Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife has been showered with gifts and loans of high-end clothing, shoes and jewelry from Canadian designers since her husband was sworn into office last year.
Ethics filings by Trudeau in recent weeks reveal that Sophie Grégoire Trudeau has received more than $3,000 worth of outfits and accessories.
What the gift registry doesn’t show is that Grégoire Trudeau has also borrowed many of the expensive outfits she has sported — wearing them in front of the cameras, then returning them to stores or designers a few days later.
For example, officials confirm the gowns she wore to U.S. President Barack Obama’s state dinner at the White House in March and to the state dinner at Rideau Hall for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in June were samples she borrowed for the events and then returned.
Grégoire Trudeau is expected to represent Canada, and she has committed to being a champion for Canadian fashion. But buying all the designer clothes she has been wearing would pose a challenge, even on a prime minister’s $340,000 annual salary. The Lucian Matis gown she wore to the state dinner at the White House, which was a loan, retails for $1,990.
Michelle Obama generally pays for her own clothes, although she sometimes accepts gifts of gowns from designers for “official events of public or historic significance,” then sends the gowns to the National Archives. She does not borrow clothes from designers.
A spokesperson for former prime minister Paul Martin said his wife Sheila always paid for her own clothing.
A survey by CBC News of female ministers in Trudeau’s cabinet found only one, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who reported borrowing clothes from a designer — the gown she wore to a reception in Washington during the official visit in March.
The practice of giving gifts or loans of clothing is old hat in the world of fashion designers and celebrities. But its appearance on Parliament Hill raises questions about the rules that should govern it. Regular gifts and loans of high-end fashion to political figures are so new to the political arena that the Prime Minister’s Office says rules have been drafted to govern the practice.
While most of Parliament’s ethics rules are predicated on the assumption that those who offer political figures gifts or benefits are seeking changes in government policies, in this case the benefit the designers are seeking is marketing.
While Grégoire Trudeau has been benefiting from free clothes, Canadian designers like Ellie Mae have enjoyed exposure they could only dream of. Grégoire Trudeau wore the Toronto designer’s Yazmin jacket at a reception in Washington. Pictures of the prime minister’s spouse appeared in Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Designers and stores have been quick to feature pictures on their websites and storefronts of Grégoire Trudeau wearing their clothes. Her stylist, Jessica Mulroney, will often post Grégoire Trudeau’s latest outfits on Instagram. Styles Grégoire Trudeau has worn have often sold out.
From the red carpet to Parliament Hill
Alan Middleton, an assistant professor of marketing at Toronto’s Schulich School of Business, said designers have long seen gifts or loans of their creations to celebrities as an effective way to promote their brands and their designs.
Now, with Trudeau and his wife enjoying celebrity status, those kinds of marketing tactics are starting to make an appearance in Canada’s political arena, he said.
“What’s new about this, of course, is how it steps into the political class, away from the glamour class,” he said.
Middleton said the practice of giving or loaning political figures designer clothing is much more common in France and Italy, where politicians have embraced the practice as a way to promote their countries’ fashion industries. For Canadian designers, giving or loaning Grégoire Trudeau pieces to wear at international events can result in them being able to expand interest in their brand beyond Canada’s borders — particularly in the U.S, he said.
“If they can get a bit of local media interest wherever the event is taking place about what the new sexy couple from Canada are wearing, boy, that gives them some international clout as well.”
Social media amplifies the impact for designers, he added.
“It’s so much more powerful now if you get the right people because it spreads around so quickly.”
Under the ethics rules that govern MPs and cabinet ministers, gifts or benefits worth more than $200 must be reported to Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s office.
Gifts worth more than $1,000 are supposed to be forfeited to the government. Dawson’s office says members of Parliament and cabinet ministers would have to declare gifts or loans of clothing worth more $200.
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The guidelines are less clear, however, when it comes to Grégoire Trudeau. They depend on whether the gift is connected to her husband’s job and could be seen as an attempt to influence him, said a spokesperson for Dawson’s office.
“The commissioner has determined that a gift received by the spouse of a reporting public office holder in his or her own right that is not connected in any way with the reporting public office holder’s official powers, duties and functions is acceptable and need not be declared,” said Margot Booth. “This would apply to the loan of goods as well.”
Olivier Duchesneau, spokesperson for Trudeau’s office, said a series of rules has been set up to guide the relationship between Grégoire Trudeau and the fashion industry and to specify which transactions will be publicly disclosed.
Samples can be borrowed, worn and returned to designers without filing a declaration because “samples do not have a fair market value,” said Duchesneau. However, gifts worth more than $200 will be declared, as will loans if the rental value is $200 or more.