Earlier this week, The New York Times documented what can only be described as a Trump fashion show. The organization Virginia Women For Trump threw a “Tea for Trump” party in Washington to celebrate the president’s birthday. (Trump wasn’t there himself, sending press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in his stead.) Hundreds of women in coordinating hats and gowns convened at the capital’s Trump International Hotel for what Virginia Women for Trump president Alice Butler-Short called a celebration of God, Trump, and fashion.
The fashion part was courtesy of designer Andre Soriano. The flash point of “Tea for Trump” was a dress sent down the runway to the North Korean national anthem. If the gown doesn’t seem very Korean, it might be because it isn’t really — those long, draping sleeves and wrapped belt more resemble a ruqun, a garment worn by women during the Chinese Tang Dynasty over a thousand years ago. In fact, the dress, worn by a white woman from Santa Cruz, is a reworked version of a Soriano piece from 2016, originally presented entirely outside of a North Korean context. Another look from the fashion show, a red satin gown emblazoned with “Make America Great Again,” was a rehashed version of the gown singer Joy Villa wore to the 2017 Grammys –the first Soriano design to achieve widespread attention.
A BIG thank you to celebrity designer @officialandresoriano for granting me the opportunity to walk for him in this gorgeous gown ❤️ Designer: @officialandresoriano Photo credit: @nytimes MUA: @clarelysa #andresoriano #couture #fashion #designer #MAGA #style #dc #america #runway #dcmodel #dcmua #dmv #dmvmodel #buzzcut #baldgirl #peace #love #unity #glamour #nytimes #america #birthday #president #trump #teafortrump #fashionshow #whitehouse
But who is Andre Soriano, and how did he become Trump voters’ favorite fashion designer?
That Grammys gown, whose kitsch factor overshadowed its irregular seams, translucent material, and ill fit, temporarily seized the attention of both left and right wing media outlets. Villa’s album shot to #1 on Amazon, and Soriano gained a burst of attention; the Grammys red carpet had briefly given Joy Villa and Andre Soriano their 15 minutes.
Soriano, now 47, immigrated from the Philippines as a young child, along with his family of four, to escape Ferdinand Marcos’ brutal regime. Soriano, long enamored with celebrity culture, studied design at San Francisco’s FIDM. He briefly opened an athletic store in the city that shuttered in 2008 when he moved to San Diego with his husband and their four dogs and opened an atelier. Soriano, who did not respond to requests for comment on this article, participated in local fashion shows and charity events until 2013, when he found minor reality TV fame by appearing on the Rihanna-produced Bravo series Styled to Rock. The show featured Erin Wasson, Pharrell, and Mel Ottenberg as “mentors,” and had its contestants design outfits for a different musician or musical act each week, like Miley Cyrus and Carly Rae Jepsen.
While Soriano wasn’t the star of Styled to Rock (he was eliminated in the show’s 6th episode), it seemed to whet his appetite for the attention garnered by proximity to celebrity. Later that year, he told The San Diego Tribune he wanted “more attention and more customers. I have always been fascinated with Hollywood and I always position my work towards celebrities.” Soriano found a kindred spirit in Joy Villa: a provocateur unafraid of controversy in the ruthless pursuit of fame. In 2015, Villa wore a Soriano gown made of neon orange snow-fencing to the Grammys. Soriano told a San Diego NBC affiliate he had warned Villa that, “you’re going to trend in the best and the worst.” Both of them enjoyed the resulting spotlight, but the attention was short-lived. Beyond a few minor gigs — a guest judge for Miss Middle East USA, for instance — the future of Andre Soriano, the label, seemed bleak. Then Trump happened.
Reading and watching the smattering of low-profile interviews and and press clips up until 2016, Soriano emerges as a figure who’s maddeningly difficult to pin down. His public persona seems unprovocative almost by design: in nearly every interview he recounts his design inspiration (“Old Hollywood”), his hobby (cooking), his hidden talent (he sings karaoke like Frank Sinatra), and his activism (LGBT rights). His Instagram and Twitter are strings of general hashtags and photos with C-list celebrities. His Instagram remained apolitical until November 2, 2016, when he posted a photo of Trump and Pence with the caption “FASHIONISTAS UNITE!!! Proudly Made and Manufacturing in the United States of America #proudamerican #maga #vote #usa #DesignerLife. Predictably, the post has hundreds of comments on it bickering back and forth about Trump — but also about the discordance that Soriano, a gay immigrant, would be a Trump voter.
Soriano positioning himself as a Trump-friendly designer just as high fashion gave the Trumps the cold shoulder was shrewd. According to Paste Magazine, Soriano says he was inspired to make that Grammys gown after watching Madonna speak at the Women’s March, which he saw on the whole as an exercise in division and hate. Luckily, Soriano’s longtime collaborator in red carpet stunts, Joy Villa (a Bernie supporter) had voted for Trump as well, and was eager to show it. Villa has since been expelled from the Republican establishment and Soriano’s good graces for her involvement in Scientology (she wore a Soriano dress in Scientology promotional materials), and for accusing Corey Lewandowski of sexual harassment. Soriano, meanwhile, became the anointed MAGA Fashion Designer, a title no one else wanted.
Today, Soriano is clear about the paradoxes of his belief systems. His website breaks his persona down into four categories: Filipino Immigrant, Trump Advocate, Faithful Christian, and Gay Rights Activist (he “supports anti-bullying and gay rights, staying true to who you are and promoting acceptance!”). It’s that last identity that seems to stick so firmly in the craw of the liberals who argue in the comments below Soriano’s Instagram posts. They want to know how he can advocate for a president who banned transgender people from serving in the military, and a vice president who has supported conversion therapy and has a record of opposing gay rights.
Soriano’s history as an ardent supporter of gay rights – long before November 2016 – is well-documented. There’s one interview with The Huffington Post where Soriano expresses his relief that “[gay] marriage is out in the open now,” in contrast with his experience, coming of age in the 1980s. “I think it’s a little more accepting now, but a lot of young people, especially just like me growing up in the South, need mentors…I never really had that.”
Today, Soriano’s desire to MAGA wholly consumes his public persona, designs, and talking points (a crowd pleaser: “I’m an immigrant…a legal immigrant”). Hero worship isn’t unfamiliar territory in high fashion, but Soriano might be the first fashion designer to dedicate the entirety of his brand to someone other than himself. As a result, he’s found fame amid a fashion-starved and fiercely loyal fanbase that’ll be with him – as long as Soriano puts Trump first.