkish retailer that recently opened a store in Washington, D.C.
Photos: Gail Scott

“Fashion is a truly universal language and hence is a potentially very important, albeit a little-explored, means of cultural diplomacy,” said Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan, whose embassy residence has hosted two fashion shows, the most recent one on Nov. 13 showcasing the contemporary designs of Turkish fashion giant Sarar, a global retail brand that opened a store in D.C.’s Golden Triangle last summer.

Women and men’s clothing were on display at a fashion show
held at the Turkish Embassy Residence for Turkish design
brand Sarar.

Ambassador Tan isn’t the only ambassador to appreciate the universal appeal of fashion shows.

Late last year, German Ambassador Peter Ammon and his wife Marliese held another runway show for two of their favorite designers, American Johnny Talbot and German Adrian Runhof. This team of Talbot Runhof, their couture name, live in Germany but were on a brief U.S. tour to show off their elegantly simple yet dramatic line of women’s clothing. The day after the fashion show at the German Residence, Neiman Marcus held a trunk show for Talbot Runhof.

From right, Fügen Tan, wife of the Turkish ambassador, welcomes Lala Abdurahimova, wife of the Azerbaijani ambassador, and Samia Aidi to a fashion show at the Turkish Embassy Residence.

The Ammon hosted a previous showcase of these two popular designers in Paris when Peter Ammon served as Germany’s ambassador to France. The German Mission in Paris, known as the Palais de Beauharnais, provided a stately backdrop. Here, the setting of the German Residence was more modern and perhaps a more fitting backdrop to the sleek designs of Talbot Runhof, whose design philosophy is “it’s all about knowing where to stop.”

Marliese Heimann-Ammon, left, and Ambassador of Germany Peter Ammon, right, welcome designers Adrian Runhof and Johnny Talbot to the German Residence for a fashion show of their women’s clothing line, Talbot Runhof.

“I am proud to have the American national Johnny Talbot creating international high fashion together with his German counterpart, Adrian Runhof from Munich, on display here in Washington,” said Ambassador Ammon. “I first met these two designers when I was German ambassador in Paris, where their show was a riotous success.”

Striking black-and white designs in a Harlequin pattern are
among the hallmarks of Talbot Runhof.

“Fashion not only has great economic significance, as it is exported all over the globe … fashion is also an art, an expression of culture and of a sense of beauty,” he added. “We brought together the best of American and German influence in high fashion. The display of beautiful dresses proved that the transatlantic relationship is vibrant, not only in the male-dominated political arena, but also in culture and fashion.”

Canadian designer Michael Kaye, center, poses with several of his models at a fashion showcase at the Canadian Embassy on Dec. 6. Kaye said he loves to work with tartans, beaded or sequined materials and fur.

To make his point that fashion, politics and business go together, Ammon took the opportunity of discussing Talbot Runhof to allude to the proposed U.S.-EU free trade agreement known as TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), on which he has been focused for years. “The United States of America and Germany will profit substantially from the envisaged TTIP,” he explained. “Such an agreement is expected to create millions of new jobs both in the U.S. and in Europe. With TTIP … people will realize: What’s good for Europe, is also good for America, and vice versa.”

Fashion is taken to the extreme in Denise Grünstein’s photograph, part of the Swedish Embassy exhibit Different Distances - Fashion Photography Goes Art.” Photo: © Denise Grünstein

When I asked how she and her husband work as a team representing Germany, Marliese Heimann-Ammon smiled. “I always say my opinion but I don’t think he listens,” she joked. “He takes care of the political and economic and I focus on the cultural.”

All three merged in this fashion show. “We take turns,” she explained, “like a team supporting each other’s events. For the fashion show, he took a supporting role.”

Having their creations showcased in an embassy is also undoubtedly a source of pride for the designers themselves.

Michael Kaye, a Canadian designer who stole the show at a Dec. 6 fashion showcase at the Canadian Embassy, said, “It’s one of the thrills of my life to have my fashions shown in my country’s embassy here in Washington.”

Meanwhile, the ever-innovative Swedish Embassy (aka House of Sweden) mounted a photo exhibition this past fall to showcase five artists. The exhibit “Different Distances – Fashion Photography Goes Art” wasn’t your typical design showcase but rather mirrored the country’s ingenuity, with striking photos that morphed fashion and art. Two images in particular added a touch of whimsy to the exhibit: One showed a blonde model with her hair whipped around her entire head, including her face, while another showed a model wearing a dress while hanging bravely from an elephant’s tusk.

Whether it’s a photo fashion exhibit or a live runway show, ambassadors and their spouses are learning that their country’s fashion is an important commodity to export and one of the most colorful ways to make your mark in the competitive world of public and cultural diplomacy.

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and Diplomatic Pouch.



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