This story was also published in the Sunday Star Times
OPINION: “If there’s one thing that still has bipartisan support in politics, it’s embarrassing menswear,” wrote US-based menswear expert Derek Guy for Politico recently. He was talking about the “crap” state of US political dress, but the same could be said of the state of affairs in Aotearoa right now.
"Male politicians are wearing ill-fitting suits,” continued Guy, “orphaned suit jackets paired with light-washed jeans, trousers that puddle around their ankles and sweaters crammed into too-small jackets.”
Ill-fitting suits and puddling hemlines are haunting this election, with both Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon showing disinterest in sharpening up their image.
Every political advisor knows that clothing is an essential part of presentation and helps define the image of a leader, whether it be on walkabouts or on a debate stage. I think we’re beyond having to justify that thinking: yes, politicians (and all leaders) use clothes to help with the optics of authenticity and to create an identifiable visual brand.
Jacinda Ardern was adept at the art of political image making, unapologetically wearing and therefore subtly supporting the New Zealand fashion industry. Now it has been left to the likes of Nicola Willis, in her girl boss suits, and Carmel Sepuloni, in her support of Pasifika design, to step into that role (Te Pati Māori are also doing a stellar job as a party in conveying a clear message when it comes to style). But I’d like to see more from Chris and Christopher.
The sartorial difference between the two was obvious in the first leaders’ debate on TVNZ. The wrinkled arms of Hipkins’ suit jacket were distracting, the small paisley patterns on the maroon tie open for creative interpretation (I heard sperms, almonds and foetuses). His jacket was unbuttoned; too relaxed for an important moment.
Luxon, on the other hand, gave corporate management cosplay in his navy blue suit and wide blue tie. The arms were not perfectly tailored, but the shoulders sat sharply, at least.
He wore a small fern pin on his lapel, which has been there on almost every occasion throughout this campaign and was there during his maiden speech in 2021. He also wore a very big silver watch, a surprising and flashy detail that was distracting. Like his sloganeering in the place of actual policy, the overall ensemble said nothing much; that was likely the point.
Much like his performance, by the second debate last week Hipkins had sharpened his game fashion wise too. His suit was buttoned and his tie, a bold red. He was, according to Stuff’s Tova O’Brien, given a rark up by Helen Clark; perhaps she also reminded him to smarten up, button up his jacket and look like a prime minister.
Luxon opted for consistency by wearing almost exactly the same thing (his big bright blue ties were extremely similar but were different). This was, again, likely a deliberate choice: aiming to convey the message of being a steady hand.
I asked both leaders about their choice of suit and tie for last week’s debate, and whether they are conscious of wearing New Zealand made, or NZ businesses, while on the campaign trail.
Luxon’s suit was from Working Style and worn with a gifted tie, chosen because it’s comfortable and he likes the fit. “I’ve always purchased clothes from a variety of New Zealand retailers and businesses,” says Luxon. “Working Style, RJB, Rodd & Gunn and David Jones are my go-to places.”
He wears a variety of suits on rotation but "to be honest, not a lot of thinking goes into it. A number of people offer advice on which ties to wear, including Amanda and my staff, who are never short of an opinion.”
Hipkins did not respond.
Murray Crane, the founder of Crane Brothers and an expert in menswear and tailoring in New Zealand, found both ensembles safe and predictable, but believes Luxon has likely had better advice than Hipkins on his suiting. “Plus, he has the experience of many years in corporate management and governance so, much like John Key, he understands the power of good tailoring.”
Navy blue symbolises trust and conservatism, says Crane, “evoking a sense of tradition and convention so that's a safe lane to travel in”. Navy blue suits have become the de facto uniform of the National party, as well as those hideous bright blue polyester zip up jackets for off-duty walkabouts.
Hipkins too has been wearing his own versions of that branded jacket (his is black with the Labour logo; there are red options too). But it’s his billowing tailoring that has been noted, even before the debates. Political reporter Aaron Dahmen recently shared a photo from a walkabout on X, formerly known as Twitter, writing that “the tailoring of Chris Hipkins’ suit pants is PRECARIOUS for a construction site”.
Hipkins’ clothes give off a boyish charm, something that has always been part of his political brand (‘the boy from the Hutt’). I think he is genuinely uninterested in fashion and yet to be convinced of its role in conveying power – his Barkers suit for the King’s Coronation an example (Crane described that as being “woefully underdressed” but says all it would take to improve would be the cut, fit and general quality of garments, ties and shoes).
But he has had a few, possibly unintentional, fashion moments. His Omicron press conference in the park in December 2021 was delayed slightly because, his mother explained to the media, he had to rush home to pick up a suit.
And in January he caused a style stir with his off-duty styling of a hoodie, wraparound gas station sunglasses and cap. One social media user described it as “bogan dadcore”, while another likened it to “undercover public transport ticket inspector”.
Though Hipkins was caught off-guard by media while out on a run, the casual look is an example of purposeful dressing often used by politicians to show they’re ‘relatable’.
“He needs to rock this look the whole campaign Fetterman style,” wrote comedian Joseph Moore at the time, referencing US senator John Fetterman who became known - and beloved - for his hoodies, Carhartt and Dickies. (Fetterman has also influenced the US senate’s recent shift in loosening up its unofficial dress code, which would have allowed lawmakers to opt out of traditional business attire and suits; that has since been changed back to 'formal' due to outrage).
The look of ‘power dressing’ may have shifted along with the casualisation of dress codes in general, but Chris and Chris have, for the most part this election, stuck to conventional suits. If that’s not enough of a representation of a return to the status quo, we even have the return of NZ politics’ best suit wearer, Winston Peters (Rawiri Waititi is a very close second, but at least he subverts tradition by pairing it with Air Jordans or hei tiki in the place of a tie).
Whichever Chris is New Zealand’s prime minister after October 14, it is likely that they will take their place at the dais in an ill-fitting suit. But Crane has some words of wisdom for looking like a leader.
“If I could give them both one piece of advice it would be to tell them to stop dressing for a day in the office as that is not their primary role,” he says. “They need to look important and ready to do whatever is required as the leader of our country - not like an intern starting work at Ernst and Young.”