“I am here with my little bag to collect a bit of money,” she said at the Global Outlook 2012 debate, holding a Louis Vuitton tote aloft in demonstration (she sought €500bn from the assembled leaders, to bolster the fund’s resources).
Her words were a sound bite for the two kinds of media she generates: financial and fashion.
Style is a calling card for Lagarde, especially since she left the Bercy for the IMF. When the 55-year-old was appointed last June, Le Figaro’s Washington correspondent wrote that she was an unknown in the city, despite chairing US law firm Baker & McKenzie for six years before entering French politics. Less than a year later, she’s made Vanity Fair’s prestigious best-dressed list, had her style analysed by Forbes and sat for a US Vogue photo shoot.
No woman in public office, least of all one so accomplished as Lagarde, should be judged on appearances, but she is not immune. For her male colleagues, who all dress the same, only the outfit’s quality is open to criticism. Even then, the origin of a dark suit is hard to determine from media images and who would care to ask? A good suit is good enough (though anything more casual is disrespectful!).
Without that ‘uniform,’ it’s not surprising that most senior female politicians dress for parliament as though it were a boardroom. Angela Merkel always wears the same pantsuit. The colour changes with the seasons, it has different buttons or a higher collar, but it is so familiar that few bother to comment. She is elected proof that a smart, if boring, signature look is effective “armour,” an ersatz uniform. However, the chancellor does not govern the French.
“In France, it [fashionable dress] is expected of you,” higher education minister Valérie Pécresse told The Observer. “A [female] minister has to pay attention to how she looks because she is expected to embody the spirit of France, and that is a certain elegance. People can be very critical.” Pécrasse was speaking after her department staff petitioned her to wear more skirts; she hears similar complaints from taxi drivers.
Lagarde was hugely successful when Domenic de Villepin invited her to join his government in 2005 and she dressed accordingly. Under her leadership, Baker & McKenzie had increased their gross revenues by 50%, to $1.3bn, by the end of 2004. She took a significant pay cut to enter public service.
To begin with, her wardrobe was more Chicago corporate than Champs Élysées. She favoured sharp-shouldered suits in bold colours and oversized ‘power’ pearls, á la Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. The American-professional look was reinforced by her Colgate smile, athletic figure and golden tan, but there were French flourishes. Hermès bags and scarves in on-trend colours and a Cartier watch are her signature accessories.
As she moved smoothly from the foreign trade ministry, under de Villepin, to agriculture and fisheries and onto first female economy and finance minister, under Nicolas Sarkozy, her clothes came to represent the “spirit of France”. She is a fan of Chanel tweed suits in contemporary or classic styles. At almost six foot, she doesn’t need Sarkozy’s chunky soles but sometimes swaps her flats for Louboutin kitten-heels. Wearing Dior and Givenchy couture, she attended state dinners. In her official capacity, she became a front-row regular at fashion shows and visited designer ateliers. Such were the perks of being France’s longest-serving finance minister since 1975.
The Anglo-American press adore her style. Apart from charming the fashion glossies, she’s been one of Time’s top 100 leaders, the Wall Street Journal’s fifth best European executive woman and the FT’s ‘best finance minister of the European Union”. Former IMF chief economist Kenneth S Rogoff called her “the rock star of the financial world” in The New York Times. She is as engaging on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as she is on 60 Minutes. When Dominique Strauss-Khan disgraced himself, she seemed the ideal person to both run the fund and improve France’s international image. Her personal style is a small but significant part of what she has to offer.
Lagarde has upped her game in the style stakes since arriving in Washington. Impressive white or canary-diamond jewellery flatters her silver coiffeur and she dresses like an unofficial ambassador for Chanel. It’s easy to assume that she has a ‘relationship’ with the fashion house but she told Vogue that she enlists the help of a Chanel saleswoman in finding clothes to suit her taste and budget. She seems to find the Louis Vuitton Lokit bag, which accommodates her iPad, useful and has been photographed carrying it in at least three colours.
International attitudes to officials in couture vary but she’s stayed true to her style. However, she is diplomatic and thoughtful with her clothes when travelling. On her last visit to the UK, where female politicians are harshly compared with their European equivalents, she bought a reasonably-priced suit from Austin Reed to wear to Downing Street. In Vogue, she praised the British brand, along with the equally mid-range French label Viyella.
Lagarde is a fashion conservative. Skirts are knee-length, upper arms and shoulders stay covered and heels are less than three inches. Despite her enviable tan, she is never bare-legged and never shows décolleté.
Lagarde wears no obvious make-up, save for mascara and white eyeliner (and who wouldn’t need that after a night of brokering to keep Greece from defaulting on its debt).
She doesn’t follow trends but uses colours and patterns to update her look each season.
Logos are concealed, so her labels are recognisable only to those who care about such things. During TV and online interviews, her clothes don’t distract you from her message. While she appreciates a fine “little bag”, there can be little doubt she’s all about the money.