OPINION: She was there to sell Aotearoa New Zealand to the world, and she did it wearing a hot pink suit made in the Auckland suburb of Morningside.
That bold statement worn on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was one of several looks worn by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for her US tour which wound up earlier this week. The wardrobe was a minor part of the trip - she was there to shake hands and promote brand New Zealand - but like everything in politics, was subtly strategic in its messaging.
For her appearance on Colbert the PM opted for said hot pink suit and blouse by Auckland-based designer Juliette Hogan. The ensemble was simple but quite remarkable: a rare moment where the fashion felt like a deliberate point of focus, in a bold colour that was not Labour red. It was an outfit and colour of optimism.
It showed a new confidence from Ardern in using fashion as a tool rather than being afraid of it being criticised as mere frivolity - the eternal, old-fashioned fear for politicians, especially women, who want the focus to stay on policy. As a woman in politics, and a woman who has worn New Zealand fashion throughout her career, Ardern has managed to walk that fine line; though not without criticism.
Like other high-profile politicians including US Vice President Kamala Harris, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and even Emmanuel Macron with his hoodie and bare chest, she clearly enjoys the importance of fashion but does not want it to define her. Clothing is simply a tool for presentation, and subtle communication. Who can forget the black lockdown blazer that seemed to appear every time Ardern was at the lectern to share bad news?
But this US trip was partly about using her international profile and popularity to boost New Zealand businesses and industries ready for export, and while New Zealand fashion may not be as big as New Zealand beef, it is a world-class and valuable industry to be proud of. Ardern used her moment in the spotlight to showcase a small - bright and cheerful pink - part of it.
Suit aside, the tour wardrobe was essentially a very high-profile repeat of what has become the Ardern uniform: no-fuss and practical, with plenty of printed blouses and soft tailoring. Comfortable but authoritative clothes; many of which were pulled from her own wardrobe.
Significantly, the majority were made in New Zealand (questions to Ardern’s team about whether there is a policy whereby she wears NZ made went unanswered), and from two of our most well-known local fashion designers, Juliette Hogan and Kate Sylvester.
The Prime Minster regularly turns to both for big appearances, having worn their clothes for many years, even as an MP pre-2017 (she wore a Sylvester dress for her swearing in as PM, and Hogan made the gown for that iconic Buckingham Palace moment, worn with a kākahu while pregnant).
Both designers make the type of nice, well-made clothes that you see worn by many other women in offices around the country. They are designers that Ardern can trust to make her look polished and professional, and who won’t talk about said relationship to others (trust me, I’ve tried).
It is probably not a coincidence that both designers are also successful small business owners, and board members of Mindful Fashion, an organisation that advocates for the local clothing and textile industry from the point of view of future proofing local manufacturing, growing employment, and focusing on sustainability.
There were also plenty of re-wears, often considered to be a signal of accessibility from public figures (a tactic used regularly by the Duchess of Cambridge) but I think in this instance it simply reflects normal practice from the PM.
I was however intrigued that she chose something new for Stephen Colbert and something ‘old’ - a coat and silk tunic dress by Hogan - for her most high-profile meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Harris. It was also 33C in Washington D.C., so staying in that coat was a clear commitment to the look.
Clothing can be a way to express identity for us all, whether you’re the leader of a country or picking out what to wear to the office in the morning. Often there is a storyline of politicians using fashion as a way to send subtle messages – pearls, a brooch, a white suit to acknowledge the suffrage movement – but Ardern’s use of clothing is much less coded.
Her US wardrobe said little but spoke volumes: New Zealand is back, open for business, and at once pragmatic, confident and bold.