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You can run for office and still wear a ‘jardigan’

You don’t have to wear a pantsuit anymore! (but you can if you want!)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., walks up the House steps for the last votes of the week in the Capitol on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., walks up the House steps for the last votes of the week in the Capitol on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)

Updated Feb. 19, 8:32 p.m. | Women-owned clothier M.M. LaFleur has launched a campaign to help women who are, well, campaigning.

“This spring we’re taking things a step further by lending our clothes, for free, to women running for public office,” the company announced on Instagram, inviting candidates to inquire by email.

Leaning into the theme, “Ready to Run” is the title of the company’s spring collection, billed as “powerful clothing that helps you get where you’re going.”

So what does running look like, according to M.M. LaFleur? There are suits in washable wool. There are high necklines, sort-of sensible heels, and a “jardigan” (yes, that’s a jacket crossed with a cardigan) that will set you back $225. Pick from colors like Latte, Coal and a muted Regent Blue.

Lawyers and bankers have been the brand’s target audience since its founding in 2011, and branching out while staying true to their roots now appears to be the goal. After all, nothing says “power suit redefined” like a collection inspired by today’s female politicians, especially as they look to top the record-breaking wins of the last election cycle.

The announcement of the lending program has earned the endorsement of women both off and on the trail, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was quick to share her own challenges in snagging a House seat in 2018.

“When I was running for office (even now!), accessing clothing for the job was a big challenge both logistically and financially,” she said in an Instagram story Tuesday. “I had NO clothes to prepare me for Congress.”

Congressional hopefuls are hopeful about the program too.

Take Lindsey Boylan. She’s a Democrat challenging Rep. Jerry Nadler in New York’s 10th District.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, it matters how women and men present themselves in politics,” she said Tuesday over the phone.

Boylan has expressed interest in M.M. LaFleur’s lending program, and even before that, the mom of a 5-year-old was a fan of a black “wrinkle-free” dress from the label that plays well with kid-related stains.

When Boylan emailed the company to sign up to borrow a wardrobe, she got back a reply with times she could visit M.M. LaFleur’s showroom in New York City — one of just a handful of brick-and-mortar stores around the country. Instead of browsing racks of inventory at those locations, beverage-sipping customers can consult with personal stylists.  

Candidates have to be careful about accepting gifts, and the initial announcement from M.M. LaFleur didn’t indicate how the program would stay on the right side of campaign finance laws.

For federal candidates, accepting borrowed clothing could be considered an “in-kind” contribution, as with other goods or services offered at less than the usual charge, but it’s “not necessarily unlawful,” said Brendan Fischer, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center. To do it right, the clothing would have to come from an individual or a PAC (rather than a corporate entity), comply with contribution limits and be reported by the candidate’s campaign committee to the Federal Election Commission.

Asked how the company would proceed, a spokeswoman said “the vast majority of candidates who have reached out are at state and local levels.”

“We’ve advised in our terms and conditions that candidates should check their local campaign rules before requesting clothing from us,” spokeswoman Maya Iginla wrote in an email Wednesday evening.  “At the federal level, there are more roadblocks — but since this cause is something M.M. LaFleur believes in so strongly, [CEO and co-founder] Sarah LaFleur has decided to personally donate clothing to candidates who have reached out, which is in compliance with FEC rules.”

Those concerns aside, M.M. LaFleur is entering a tough genre of fashion. Just as female politicians are speaking out about how hard it is to afford clothing for the campaign trail, they are calling out double standards tied to a relentless focus on their appearance.

The first problem is the one that M.M. La Fleur is trying to address with its lending program. The second problem is one they freely admit they can’t solve.

“We never purport that clothes move the needle on female representation, but we want to do our part to make things a tiny bit easier,” the company said in its initial press release.

With its “Ready to Run” collection, the brand has stayed away from references to the shoulder pads of decades past or the kitschy cult that grew up around Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits during the 2016 presidential election.

Instead, the company is trying to go effortless and timeless, which is a hard look to pull off when it comes to women in politics, when groundbreaking effort is pretty much what’s required.

If anything, the collection seems a bit restrained next to the styles that have already made their way into the Capitol — the fuzzy pink coat Kyrsten Sinema wore for her first day in the Senate, for example.

When asked to describe her swearing-in outfit during an interview with The Cut, Rep. Lauren Underwood said it was “millennial congressional” — a look both “joyous” and “patriotic” that she’s had to make up as she goes along.

Whatever the intentions or outcomes of M.M. LaFleur’s spring marketing push, one thing is clear: Political fashion is no longer defined by the demure pearls worn by political spouses, or even the high-end designer standards set by Nancy Pelosi, who doesn’t like to discuss her fashion choices.

It’s come far enough to be an attractive arena for brands looking to burnish their boss lady credentials — but not far enough to stop feeling like a trap, a burden or a chore.

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