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Nina McLemore's Clothes Are A 'Weapon' Of Powerful Women


What do Hillary Clinton, Janet Yellen, Elena Kagan and Elizabeth Warren all have in common? Yes, they're all powerful women in government and politics, and they've all worn clothing by Nina McLemore. You probably recognize the look, even if you don't know her name. Her work is packed with details that might not matter to fashionistas, but matter greatly to executives and other power players - TV-ready colors, tailoring that shows off a woman's figure, but not too much.

She's been called a weapon in the wardrobes of women in power. Since many women are planning their fall wardrobes now, we thought this was a good time to talk with her, and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Nina McLemore, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NINA MCLEMORE: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Now, you do have a background in fashion. We know that you were an executive of Liz Claiborne for many, many years. But are you trained in fashion design - or how did you come to this?

MCLEMORE: I think I had the best trainer because my mother, who was an artist, she and I, together, made everything I wore while I was growing up. And she had very high standards, and everything had to be hand-made, hand-sewn. So I could have anything I wanted. What could be better?

MARTIN: So how did you get to be the go-to designer for women in power?

MCLEMORE: Well, you mentioned the years with Liz Claiborne, and she was the go-to designer for young women going into the workforce. I retired and then realized that there was no one who had picked up from where that had left off. There really wasn't anyone who was focusing on those women. So that's really how we started the business.

MARTIN: The Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer Robin Givhan wrote in The Post that your softly tailored jackets over the years have both shielded and celebrated women. How do you feel about that?

MCLEMORE: Well, I think the, you know, all the research shows that the more diverse a company or a board or a government is, the better the outcomes. And so that's celebrating women because we need to make sure that women are seen as successful, competent leaders. And the shielding is that if you look at a man's suit, men are always shielded. You really don't see much about their bodies. And so in the workforce, you don't want people concentrating on what you look like.

MARTIN: So what I think I hear you saying is that women are looking for a kind of a language - a fashion language - that is both feminine and authoritative.

MCLEMORE: That's correct. And the challenge is men have two uniforms. They're either wearing a suit or they're wearing khakis with roll-up sleeved shirt. And women don't have that kind of uniform. And so women are trying to create this authoritative look. And I think the jacket is really the key part of it because when you sit down at the table, most of the time the men have on jackets. So you have on a jacket, and it does not call attention to the shape of your body.

MARTIN: I just - I want to point out that there will be some people who will be offended by the mere fact that you and I are having this conversation. Some people feel that there is just entirely too much conversation in general about the clothing that visible women wear. What do you think about that?

MCLEMORE: I think the answer is very easy. Regardless of what people want to think, we all make the decision about some new person that we've just met instantaneously about who they are. We are hardwired to determine whether somebody is a friend or a foe. So I think you absolutely can't avoid it, but I also think it's an important conversation.

MARTIN: A lot of people are planning their fall wardrobes now. There are a lot of young women who are just starting their careers. What's your advice?

MCLEMORE: Well, I think it's really the same almost for everyone. Clothing should fit well, not too tight, not too loose, quality of fabric. I think you should always buy the best quality you can afford and color. I would never do pale pink in my collection. It's not a strong color. You don't look strong when you walk in the room.

MARTIN: So what are some strong colors?

MCLEMORE: Well, the best color is blue with a touch of red in it, almost going to the purple side. Those are the colors that are pretty universal in how they look on everybody.

MARTIN: And what are you wearing today, Nina McLemore?

MCLEMORE: Bright red with just the right amount of mix of blue and yellow in it, but it's very strong bright red. It's American-flag red.

MARTIN: OK. That's Nina McLemore. She's CEO of Nina McLemore. It is a clothing company that is a favorite of powerful women around the country, particularly here in Washington, D.C. We caught up with her in New York. Nina McLemore, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MCLEMORE: Thank you, and have a great weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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