Selling Melania Trump, One NFT at a Time

On Jan. 11, less than a year after Donald and Melania Trump left the White House and less than a week after the anniversary of the Capitol attack that took place in their name, four years or so after freezing their trademarks and shutting down their jewelry line on QVC and their skincare line, Melania Trump returned to the public spotlight with a new kind of personal brand and a new kind of merchandise to go with it.

The vehicle: a 14-day auction on of three pieces that make up what is called the Head of State Collection.

The name is presumably a wink-and-nudge reference to the star lot: what the website describes as an “iconic, one-of-a-kind wide-brimmed hat,” originally worn by Mrs. Trump in 2018 during a state visit by French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, and signed by Mrs. 

Trump. (Also on the block: a 2021 watercolor by French artist Marc-Antoine Coulon of Mrs. Trump in a said hat, signed by the artist and subject, and a non-fungible token, or NFT, of the artwork.) The opening bid was set at about $250,000 for the set.

The auction follows the December sale of a group of limited-edition NFTs made from a watercolor of Mrs. Trump’s eyes, also by Mr. Coulon and titled “Melania’s Vision,” which sold for $150 each. And they will be followed, according to the original announcement, by more such NFTs, presumably inspired by Mrs. Trump.

According to the website, “a portion of the proceeds derived from this auction” will go to charitable initiatives supported by Mrs. Trump’s Be Best initiative, although neither the amount nor the destination of the remaining proceeds is specified. (Emails sent to her office requesting specific information were not returned.)

And so fulfills the promise first revealed in the 2017 defamation lawsuit in which Mrs. Trump had sued The Daily Mail website for defamation, alleging that an article it published had harmed her marketability and thus impeded possible plans to “launch a broad-based commercial line in multiple product categories.” Including, perhaps, “apparel, accessories, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, haircare, skincare, and fragrances.” (The lawsuit settled, and the Daily Mail apologized and paid damages.)

At the time, the suggestion that Mrs. Trump might monetize her time in the White House, and the public eye, was dismissed by her team. “The first lady has no intention of using her position for profit and will not do so,” her lawyer, Charles Harder, said in a statement. “It is not a possibility.” That statement has limits.

If what’s being sold isn’t exactly the clothing line many expected, or even perfume, Mrs. Trump’s new approach to product is nonetheless familiar and revealing: It’s rooted in creating a decorative but alienated image that she adopted as the first lady, aiming to break the rules, and abiding by her own rules.

After all, while former first ladies have traditionally made money from memoirs of their experience or speeches (also, in the Obamas’ case, from documentaries and podcasts), it’s pretty unheard of for them to make money from selling a relic of that experience.

“I think it’s unprecedented in modern times,” Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies,” said of the sale of the head of state. “It’s generally not seen as something that can be done.”

Traditionally, when a garment is worn by a first lady during a state occasion, it is donated to the National Archives or a museum such as the Smithsonian, as it is considered part of the historical record, with a soft power value that is impossible to quantify.

In fact, according to Mrs. Trump’s website, the reason for starting her new venture with the hat lies in the importance of the French state visit. “Mrs. Trump recognized this important moment for the country and, as a result, a great deal of consideration went into the planning,” it explains. That planning included commissioning a unique hat made in New York to match a Michael Kors suit that Mrs. Trump was scheduled to wear.

Of course, the hat had observers scratching their heads from the start. By shadowing her face almost completely, yet impossibly unnoticed, it represented the first lady’s famous ambivalence toward her role; by appropriating the cultural tropes of the good guy (the white hat), it also mocked the public’s obsession with searching her clothes for clues about her relationship with her husband. For many, it contained multitudes.

Especially since it was but the first in a series of controversial hats Mrs. Trump would wear throughout her time as the first lady. There was the pith helmet she modeled on safari in Kenya and a cream-colored fedora she wore while posing in front of the sphinx in Egypt, both of which drew unfortunate comparisons to colonialists and seemed to reflect the extent to which Mrs. Trump considered her position to be just a piece of paper.

In selling the hat, created by Hervé Pierre, the French-born New York designer-turned-stylist who was the closest thing to a fashion collaborator she had during her time in the White House (he made her inaugural ball gown), Mrs. Trump seems to be shedding the detritus of her White House years, piece by piece, like an irritating souvenir.

And she is doing so in a way that ensures that this piece of history, at least, is owned by only one person. It is the antithesis of the idea that a first lady should represent the nation at large, but it is entirely in line with the Trump worldview and their approach to their role, which saw family members using the president’s position in the White House to benefit their hotels and golf courses, their potential future businesses. Why should that end just because they are no longer in office?

As is always the case with Mrs. Trump, it’s hard to know what exactly she’s thinking, since she doesn’t say much of anything, just as she didn’t say much of anything during her time in Washington. Instead, she often seemed to let her outfits speak for her. Another reason those suits were so important. They were the Rosetta Stone of her tenure in the East Wing, which now seems to have been lost to the private market, disappearing into the metaverse.

As a result, it’s hard not to wonder what might come next. The towering Manolo Blahnik stilettos she wore when she embarked on a trip with her husband to the site of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Texas with a close-up of her ankles? The “I Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket she wore to visit immigrant children who had been separated from their parents at the border with a back silhouette? The pink bow blouse she wore to a debate following the “Access Hollywood” tape scandal with a picture of her neck? A lock of her famous flowing mane?

Whatever it is, the idea seems to be to sell herself as a muse. From the White House to her home, with only a cryptographic cash register in between.

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