In late December, Jessica Liese, a 37-year-old digital content manager from New York City, did something she vowed to never do. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and Liese needed a dress for a family wedding. She and her mom went shopping.
“I had to get something off the rack or show up in sweatpants,” Liese explained. She stepped into Bolton's, the discount New York City store, although she wasn’t optimistic.
But in the back, past discounted skinny jeans and turtlenecks, there were 12 Ivanka Trump dresses hanging on a clearance rack—like wedding outfit gold.
Liese, who voted for Hillary Clinton, really needed a dress, but she couldn’t bring herself to wear the Trump name, saying it's off-putting and a reminder of who is president.
But Liese’s mom convinced her to try it on. Black, floral, sleeveless, knee length—the dress was classic Ivanka. It was feminine yet sophisticated, and just sexy enough to wear in church without offending the officiant. And to Liese’s dismay, it fit great.
“My mom said, ‘It looks good enough. You're going to have to hold your nose and wear it.’”
Liese wore the dress. But to make herself feel better she also sent $30, the approximate price of the item, to the ACLU.
Under the Trump presidency, politics and consumer goods are inextricably linked. Trump and his family are one with their respective brands. This has spawned protests like the #GrabYourWallet boycott, which urges consumers to avoid the Trump brand. And in this flurry, Ivanka Trump’s eponymous women’s wear line, has become one of the most controversial department store brands in recent memory.
This February, Nordstrom’s made national news when they dropped Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, citing declining sales. President Trump slammed the retailer on Twitter. Then presidential counselor Kelly Ann Conway went on Fox News and encouraged everyone to buy Ivanka—and may have broken federal ethics rules in the process. Meanwhile, sales of Ivanka’s perfume are soaring, in what appears to be a show of support for the first daughter.
Ivanka Trump goods are now so politically charged that women who own the products say they feel guilty. While this may seem like a lot of hoopla over a pair of shoes, consumer experts say these reactions are common.
Elle LeBlanc, a 30-year-old social worker in Boston, owns an Ivanka Trump coat, shoes, and pants, and feels very conflicted about what it means to have these products.
“I don’t think I knew who Ivanka Trump was when I bought the clothes,” she said. “Ivanka may be a more favorable person than her father but she is unfortunately linked to him. I don’t want to be linked to him."
In her work, LeBlanc sees undocumented immigrants and transgender individuals who have been directly affected by recent administration policies. She says she feels so uncomfortable wearing Ivanka Trump clothes around her patients that she is giving them away.
“I am loath to throw out clothing in good condition in general,” LeBlanc said. “But it might be a soul cleanse to get a new pair of shoes that aren’t in conflict with my values.”
Jen Stroh, a 28-year-old freelance copywriter from Denver, doesn’t think giving away her Ivanka Trump blouse would accomplish anything. But she also doesn’t want anyone to know she is wearing it.
So she tore off the tags.
“It’s a nice shirt, I like it, and it looks good in professional situations,” Stroh said. “But I don’t want to be seen as implicitly supporting his family in anyway.”
She said she's not sure it would accomplish anything to give the shirt away. “I don’t feel that bad about owning it, I am more annoyed that I bought it,” Stroh said. “I don’t see how getting rid of the shirt now will make any kind of statement or do anything.”
Consumer behavior experts say under a Trump presidency these reactions make sense.
“In recent history, we have never had a president who has been so closely associated with a set of businesses and products, which is leading people to rethink what they buy, and what it says about their political values,” said Brayden King, professor of management at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “It's the perfect storm and leading us to think about consumption now as a political statement.”
King argues that boycotts like #GrabYourWallet change how people perceive the brand, and their identities in relationship to that brand. “Now, it’s not just as a pair of shoes, but about who I am as a person,” he said.
For Trump supporters, this means they opposed Nordstrom’s and staged protests. For example, a group of six women from Arizona, posted a video of themselves at Nordstrom’s canceling their store credit cards and pledging to shop elsewhere.
“Because of your decision to drop Ivanka Trump I will no longer shop at your store nor will my husband,” Amanda Lawler, who organized the protest, says in the video, which later went viral.
Lawler didn’t respond to an interview request. But she recently told Fox News that the Nordstrom’s decision was one in a series of anti-Trump incidents, and Lawler wanted to fight back.
"When Nordstrom's decided to jump on the bandwagon, we decided we wanted to make a peaceful stance," Lawler told Fox News.
Meanwhile, the future of the brand is uncertain. Ivanka Trump has stepped down from her fashion label. And the New York Times reported that TJ Maxx and Marshall’s employees were instructed to discard signs advertising Ivanka Trump products. Shoppers from New Jersey to Texas report that Ivanka Trump items are hard to find.
(The Ivanka Trump company didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
People on both sides of the political spectrum can agree that the department stores and objects haven’t actually changed. It's just what they represent.
“I don’t hate the dress. I just feel weird about wearing it,” Jessica Liese, the woman in need of a wedding dress, explained. “I don’t want to go around in public looking awesome, or even semi-passable, and have people ask me whose dress is that. I don’t relish being a brand ambassador on any level.”