As we near the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration, it’s fair to say that our exposure to our commander-in-chief’s stream of consciousness becomes more intimate every day. And yet we still know surprisingly little about our first lady, Melania Trump. Unlike her predecessor, Michelle Obama, the former model appears to have taken a backseat in her husband’s White House. She’s seen, not heard—and that’s intentional.
Born in Novo Mesto, Slovenia—a world away from “Make America Great Again” baseball caps—Melania grew up near the small river town Sevnica. She walked her first runway as a 5-year-old but was officially discovered at age 17 by photographer Stane Jerko (who described her to The New York Post as a “bookworm”) in 1987. After high school, she studied architecture and design at the University of Ljubljana but dropped out one year in to pursue a modeling career in Milan.
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It was there that she met the former modeling agent Paolo Zampolli, who happened to be a friend of Donald Trump and encouraged Melania to move to the States in 1996. Fast forward two years: Melania captured Trump’s attention at one of Zampolli’s fashion week parties. It took a while for Trump to propose, but when he did, he did so with flair, at the Costume Institute’s Dangerous Liaisons Met Gala in 2004, sealing the deal with a 12-carat, $2 million Graff diamond. The couple married the following year; she donned a $100,000 Dior rhinestone and pearl-encrusted gown and was featured on the cover of Vogue.
That moment 13 years ago foreshadowed the European, designer-heavy and armor-like style that she favors today. While at the time it was reported that her closets were lined with Marc Jacobs sweaters, Levi’s jeans, round-toe pumps, and plenty of casual wear, that couldn’t be further from the truth now. Melania is all polish, no room for nonsense. Think of her Inauguration Day look: a shawl collar-esque, powder-blue Ralph Lauren skirt suit with matching tonal gloves and stilettos. The ensemble, though from an American designer, was more reminiscent of Jacqueline Kennedy’s Oleg Cassini look at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 than, say, the modern yellow dress and overcoat by Cuban-American designer Isabel Toledo that Michelle Obama wore to her husband’s first inauguration or the graphic Thom Browne ensemble with J.Crew shoes that she wore to his second.
Melania’s initial endorsement of American fashion at the inaugural ceremonies presaged little about the first lady’s looks that followed—perhaps because a number of quintessentially American designers, including Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs, refused to dress her. To be fair, she has occasionally worn Calvin Klein (we counted two notable looks) and Michael Kors (we counted six) off the rack in the past year, but I don’t think she would prioritize American designers even if more of them were lining up to dress her. Through and through, Melania seems to uphold her husband’s foreign policy values when it comes to fashion: European friendly but, as far as other (we know what one Trump would call them) countries go, not so much.
She wore a pink, sequined Erdem cocktail dress for New Year’s Eve at Mar-a-Lago, and on Christmas Eve, she wore a red Dior coatdress. Dior seems to be the first lady’s go-to brand, making appearances throughout her husband’s first year in office, as early as the Red Cross Ball last February. At the national Christmas tree lighting in December, she wore a coat from another French house, this time Chanel. Other European designers that have made the Melania cut include Valentino (most notably a floral day dress with a blue cinch belt), Stella McCartney (a black long-sleeve jumpsuit), Dolce & Gabbana (a black lace dress), Emilio Pucci (a marigold printed dress), and Delpozo (a navy flare dress with pink and red flowers, a plum overcoat, and a statement-making bright pink dress with billowing sleeves).
It’s significant that Melania chose those same European labels when meeting dignitaries from other, more far-flung parts of the world too. Upon meeting the president and first lady of China, Melania sported two black gowns embellished with Asian-inspired embroidery—but made by Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana, not Chinese designers; when greeting the South Korean president, she wore a petal pink peplum dress by Roland Mouret. For what it’s worth, while in Paris to meet President Emmanuel Macron she wore French Dior … again. One of these is clearly not like the others.
It certainly seems that the First Lady favors designers primarily of the white, Western European class and aesthetic of fashion rather than promoting “exotic” or “ethnic” designers or houses, and in that sense her wardrobe echoes her husband’s broader philosophy. This not only extends to the clothes themselves but to Melania’s overall style, including her signature glossy, caramel-hued blowout and her sky-high stilettos for every occasion: sophisticated, not edgy; Old World, not new. This goes back to 2005 too, when, alongside her wedding dress photo shoot, she was described as “wedded to a slightly old-fashioned idea of femininity.”
The truth is that Melania’s hesitance to openly identify with the “other” has historically been her M.O.—she doesn’t really want to, maybe because she is the most foreign member of her family or maybe because she realized her American Dream and has no intention of looking back. She has yet to be seen wearing anything by an African, Mexican, or Indian designer (at least anything widely photographed). Still, she has shown some signs of appreciation for multicultural style: once upon a time, she sported Vera Wang, who is of Chinese descent, and while in Saudi Arabia this past May she wore a raspberry caped gown by Reem Acra. That Trump wore that look in the Middle East (Acra is Lebanese) seemed like a symbolic gesture, but then again, Acra has a largely European aesthetic.
By and large, Melania does not appear to use clothing as a form of diplomacy. She doesn’t even to seem to be enjoying fashion for fashion’s sake—if she did, wouldn’t she pull out those outlandish furs and body-conscious frocks from the late 1990s and early 2000s? Rather, she is serving us a palate cleanser, that sweet yet tart lemon sorbet that restores equilibrium after an over-indulgent dinner (i.e. President Trump). The first lady doesn’t want to give us too much to talk about either, sticking largely to a palette of creams, pastels, and black with the occasional pink or red. Perhaps it’s actually quite a calculated decision: Her clothes are consistently textbook chic, in a runway Barbie sort of way. She’s so well-dressed, it’s almost boring—and that’s the point.
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