Sunday, November 22, 2009

Palin, the Stylist, and the Budget

This week, the stylist who dressed Sarah Palin and her family during the campaign "came out" and identified herself in response to Ms. Palin's mention of her (although not by name) in her new book. The story broke in the form of an interview in the New York Times with Lisa A. Kline, which you can read here.

Kline defends the job she did, stating:
A. She was given very little time to get the family outfitted, so she had to pay retail prices.
B. No one on the campaign gave her a budget or questioned how much she spent.

And after doing that job, we know there were two significant results:
1. Her clients looked great.
2. It didn't matter how great her clients looked, because their clothes created a huge media firestorm.

So what went wrong here? Kline wants us to acknowledge points A and B and subsequently give her credit for result 1, but no blame for result 2. I can't do that, and here's why.

It's true, she had very little time, and that with more time, she could have procured many of those clothes directly from designers and using professional discounts instead of going to Saks and paying full retail. But come on, does anyone really believe that the public would have been more accepting of a Valentino jacket that she got for $1,000 through an insider discount, instead of the full price $2,500? The problem here was that she fundamentally did not know who her client was or what image she was trying to project. It was as if she had shopped for a "politician" stock character with brown hair and a nice figure instead of understanding who the governor of Alaska was and what her political image was all about. New York magazine is right in saying that even the average American "doesn't go to T.J. Maxx when they're in a pinch," but if Ms. Kline had taken the same shopping trip to Macy's instead of Saks and Neiman Marcus, we would be having a much different conversation right now. Ms. Palin wouldn't have been as chic or as elegant, but for this client, that probably would have been a lot more comfortable.

Kline also reminds us that no one questioned her spending, and wants us to conclude that there was no way she could have understood that she was out of line on this project. That's a pretty embarrassing abdication of responsibility. She was hired to be the clothing expert for this campaign. Who should know what this wardrobe should cost better than she does? Simply because the campaign (or a private/secret donor or whoever) had the money doesn't mean it was appropriate to spend that much. It was her job to take responsibility for the look of this family - not just ensuring that the clothes look good, but also considering what the clothes say. I can only conclude that Ms. Kline was not up to the job.

There have been people who try to claim that the male candidates were wearing suits that cost at least as much if not more and aren't criticized, and so scrutiny of the cost of Palin's wardrobe is therefore sexist. This, of course, is not true. Do you remember John Edwards's $200 haircut? That was a story for weeks.

A good stylist has to think about these things. All of them. Looking good is not enough.

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