How Campaigning Women Can Keep Their Couture Without the Cost Criticism

Women on the campaign trail, be it candidates or candidates’ wives, are more likely to get into trouble for the cost of their wardrobe if it clashes with the economic realities of the day — stubborn unemployment, a burst housing bubble, recession, on and on.

On the GOP side, it was Ann Romney’s $990 Reed Krakoff bird blouse, and Callista Gingrich’s love for St. John at Neiman Marcus while Newt sat in the Bored Man Chair reading a book and her personal shopper sifted through the racks. The Gingriches, already taking heat for shopping sprees at Tiffany’s, were conscious enough of how this looked politically that they halted the Neiman Marcus trips during the campaign.

Over at the White House, it’s Michelle Obama’s $950 Comme des Garcons skirt worn to meet military families in a mess hall, or wearing $2,000 to $3,000 L’Wren Scott cardigans to mark Take Your Child to Work Day and greet troops at Fort Stewart, Ga.

Taxpayers aren’t footing the bill for these women’s closets, so should it be our business?

It may not be anyone’s business, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a campaign issue. Perception is everything, and when you’re trying to tell the downtrodden that you’re solidly in their corner, standing firmly on your Jimmy Choos, it opens the door for criticism and puts the focus on your pricey couture rather than your policies.

But I’d never tell a woman to give up her couture, as much as I understand that love. I’d simply advise her to acquire it in a smarter way.

The solution is not a camera-op at Target and pretending like you buy your clothes there, then sprinting over to the food bank in $540 Lanvin sneakers (ahem, Michelle).

I love fashion. I love the drape and feel of label-snob clothes, the smell of a leather label-snob handbag, the craftsmanship and curves of label-snob shoes, and am rarely seen without Dior sunglasses on my face or pushed up on my head. And yet, being a full-time journalist my whole adult life hasn’t exactly left me wealthy. Thus, over the years I’ve perfected the art of fashionista label-snobbery on a real-people salary.

When I made just $35,000 a year in Southern California, I was wearing $300 Emanuel Ungaro tops nabbed at the local Off 5th (Saks Fifth Avenue outlet) for $30. When Isaac Mizrahi launched his first buzzed-about Target line, I was fetching Isaac python flats at that outlet for $10. I got a $600 Oscar de la Renta cocktail dress for $40, a $540 Anne Klein wool and cashmere coat for $35, and on and on.

The bastions for designer bargain hunters have only multiplied. Nordstrom Rack (where I usually find those Dior glasses, and buy boots off-season), Last Call by Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s Outlet (love the additional half-off redlines), and Barney’s New York Outlet, in addition to Off 5th, all have those brands to be craved. Loehmanns is another don’t-miss, especially for their back room of high-end designers — I once snagged a $1,600 Dolce & Gabbana handbag, by combining red-tag discounts and opening a discount-card account, for $105. The ultimate is a Loehmanns clearance center — when one opened and closed near me, I got Manolo Blahniks (Mary Janes, retail $650) for $60, a Missoni scarf that retailed at $545 for $45, Chloe sweaters, Moschino leather and cashmere gloves, and more.

If I became as wealthy as the Obamas, Romneys or Gingriches tomorrow, I wouldn’t start paying full price. I’ve learned too much about how to shop the game to ever go back at this point, and would still feel the thrill of finding rock-bottom-priced couture.

And that’s my advice to Michelle and Ann: Don’t try to counter the criticism by pretending that you’re suddenly a J.C. Penney aficionado. Nobody buys it.

But they would be smart to be seen shopping at the aforementioned outlets, to brag about their discount finds and share with other American women how they can find couture on a budget, as well.

It would also display a personal sense of fiscal conservatism to which voters can relate — even though you might have the money to throw at a personal shopper on Rodeo Drive, you choose to spend it wisely and stretch each dollar as far as possible when filling up that closet from high-end retailers’ clearance racks.