Hervé Pierre is Melania Trump’s trusted stylist. He is the man keeping watch over her aesthetic legacy. He’s the artful technician who accommodates her preference for tailored silhouettes and the veteran New York fashion guy who defends her signature stilettos.
He is also the designer whose name will be in the history books, and the Smithsonian, thanks to a singular call.
It came about 8 o’clock on a January morning — a request from Trump to send some inaugural gown sketches by 4 that afternoon. She was not a longtime client; Pierre had only recently met her after being asked through a mutual friend to do a bit of styling on her behalf. Pierre knew Trump as much of the country did: as a former model, a boldface name and a mostly inscrutable participant in a bruising, ugly campaign.
It’s always challenging for a designer to create a dress for a particular client; it’s stressful when that client is the soon-to-be first lady. And this first lady was surrounded by an unprecedented degree of animosity, anger and divisiveness. Indeed, a significant swath of Seventh Avenue had pre-emptively announced that it would not work with her because of her husband’s politics.
Was he stunned by the request to design an inaugural gown? Yes. Was he flattered? Of course. Any trepidation? No. Not even a little.
“If some people don’t want to dress the first lady, that’s the beauty of freedom,” said the French-born Pierre, who became a U.S. citizen in August 2016. “That’s also my right to say yes. I wanted to. It was beside the political thing. It was not even a question. [To say no] would have been absurd. It was about the honor of the country.”
Pierre’s goal was to create a dress that had “respect for her point of view and respect for her style,” even though he didn’t really have a clear idea of either. He asked her for a few “key words, colors or images, even if they are not related to fashion.” She responded with pale blue, powder and vanilla. She asked for fluid and form-fitting, which seems like the sort of contradictory request that would drive a designer mad, especially one who would have less than two weeks to execute the design.
And yet, Pierre accomplished it.
Because he doesn’t have his own brand, he didn’t have a label to sew into the dress. He considered signing the grosgrain ribbon that circled the waist. Then he remembered the labels he’d made up when he was student, still dreaming about his future in the fashion industry. He dug up one of those souvenirs from his past and stitched it into gown.
He was there in the White House, in the hours before the inaugural balls began, to make sure that once the first lady was zipped into her dress, their dress, that it would look just right. If there was one thing that a frazzled and divided nation could agree upon, it was that the gown — with its economy of line, its single waterfall ruffle and claret ribbon — was lovely. It was not ostentatious or extravagant. It wasn’t busy or overtly sexy. It was calm.
“I really love the dress. It was a moment of grace,” Pierre said. “I did something for myself and for my new country.”
Last week, Trump donated that gown to the First Ladies Collection at the National Museum of American History, where it will be exhibited alongside the inaugural gowns of her predecessors, including the ivory embroidered Jason Wu dress worn by Michelle Obama in 2009 and Laura Bush’s crimson-colored Michael Faircloth gown from 2001. Each dress reflects the personal style of the woman who wore it — sometimes even more than it represents the sensibility of the person who designed it. But it also speaks to the spirit of the occasion and the tenor of the incoming administration. The dresses have celebrated American industry, optimism and exuberance. They have spoken of hope, Camelot and a “shining city on a hill.”
But in this case, the dress that Pierre designed in collaboration with Trump was more of a temporary tonic for a wounded nation. It does not exude the kind of aggressive disruption that was the hallmark of her husband’s campaign. It isn’t a preening showcase of Americana executed in searing shades of red or blue. After a campaign that was loud, relentless and vulgar, the dress was pure restraint. It also resisted any echo of the past and what was — and was not — great about it.
“The dress didn’t refer to anything,” Pierre said. He didn’t look at previous inaugural gowns or crack open a U.S. history book. “It was very new and never done.”
It was also a reflection of Pierre and his professional story. At 52, he is among the last of a generation of designers who apprenticed with the industry’s great craftsmen. Educated in France, Pierre interned at Christian Dior under Marc Bohan; he worked at Balmain before it became the house that Instagram built. And then in New York, he designed for Oscar de la Renta and, most recently, Carolina Herrera, where he worked for 14 years.
“I had a very strict training. It was not just to express yourself on a canvas; it was more technical,” Pierre said. Coming of age as a designer before the dominance of social media, Pierre is more focused on construction, on line and craft. He also has a sense of history, not as inspiration, but as narrative. He continues to work with Trump on her public wardrobe, for events big and small. “It’s not just about finding pretty shoes and a nice outfit, but more about the legacy of this woman,” he said.
Pierre organized her wardrobe for visits to Saudi Arabia, the Vatican and France, for example. In each instance, he researches her destinations, considering details such as which colors choices might be complementary to her hosts or inappropriate. Ultimately, however, he trusts his gut. “It’s not always paying homage,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s just being dressed for the occasion.” To that end, he chose a red Dior suit for her July trip to Paris, celebrating the brand’s place in French culture as well as in the popular imagination. The choice went over well.
But he was taken aback by the brouhaha over the stilettos Trump was wearing when she boarded Air Force One for a trip to Houston following Hurricane Harvey. She changed her shoes before she arrived in the battered city, he noted. Besides, heels are simply what she wears.
They are her personal style. And they’re part of her legacy.