War Of What They Wear

Two neighbours go to battle: Both men share the same Slavic first name (spelled differently), but not the same war-time garb. One shows he has more—a lot more—money than the other. Hence, more power?

Two presidents: Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and Vladimir Putin (right). Photos: Reuters

Volodymyr versus Vladimir, less versus lux, pared versus plush. The contrast couldn’t be more obvious. During the present warring states in Eastern Europe, two presidents fight it out sartorially on television in vastly different garbs. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on one side, dressed to stand with his fellowmen in defending his country and Russian president Vladimir Putin togged to impress his citizens that he is the most powerful man in the land who is never wrong. Since the war, Mr Zelensky is often shown wearing a fitted T-shirt, even when appearing before world leaders (via video calls). Quite the opposite, Mr Putin has been seen in suit and tie, and in a recent appearance at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow to garner support for his war against Ukraine, wore a US$14,000 (or about S$19,012) navy puffer that the Western press gleefully noted to be “25 times (or 31, depending on the state of the rouble) the nation’s average monthly wages”.

That Mr Putin would have expensive taste in clothes is not surprising. He has the means and the oligarchs amassed during is very long rule to support his clothing choice. Yet, the five-figure hooded outer he wore on stage does not look like some statement coat; it could have been picked from any homegrown store in Moscow, rather than from Loro Piana, the Italian textile manufacturer and clothier, originally from the northern Italian commune of Trivero (also the provenance of Ermenegildo Zegna). Loro Piano is known for their expensive cashmere and wool products. It is part of the LVMH empire (the company owns 80% of the brand). They have a few stores in Moscow, but as with all LVMH-owned businesses, are now closed (they are two stores on our island).

At Loro Piana, an unassuming wool coat would not sell for less than US$3,000. A puffer similar to Mr Putin’s listed on the brand’s American website for US$11,000, the Clement Bomber, is made of ‘The Gift of Kings’ wool, touted to be of fibres that are 12 microns in diameter (the common Merino wool is between 18 to 24 microns, cashmere between 14 to 17). A luxury outer has to sit atop a just-as-splendid sweater. Mr Putin paired his Loro Piano with a cashmere turtleneck from Kiton, also Italian, that is believed to cost US$3,000 (or about S$4,073). In pictures, he appeared to be wearing leather shoes. These could have been from his favourite English bootmaker John Lobb. If the Russian president wore a suit, as he has been for his TV appearances, he would have likely chosen the Italian label Brioni. And if we could see what was on his wrists, there is the possibility that he had on either the US$$60,000 Patek Philippe’s Perpetual Calendar or the $500,000 A. Lange & Sohne Toubograph, both identified by Fortune to be among his stash of luxury watches he possesses.

Vladimir Putin in the Loro Piana puffer and Kiton sweater at a rally in Moscow on 18 March 2022. Photo: Getty Images

What Mr Putin wears is now of international interest not because of how good—or bad—he looks, but how not right. Russian observers are shocked with their leader’s blatant display of wealth. In times of austerity (not forgetting sanctions), heads of states tend not to boast sartorially, but Mr Putin, with billions in personal wealth, according to some reports (one estimate says US$200 billion!), isn’t one affected by the harsh economic realities affecting so many outside the Kremlin. The patriot does not have to make patriotic fashion choices.

Of that horizontally-quilted coat, the deputy chairman of Loro Piana, Pier Luigi told Italian newspaper la Repubblica that Putin’s choice of outerwear that day “creates some embarrassment from a human point of view”, in the wake of a petition asking the Italian house to denounce their famous war-bent customer. Karine Orlova, correspondent for Echo of Moscow radio, Tweeted: “Anyone who likes anything Western is a national traitor, declared Putin and two days later appeared dressed in a $10K Loro Piana coat at a rally in Moscow promoting war in Ukraine. Putin has long been a fan of the brand—time to end this. Please, sign”.

Shortly after the start of the war a month ago, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky adopted a more battle-prepared attire—with clothes that appeared to be issued by the quartermaster of the Ukrainian army than his favourite tailor. Prior to that, Mr Zelensky wore suits (usually dark coloured), white shirt with semi-spread collars, and a solid-coloured tie that tended to match his suits: Very much in the classic, politically-smart style of Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau. But then he retired that wardrobe. His favourite top is now a simple, brand-unknown T-shirt, usually in shades between military green and camo brown. However, befitting of a commander-in-chief, his smartly fitted tees—with their refined skinny crew neck and seemingly mercerised fabric (in some instances, and brushed or bio-finished in others)—do not resemble those issued to the private personnel of the army.

Volodymyr Zelensky in his signature T-shirt of unknown make. Photo: AP

Many observers point to Mr Zelensky’s former profession for his present choice of clothes. The president was an actor before, a comedian too; he is aware, it has been suggested, of how to work the costume to his advantage, to augment the believability of his character. He, therefore, knows how to use the T-shirt, as Marlo Brando and James Dean did, to play the everyman who connects with everyday Ukranians, just as our Lee Hsien Loong’s predilection for pink shirts have impressed the electorate. Mr Velensky’s T-shirts also allowed him to gird himself for the difficult role ahead, one that shows he’s battle-ready, not battle-weary. “Civilians and soldiers are dying in Ukraine, the president would not want to be seen to have spent time preening,” one image consultant told us.

But not everyone approves of Mr Zelensky’s casual attire. Following his video address to the US Congress a week ago, Republican financier, chief economist at Euro Pacific Capital, and radio personality Peter Schiff, Tweeted: “I understand times are hard, but doesn’t the President of the #Ukraine own a suit?” Was the sensibilities of Mr Schiff, the Wall Street stiff, insulted? It clearly was: A day ago, he doubled down, by commenting on his podcast The Peter Schiff Show, “Yes, it’s a war. Times are tough. But I didn’t think it was such a dire life or death situation… that he couldn’t have worn something nicer than a T-shirt.” Vladimir Putin, a nicer dresser (certainly more so than his pal Donald Trump), would surely have appeared spiffier. Who was Mr Schiff really expecting?.

When Mr Zelensky addressed the European Parliament two weeks prior to his video appearance in front of the US audience, he wore a T-shirt similar to the one he had on when speaking to the Americans. However, no European lawmaker on the legislative branch felt umbrage at the non-existent snub. Would Peter Schiff be less outraged if Mr Zelensky wore, over the offensive T-shirt, an additional top, such as the blouson that he is, just as often, seen in? Since the Russian invasion, Volodymyr Zelensky has mostly appeared in the same military-style outfit, whether he is speaking to his audience indoor or outdoor. This consistency prompted many media outlets to suppose that the president was directing the defence operation and encouraging international response on little sleep. With constant, audible artillery attacks, do we really expect the leader of the Ukrainians to pause and consider which suit to wear so that the members of the American Congress would not be “disrespected”, while many Ukrainians die in the line of Russian fire? Leave the suit wearing to Vladimir Putin as he marches onward to meet his inexorably tragic fate.