On Jan. 11, not quite a year after Donald and Melania Trump left the White House and less than a week after the anniversary of the attack on the Capitol that took place in his name, four years or so after putting her trademarks on ice and shuttering her QVC jewelry line and her skin-care line, Melania Trump returned to the public eye with a new kind of personal brand and a new kind of merch to go with.
The vehicle: a 14-day auction on melaniatrump.com of three pieces that comprise what is called the Head of State Collection.
The name is presumably a wink-wink-nudge-nudge reference to the star lot: what the website describes as an “iconic broad-brimmed, one-of-a-kind hat” originally worn by Mrs. Trump in 2018 during the state visit of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and his wife, Brigitte, and signed by Mrs. Trump. (Also on the block: a 2021 watercolor by the French artist Marc-Antoine Coulon of Mrs. Trump in said hat, signed by the artist and subject, and a nonfungible token, or NFT, of the artwork.) The opening bid was set at approximately $250,000 for the group.
The auction follows the sale in December of a group of limited-edition NFTs made of a watercolor of Mrs. Trump’s eyes, also by Mr. Coulon and entitled “Melania’s Vision,” which sold for $150 apiece. And it will be followed, according to the original announcement, by more such presumably Mrs. Trump-inspired NFTs.
According to the website, “a portion of the proceeds derived from this auction” will go to charitable initiatives supported by Mrs. Trump’s Be Best initiative, though it doesn’t specify how much or where the remaining proceeds will go. (Emails to her office requesting specific information were not returned.)
And thus is fulfilled the promise first revealed in the 2017 libel suit in which Mrs. Trump had sued the website of The Daily Mail for slander, claiming an article it published had harmed her marketability and thus impinged potential plans to “launch a broad-based commercial line in multiple product categories.” Including, perhaps, “apparel, accessories, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care, skin care and fragrance.” (The suit was settled, with the Daily Mail apologizing and paying damages.)
At the time, the suggestion that Mrs. Trump might monetize her time in the White House, and the public eye, was dismissed by her team. “The first lady has no intention of using her position for profit and will not do so,” her lawyer, Charles Harder, said in a statement. “It is not a possibility.” That statement, seemingly, has limits.
If what is being sold is not exactly the clothing line many were expecting, or even a perfume, Mrs. Trump’s new approach to product is nevertheless both familiar and revealing: It is rooted in the decorative yet alienated image-making she embraced as first lady, redolent of breaking norms, and seemingly governed by rules all its own.
After all, while former first ladies have traditionally made money from memoirs of their experience or speeches (also, in the Obamas’ case, documentary films and podcasts), it is pretty unheard-of for them to make money from selling off a relic of that experience.
“I think it’s unprecedented in modern times,” said Kate Andersen Brower, the author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies,” of the Head of State sale. “Generally, it’s not seen as a thing to do.”
Traditionally, when an item of clothing is worn by a first lady during an occasion of state, it is donated to the National Archives or a museum such as the Smithsonian since it is considered a part of the historical record, with a soft power value that is impossible to quantify.
Indeed, according to Mrs. Trump’s website, the reason for starting her new venture with the hat lies in the importance of the French state visit. “Mrs. Trump recognized this important moment for the country, and accordingly, a great deal of consideration went into the planning,” it explains. That planning included the ordering up of a one-off made-in-New York hat to match a Michael Kors suit Mrs. Trump had planned to wear.
Of course, the hat prompted head-scratching from observers pretty much from the get-go. In shadowing her face almost completely, while being impossible to miss, it represented the first lady’s famous ambivalence toward her role; in appropriating the cultural tropes of the good guy (the white hat), it also teased the public obsession with searching her clothes for clues to her relationship with her husband. For many, it contained multitudes.
Especially because it proved but the first of a series of controversial hats Mrs. Trump would wear throughout her time as first lady. There was the pith helmet she modeled on safari in Kenya and a cream fedora she wore while posing in front of the sphinx in Egypt, both of which prompted unfortunate comparisons with colonialists and seemed to reflect the extent to which Mrs. Trump saw her position as just playing a role.
In selling the hat, which was created by Hervé Pierre, the French-born, New York designer-turned-stylist who was the closest thing to a fashion collaborator she had during her time in the White House (he made her inaugural ball gown), Mrs. Trump seems to be sloughing off the detritus of her White House years one piece at a time like an irritating memory.
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And she is doing so in a way that ensures that this one piece of history, at least, is owned only by one person. It’s the antithesis of the idea that a first lady should represent the nation writ large, but is entirely in line with the Trumps’ worldview and their approach to their role, which saw members of the family use the president’s position in the White House to benefit their hotels and golf courses, their potential future business endeavors. Why should that end just because they are no longer in office?
As always with Mrs. Trump, it’s hard to know what exactly she is thinking, since she’s not saying much of anything, just as she didn’t say much of anything during her time in Washington. Instead, it often seemed as if she let her outfits speak for her. Which is another reason those outfits mattered so much. They were the Rosetta Stone of her tenure in the East Wing, now apparently being lost to the private market; disappearing into the metaverse.
As a result, it is hard not to wonder what might come next. The Manolo Blahnik towering stilettos she wore as she embarked on a trip with her husband to the scene of the Hurricane Harvey devastation in Texas with a close-up of her ankles? The “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket she wore to visit immigrant children who had been separated from their parents at the border with a back silhouette? The pink pussy-bow blouse she wore to a debate after the “Access Hollywood” tape scandal with a sketch of her neck? A lock of her famously flowing hair?
Whatever it is, the idea seems to be to sell herself as a muse. From the White House to your house, with only a crypto cash register in between.