Politics

Who is Sophie Grégoire Trudeau wearing? New rules for PM's wife

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau has been receiving thousands of dollars worth of gifts and loans of high-end fashion from designers and clothing stores, raising new questions as a practice that is common in the world of celebrities comes to Parliament Hill.

New rules drafted to cover a celebrity practice that has come to Parliament Hill

The gown by Toronto designer Lucian Matis that Sophie Grégoire Trudeau wore to the state dinner in Washington with U.S. President Barack Obama is one of several pieces of high-end fashion she has borrowed from designers. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

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.

What's new about this, of course, is how it steps into the political class, away from the glamour class. — Alan Middleton , professor of marketing at Schulich School of Business

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.

Toronto fashion designer Ellie Mae's Yazmin jacket ended up in Vogue after she gave it to Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, who wore it to a Washington reception attended by Canadian Grammy award winning singer songwriter The Weeknd. (Hannah Thomson/Canada 2020)

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.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau arrive for the 2016 Catalyst Awards Dinner in New York on March 16. The Pink Tartan tuxedo suit she wore was a gift from Toronto designer Kimberley Newport Mimran. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

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.

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."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's ethics filing says Montreal designer Rudsak gave Sophie Grégoire Trudeau a $595 sweater coat to wear at the funeral of Céline Dion's husband René Angelil. The day of the funeral, though, the weather prompted her to instead wear a coat she borrowed from Montreal's Mackage. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

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.

Any gift worth more than $1,000 will be disclosed and forfeited to the Crown unless she decides to purchase the item for the value over $1,000. Grégoire Trudeau can choose to donate clothing she receives as gifts to charity.

Duchesneau said Grégoire Trudeau also wants to avoid accepting a gift that could place her husband in a difficult situation.

"In no situation would Ms Grégoire Trudeau accept an item of clothing or other gift that would place the prime minister in a situation of conflict of interests, whether real or apparent."

Jewellery designer Alan Anderson's website features a photo of Sophie Grégoire Trudeau wearing his earrings to the state dinner with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. He gave her a pair of earrings as a gift after she bought a pair. (jewelsbyalananderson.com)

However, Duff Conacher, co-founder of the ethics watchdog group Democracy Watch, questions whether Grégoire Trudeau should be accepting loans or gifts of clothing in the first place.

"In terms of personal ethics she shouldn't be accepting these gifts. She should decide, and she will likely decide, to wear Canadian designers quite a bit to showcase them as others have … [but she should] not be tainted with even the appearance that's she's up for sale and happy to receive free gifts when she can afford to buy her own clothes and jewelry."

Designers, however, are happy to give Grégoire Trudeau their creations and are thrilled that she is bringing them added publicity.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau chat as they wait for U.S. President Barack Obama on Parliament Hill June 29. Her dress and jacket were a gift from Ottawa designer Muriel Dombret. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Ottawa designer Muriel Dombret, who designed the dress and jacket Grégoire Trudeau wore for Obama's visit to Ottawa, says she was approached by Grégoire Trudeau, who had seen her clothes on some of the store's other clients. Dombret sent a selection of clothes to Grégoire Trudeau, who chose one of her dresses and jackets to wear.

Dombret, who gave Grégoire Trudeau the dress and jacket as a gift, is thrilled with the exposure it gave her creations.

"I think it is very fortunate for us that it was for such a historic occasion."

Jewelry designer Alan Anderson said he had been working more in the U.S. market but Grégoire Trudeau's decision to wear a pair of his earrings has already sparked more interest in his designs in Canada.

"We regard her as a new champion of Canadian fashion, and her act of wearing Canadian designers is testament to the talent in our country."


The CBC's Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

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