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Embassies Embrace Fashion as Public Diplomacy Tool

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c1.living.fashion.charles.ron.storyBetter known for high tempers than high fashion, Washington, D.C., has seen catwalks pop up in the unlikeliest of places recently: embassies, historic buildings and even the State Department.

That’s because people in the diplomatic community are realizing — and relishing — fashion’s role in diplomacy. Much as food, art and sports can say a lot about a nation’s culture, fashion does, too.

“There’s tremendous power in what we wear,” said Jan Du Plain, president and chief executive officer of Du Plain Global Enterprises, an international public relations and events company that helped launch Cultural Tourism DC’s Passport DC program. “If one of our high-level women or men wears something that is inappropriate or can be seen as questionable, fashion speaks. When we wear something, it can have such a strong impact on people because we are watching, particularly those that are high up in government.”

Du Plain recently worked with Indira Gumarova, wife of Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček, and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) to host “Glamour & Diplomacy,” a fashion show at the State Department. The April 9 event featured female ambassadors and ambassadors’ wives wearing ensembles by contemporary designers from around the world. More than a dozen countries and five continents were represented.

Three days later, the Embassy of Uzbekistan presented Marhamathon Umarova, founder of the MarU brand and one of the country’s leading fashion designers. She spoke about the evolution of ikat, a textile, and presented her latest collection.

“The style and the patterns that they used and the cloth that they created from their own country was fascinating to learn about,” Du Plain said.

In March, the embassies of the Czech Republic, Malta and Slovenia hosted “Fashion Night Ignites” featuring several designers, including Burnett New York; Charles & Ron; Dur Doux; Maja Stamol; and Poner. After the show, cocktails and cuisine from each country were served. More than 250 people attended the event at the historic Perry Belmont House.

Gumarova — a PR consultant who previously hosted a showcase of designer shoes by Manolo Blahnik, whose father was Czech — had a hand in all three events and said more fashion shows are in the works. She is working with the Alliance Française Washington DC on a program at the French Embassy in September, and she has been approached about doing shows in New York and London.

Now is the right time for fashion to take its place in Washington because people are less judgmental of cutting-edge clothing, said Gumarova, founder of the newly formed group Diplomacy & Fashion.

“Now with the Trump administration, you actually can wear color, you can wear anything you want and you will be less judged,” Gumarova said. “And also, the money is here. The uber rich people are here and they don’t want to wear the same dress that was already in the magazine, so they start to pay more attention.”

While D.C. has traditionally been a fairly conservative city dress-wise — and still is to a large extent — Gumarova said it is an ideal hub for innovative, unconventional fashion given its international character. “Washington is the right place because we have almost 200 embassies and every embassy promotes their culture so why not promote through fashion when they already promote through food or through sport?”

c1.living.fashion.gumarova.storyStyle, Substance and Double Standards

The idea of using fashion as a public diplomacy tool has been building for quite some time. Over the years, various D.C. embassies have hosted fashion or jewelry shows to promote their native designers — among them Estonia, Lebanon, the Philippines and Canada, just to name a few.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry also recognized the power of fashion. In 2016, he welcomed ambassadors and diplomats from about 80 countries to “Diplomacy by Design,” an event hosted by the U.S. Department of Protocol and ELLE Magazine that highlighted fashion as a diplomatic platform (also see “‘Diplomacy by Design’ Examines What Clothes Say About Us” in the December 2016 issue).

“The clothes we create, the food we eat, the sports we play and the traditions that we honor are all part of a nation’s identity and therefore an integral part of how countries relate to one another,” Kerry told the audience via video link. “We know that America’s standing in the world isn’t determined solely by political and security policies,” he added. “On many occasions, cultural diplomacy can achieve what traditional diplomacy cannot because it speaks a universal language.”

But sometimes that message can get lost in the clothes we wear. Also, with greater freedom in fashion choices comes greater responsibility — and scrutiny, especially for women. Take first lady Melania Trump’s $39 “I really don’t care. Do u?” jacket that she wore in June 2018 to McAllen, Texas, the site of many family separations of illegal immigrants. The media, and many others, had a field day trying to discern whether the former fashion model’s choice held a hidden message. Was it a rebuke of her husband’s immigration crackdown, or a show of support that she didn’t care what his detractors thought?

The topic of Melania’s mysterious jacket came up at another discussion on fashion called “Diplomacy X Design” sponsored by the Meridian International Center and held the National Museum of Women in the Arts last November. There, Robin Givhan, fashion critic for The Washington Post, said first ladies in particular can send powerful messages via the clothing they wear — but only if there’s a clear strategy behind it. In Melania’s case, however, the message seemed muddled.

“I haven’t seen much evidence of Melania Trump having a real, clear message behind her tenure of first lady, thus far,” Meredith Koop, Michelle Obama’s stylist and one of the panelists, said at the discussion. “I hesitate to analyze it because I feel like it gives it too much weight.”

Of course, Koop might be a bit biased given her close relationship to Michelle Obama, but there’s no doubt that as first lady, Obama endured her fair share of fashion scrutiny, both positive and negative.

c1.living.fashion.african.union.storyObama worked to highlight emerging American designers and break the mold of staid skirts and suits. She wore everything from striking pink silk suits, to intricately patterned wrap dresses, to bold red off-the-shoulder ball gowns. At the time, even wearing dresses that bared her shoulders and toned arms caused a stir.

Looking back, the shock of seeing bare shoulders on a first lady seems quite tame compared to the risqué attire Melania wore as a top model. But as first lady, even Melania has hewed close to tradition, often opting for elegantly restrained, though still eye-catching, gowns reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy’s classic style.

But perhaps no other woman in politics has had