Behind the Scenes: Fashion in Politics

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I have always had a very honest interest in having a discussion with people from different backgrounds about their approach to fashion. They all experience it individually, and they all have a different relationship with their closets. An innumerable variety of styles exist to complete the entire Pantone (a system for matching colours, used in specifying printing inks) palette. However, I have never had even a thought that one day I will be talking about fashion… and politics. This might sound serious and kind of tedious, but our conversation with Arnoldas Pranckevicius, who is the Head of the European Commission Representation in Lithuania, was one of the most fascinating conversations I have ever had. It provided me with a glimpse to what usually in political arena stays behind the scenes, or how politicians usually say “on the margins”. So, let us see how these completely different worlds of fashion and politics interact through the eyes of Arnoldas. 

by GRETA KAVECKYTE

photographer DARIUS MARKUNAS

“For me, abstract is something between ‘I know it perfectly’ and ‘I have no clue about’. Being abstract to me is a walk down the city streets I haven’t walked before, but somehow finding them familiar. It’s like understanding that sometimes is not only we want, but what we need is also important. And of course, nobody can describe it 100% and that’s the magic of abstract, that you can never know what is behind.”

These days we can notice old trends returning to the fashion spotlight. What were you wearing in the early 90’s?

I have noticed old trends being back in the streets and I believe this is a circular process. I think, that people who do not always throw away their old clothes are actually very smart. It’s a very good idea, in terms with protecting the environment and relying on the fact that sooner or later your clothes might become fashionable again.

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During my studies in the United States, I was strongly influenced by the two continents, which are very different in their approaches to fashion production and consumption - Europe and North America. I felt very lost in between the two waves, especially in the United States, with wide-leg cut jeans, oversized tops, and baseball caps. In Europe, clothing was much more delicate and more refined. Thus, my outfits were very much a combination of both and this distinguished me from the crowd. Although, locals could still easily say that I am a European and, even without knowing my name, they always made the same remarks – “Oh, you are from Europe!”; “You dress differently, more formal, more sophisticated, and academic”. I was mostly wearing formally looking jackets, chemise, classic pants, which, unquestionably, would be never worn by the American student. 

However, when I returned to Lithuania, one could easily notice me bringing back some kind of American style. When I first flew to America with an exchange program in the gymnasium, I looked like an alien from another planet. Later, in 1996, the United States and Lithuania from a fashion perspective looked like two completely different countries but this time at least, from the same planet.

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I remember, when I was packing my suitcase to take to the United States, my brother donated me his sneakers and his jacket. Now, when I look at the photos, the difference is obvious. The first thing my host family did, they took me to the mall and said: “Arnold, buy American clothes”. But I still preferred wearing clothes brought from Lithuania, because they reflected my real character and identity. My American friends mostly liked my Lithuanian sneakers produced by Inkaras. The latter were very simple, very affordable and very popular in Lithuania at that time. In America, they looked like a pair of expensive designer shoes.

What is your favourite set of apparel, which gives you the most pleasant feeling?

Sometimes my friends and colleagues are joking that I was born with a tie. From the very beginning of my professional path, I was taking part in various debates and activities, later worked in some European Union structures. It sounds paradoxical, but I do not feel very comfortable wearing a tie. My leisure outfits are definitely different from my official garderobe. When I am out of duty, I wear comfortable clothes. I really like jeans; it's one of those pieces of the garment with which you feel very comfortable and even very attached to. I love sweaters for the story they embody with the time passing. Either it is a gift or a memory from school. Often I go out with a Panevėžys sweater. This is part of your identity, the way to convey your message - you know your roots, you remember where you are from and that place is still dear to you.

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You take important responsibilities that oblige you to comply with a particular dress code. Is there any chance to come across an embarrassing or funny situation? 

In the diplomatic and political sphere, there often happen unpredictable events and occasionally chaotic situations; otherwise, life is tedious and not so interesting. Political diplomacy from the outside looks very solid, the protocols are instilled, but in reality, sometimes things are going differently. During my time in the European Parliament, I experienced a lot of funny situations. I remember one when our whole luggage was gone while flying to Moldova, and since we flew with the Lufthansa airline, the only thing we got as a compensation for the lost luggage was the airline t-shirt. The next morning we came to a meeting with the President of the country wearing the Lufthansa t-shirts, causing a great joke and clearly catching the attention of the local newspapers

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Another interesting situation I recall is about saving the winner of the Sakharov Prize. The Sakharov Prize is one of the most important prizes in the world for protecting human rights. That year, the prize had to be given to the Cuban fighter. And it was the same year when Lithuania was holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. So, the crazy thing was that the winner forgot to bring a tie and realized that a few minutes before the ceremony in Strasbourg. Therefore, all I could think of on the spot was to take off my own especially for the Lithuanian Presidency produced tie and give it to him as a gift… Imagine a former Cuban fighter and a political prisoner coming to claim the Sakharov Prize while wearing this tie. Nobody could ever foreshadow this kind of scenario!

As far as clothing is concerned, people engaged in politics and diplomacy do not tend to see clothing as an obstacle to find compromises and achieve results. 

You are working with high-rank officials and prominent people. Do you feel that sometimes clothes and other accessories become a tool to show your status and authority?

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No doubt. It's natural that clothing not only in politics and diplomacy but also in business often tells a lot about a particular person. For many years, the attire was serving as a mirror of your social status. Nowadays, it is becoming less relevant, and basically, any public person has an access to various outfits and can choose clothes according to his financial situation and needs. Outfits in Europe tend to become simpler and, sometimes, it is even being considered as the bad tone if you decide to choose too luxurious clothes. It is popular in autocracies, in the East or in the Middle East, but in Europe, it is becoming less appropriate. Therefore, it's not too easy these days to distinguish a famous politician from the crowd of ordinary people in the street. 

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This year we had a visit of Mr Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission in Vilnius. He is a very important figure in Brussels. And when we were walking in the Old Town of Vilnius he was very interested in seeing the area of the former Jewish ghetto. We spent an hour strolling in Vilnius and nobody even recognized him, except several Polish tourists who immediately remembered him from the Polish television. After that, we were laughing from the fact that he is popular in Lithuania only amongst visiting tourists from Poland.

Political fashion - what do you think about the brands that manipulate, even the Soviet-style? (Vetements, Gosha Rubchinskiy)

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We live in a democratic society, and I tend to see most of the things in a liberal way. I think that in fashion there should be as few restrictions and as much freedom as possible. Of course, fashion is a part of communication and there are such expressions that may offend people. People also see clothes as a mean to convey their messages to the environment surrounding them or even further. Responsibility shall be taken here not by the fashion house, but by that particular person who is fueling moral convictions instead. I do not think that politicizing clothes should be banned. Politics is everywhere, not just in the parliaments or governments. We live in a politically motivated world, where every opinion can carry a message, as well as make a difference. Let's suppose that French students are very romantic about the era of the Soviet Union, which they could not even know directly. Therefore, their misleading understanding does not make me angry but instead gives me an opportunity to talk to them and explain the reality our post-Soviet countries experienced. The provocative or screaming details encourage conversation and, subsequently, deeper knowledge.

How clothes help or disturb you? Do you become different when wearing casual clothes?

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Each situation in life has a different dress code, imaginary or real. Sometimes, my friends can see me with sweatshirts or shorts when cycling or on a kayak trip, but it is also fun for me to wear formal outfits, as they also allow me to express myself and be pretty eloquent. I remember when England's Queen Elizabeth II, a short time after the famous Brexit referendum took place, made an annual speech at the British Parliament in Westminster. She was wearing the hat that reminded a bit of the EU flag. It was obviously her sign or rather a message — The Queen, who never speaks out her personal opinion, said everything she wanted through that hat. 

I always think what kind of message my tie will spread. Sometimes, I refer to a certain memory; sometimes I choose the one, which represents a relevant country. In a political - diplomatic community a tie can say a lot.

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Taking a bit further: What do you think about the image of small regions in the international context? Lithuania is part of a small region. Are we often seen in the international arena as aesthetes, creators?

I am proud to say that many of my friends and colleagues who have been visiting Vilnius left it with very good impressions. Everyone feels the delicate style in Vilnius. A large part of Western Europeans do not have high expectations for Lithuania and usually put us on the same shelf with other countries. But when they eventually come, they are very excited to find a different atmosphere, a different style that is more delicate, less luxurious but the same European. Not only politically, but also culturally and through visual appearance. We are in Europe and we are real Europeans.

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Different level meetings require special preparation. Do you have any certain rules to follow when meeting people?

I am a very last-minute person - many times I’ve been in a hurry or running late. I am also very spontaneous, although sometimes it does not look like this from the side. Thus, most often I make the decision at the last minute and decide on the day's outfit in the morning, very rarely I decide everything on the eve - unless it's a very important visit requiring very serious preparation. 

And for the end — politics and fashion. How these two are interrelated?

Policy relates to everything, be it fashion, food or any kind of word, which is the main weapon in policy. Politics is an extremely intuitive thing, but it is very difficult to codify and predict, as well as investigate and weigh because it is the activity of people about people and for people. Everywhere where people are, there is also an emotion and intuition, positive and negative subjective elements.

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P.S. I am very thankful to Arnoldas for a cosy conversation and discussion about politics, fashion and the matter of personalization uniting both. That was a great opportunity to see that all of us are similar and we should broaden our horizons more often and not to be afraid of people we usually see only through the lenses of media and publicity.

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