She’s Donald Trump’s favourite child: the former model whose fashion business generated sales of $100 million last year, the mother of three who was the star turn on his campaign trail. Anjali Mullany meets Ivanka Trump
The energy on the 22nd floor of Trump Tower becomes a little giddier when Ivanka Trump enters the small offices that serve as headquarters for the Ivanka Trump collection. It’s my third visit to the licensed clothing and accessories company, and Ivanka seems looser than she has appeared in recent television interviews, laughing with her staff and double-checking her make-up and teeth before her photoshoot, gamely allowing our photographer to perch her all over the office in search of the best light.
As the initial excitement around her arrival subsides, the staff get back to work. I watch Ivanka as she follows the photographer’s instructions from behind the camera. At 5ft 11in, the former model resets her face between shots, momentarily erasing her expression in preparation for her next pose. After the shoot, she calls out to one of her employees to fetch her coffee cup (“I really need it today!” she laughs – she just got back from picking up one of her kids from a short day at school), then resets herself again and sits across from me at a small white conference table, lowering her voice both in volume and pitch. Her face becomes a little less expressive – not less pleasant, but a little harder to read.
“I learnt a long time ago that I can’t control the opinions of others or what they project on me. All I can do is live my life, and I’ve tried to do that,” she tells me a few minutes into our interview. It’s a classic Ivanka Trump statement, as if to say, I’m perfectly clear about who I am; it’s not my fault what other people decide to think.
Now 35, she has been in the limelight since she was a child, thanks in part to the soap opera of her wealthy parents’ lives. Her mother is former competitive skier and model Ivana Trump and her father, president-elect Donald, is arguably the most controversial man to make it to the White House in American history.
For the most part, she has managed to support her father’s campaign, co-run The Trump Organization, and lead her own Ivanka Trump brand through the resulting noise. Her ability to engineer her image is a skill that has served her well over the course of this year’s presidential campaign, during which she testified on behalf of her father numerous times.
“I mean, it’s been a year and a half of enormous scrutiny, of my family, every business, every movement, action,” Ivanka concedes. “But I think that, you know, that sort of comes with the territory. And I think that I’ve probably learnt a lot through it and I’ve probably grown a bit tougher in terms of my resilience towards what is thrown our way because, you know, I’ve read some very negative stuff,” she says, laughing a little and sighing.
What was it like during the campaign to wake up, read in the newspaper that your father is accused of sexually assaulting a minor, and continue to go about your day? Ivanka doesn’t flinch. “The greatest comfort I have is the fact that I know my father. Most of the people who write about him don’t. I do,” she says matter-of-factly. “So that gives me an ability to shrug off the things that I read about him that are wrong.”
Rarely has Ivanka conceded any wrongdoing by her father. In the past, she has responded to sexism accusations against her father by calling him “an equal opportunity offender” who has “said plenty of rough things about men over the years”. Ivanka is not naive to sexism when she sees it; at one point in our conversation, when I mention that she has been referred to by Vanity Fair as Trump’s “proxy wife”, she cuts me off: “Which is deeply offensive. I feel that that’s a very sexist thing to say.” Meanwhile, during the campaign, the media loved to pick up on her father’s comments on her physique over the years – most notably when he said on an ABC programme in 2006: “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I would be dating her.”
“This has been a surreal experience for me,” Ivanka says, straight-backed in her chair, long neck slightly bent toward me as she describes the year and a half since she helped introduce her father’s candidacy. Often, when Ivanka says something even remotely not-positive about the campaign, she adds a bright side to her statement: “And it’s been an amazing one, and I’ve learnt so much.” Ivanka smiles when she speaks; she rarely breaks eye contact, unless there is some movement in the room – when I move my finger down my iPhone screen to scan my questions, I see her briefly glance at my hand before locking eyes with me again.
If every Trump voter buys her products, she’ll be the world’s most important fashion brand
Many in the public – and the American media – are obsessed with figuring her out, convinced that she secretly doesn’t agree with her father’s policies, eager for her to finally show her hand. “I mean, I think that Ivanka has a really thick skin,” says Abigail Klem, the chief brand officer at Ivanka Trump. “And one would have, if you’ve grown up in the public eye the way that she has.”
Was the root of her loyalty pure filial duty? Did she support him because he’s rich (though how rich is anyone’s guess)? Because the exposure is good for her business? Because, deep down, she’s actually just like him? Because of her stated reason: that she truly believed he was the best man for the job? Those who question Ivanka’s motives may as well stop holding their breath; this is a woman who, in her twenties, wrote a book loosely based around the theme of holding one’s “Trump” card close to one’s chest until it’s really needed.
One thing that’s become clear is that the Ivanka Trump collection has benefited from all the attention. Ivanka’s appearances on the campaign trail, and in the audience at presidential debates, doubled as free marketing. The Ivanka Trump collection dress, priced $138 (£110), that she wore to the Republican National Convention quickly sold out, and working women’s issues – the only area in which she has publicly got involved with her father’s policies – are core to her business’s branding strategy. Her company caters to working women (and full-time mothers) aged 25 to 34 under the banner of the company’s tagline: “Women Who Work.”
Net sales of just the clothing arm of the company increased by $11.8 million (about £9.5 million) during the first six months of 2016 compared with the first six months of 2015 as it sold its products online and at department stores, according to public filings from one of Ivanka Trump’s major licensing and manufacturing partners. Forbes reported that the Ivanka Trump clothing line generated $100 million in revenue last year, and sales were up $29.4 million from the previous fiscal year. The private company will not confirm sales figures, but does say that sales went up 37 per cent last year and that the growth rate has held pretty steady this year. The website’s traffic is up 50 per cent on the past year, thanks to Ivanka’s heightened public profile.
The flip side to the success has been a public dissection of her business and personal stance on issues such as maternity leave and childcare whenever she has campaigned for her father. While publicising Trump’s maternity leave and childcare plans, Ivanka claimed that Hillary Clinton hadn’t come out with a plan of her own (she had). Ivanka also claimed that The Trump Organization offers all employees paid maternity leave (it doesn’t). The 20-odd people who work full time for Ivanka Trump, however, do get eight weeks of paid maternity leave.
I remind Ivanka that her own mother, Ivana, went back to work just two days after giving birth to Ivanka’s elder brother, Donald Jr, and that Ivanka herself appeared on stage just six weeks after giving birth to her third child, Theodore, in March this year. Since her father’s childcare policy has been criticised for, among other things, not extending benefits to fathers or same-sex partners, I ask: isn’t paternity leave good for ambitious women? Ivanka responds that her father’s plan isn’t the final step, but a first step.
“Right now, under US law, there is no paid leave,” she points out. Her father’s plan, she says, “represents a very positive step in the right direction”.
One thing Ivanka has been adamant about is that, “it’s always been very important for me to separate business from politics” – and her staff echo this sentiment. In public and away from her company, for much of the election season, Ivanka acted more like her father’s character witness than a policy maker, though it has long been reported that she was one of his most trusted advisers on his campaign.
Use the word “adviser” in front of Ivanka, however, and she will quickly correct you. “I am a daughter and an executive who has worked alongside him,” she tells me.
But in the eyes of her potential customers, the line between presidential campaign values and Ivanka Trump values may seem more blurred than Ivanka and her employees will ever concede. The Ivanka Trump website is mostly dedicated to life and career advice, and readers are more likely to find an article filled with salary negotiation advice than a post about sexual harassment in the workplace. It has featured photographs of Ivanka wearing Ivanka Trump label clothing at Trump campaign events, as well as her endorsement of her father’s maternity and childcare platform, which Trump himself has implied she helped influence. (“ ‘Daddy, Daddy, we have to do this,’ ” Trump said at an Iowa campaign event, caricaturing Ivanka. “She is the one that has been pushing so hard for it.”)
Far from campaign podiums, Ivanka Trump’s staff insist they don’t talk politics among themselves in the office. “When I brought together my team, I didn’t ask what their political orientation was, nor do I care,” Ivanka tells me emphatically. It’s possible that Ivanka may be the only person in her company whose presidential endorsement was fully known to the others (although a public records search reveals that there is at least one registered Democrat in the office).
After doing some modelling as a teenager, Ivanka did a post-college stint at a property company, and then went to work for her father at The Trump Organization. She was anointed vice-president of property development and acquisitions and became the youngest board member of a publicly traded company (Trump Entertainment Resorts) at the age of 24.
When Ivanka joined the cast of her father’s reality TV show The Apprentice, she became even more famous. If you look closely, you can see how Ivanka has evolved over the years. “I’m sort of into sabotage,” she tells Piers Morgan in an episode of The Apprenticethat involved the British TV presenter. In another interview, Ivanka laughingly notes that she does “not pull punches … I’m on the blunt side”. But over time her mannerisms have become more controlled, her speech a bit more refined.
Before she turned 30, she wrote The Trump Card and launched a fine jewellery business. A shoe line followed and she soon expanded her licensing deals to handbags, clothes, accessories, even fragrances and baby gear. She converted to Judaism and married Jared Kushner, another rich property developer’s kid who was no stranger to tabloid family headlines. (His father was jailed for corruption in 2005.) Harvard-educated Kushner became a key participant in Donald Trump’s campaign.
Through everything, Ivanka has kept her public image firmly under her grip, cultivating a hard-working reputation and avoiding scandal. “People I know who’ve been in a business setting with her – a colleague or a schoolmate – have all said she is very impressive. She’s always well prepared, well spoken,” says Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder of one of America’s top branding companies, Mavens & Moguls.
I learnt a long time ago that I can’t control the opinions of others. All I can do is live my life
Brand and public-relations experts generally agree that Ivanka’s role as a loyal daughter has protected her from some of the blowback from her father’s campaign.
“Her brand has been built on a really careful balancing act,” says Rajiv Menon, a cultural analyst with the branding consultancy TruthCo. “She’s really demonstrated a sense of drive, a sense of ingenuity, and established something strong with her apparel brand and larger public presence. But with all of that, she’s never lost her sense of family loyalty,” he says, pointing out that “in the early 2000s, she was featured in a documentary, Born Rich [which included interviews with the children of some of America’s wealthiest dynasties], and she was really public about her love of her family, her pride in her family, and reaffirming the Trump name quite often,” Menon says. “And as the campaign continued, she maintained that balancing act – even when that balancing act became more precarious and more of a liability for her.”
“She would lose points if she didn’t stand by her father,” says Pace University professor of marketing Larry Chiagouris.
The fact that her father’s campaign was accused of racism on multiple occasions certainly hasn’t made things easier for Ivanka, as tough as she may be. After Ivanka introduced Donald Trump as “colour-blind and gender neutral”, critics said that her comments simply highlighted how out of touch she is on the issue.
“I categorically reject any people within a community who espouse hatred towards anyone, and my father does and has as well, so this is not support that I would be comfortable with,” Ivanka tells me. “And I couldn’t be comfortable with my father as president of this country if I thought that he could be comfortable with that type of support, and I know that he is not, that’s why he denounced it.”
Yet calls on Twitter for boycotts of Ivanka’s products don’t seem to have hurt her business. “Not only can her brand transcend it, but the more people say that they’re going to boycott her brand, the more they’re going to drive [those] who are either middle of the road or pro-Republican to choose the brand,” says Chiagouris. During the campaign, Ivanka Trump’s major retail partners, including the department store Bloomingdale’s, showed no signs of discontinuing their affiliation.
“If everyone who voted for Donald Trump buys her products, she’ll be the wealthiest, most important fashion brand in the world,” adds Chiagouris. “Think about that … Those people [threatening to boycott her] on Twitter? She doesn’t need their business.”
After Ivanka’s speech at the Republican National Convention, even ardent anti-Trumpers such as the actress and activist Mia Farrow tweeted, “When is Ivanka running for president?” A summer Gallup poll found that Ivanka’s favourability rating was about on par with that of Hillary’s Clinton’s daughter, though Ivanka seems to generate far more public interest than her friend Chelsea. Ivanka has even been touted by various people (including Donald Trump) as a possible future Trump administration cabinet member.
“No, I don’t intend to be part of the government,” she tells me.
When I put together my team I didn’t ask what their political orientation was. Nor do I care
Ivanka has two businesses to run, and three kids under the age of five to raise (not without help, of course). She’s also publishing another book next year called, unsurprisingly, Women Who Work; the Ivanka Trump offices are soon moving to a bigger space in Trump Tower, and the company has more partners and more retail deals in the works. In 2017, Ivanka Trump products will be available in more than 1,000 US stores. After months of mud-slinging, it’s possible Ivanka might be one of the biggest winners of the 2016 election.
The longer-term challenge for her brand, between her wealth and her tightly controlled self-image, is whether she’s relatable enough. Through all the stress of the past year, Ivanka has come off as poised, unflappable and strictly on-message. The Ivanka Trump website is littered with photos of Ivanka doing something professional – cutting a ribbon on a new Trump property, say, or donning a hard hat – while wearing a crisp dress and rocking flawless hair (on social media she’s a bit more likely to be seen make-up free while caring for a baby).
“One of the things that I would love to see Ivanka do, and we try to showcase a little bit more on our site, is to show the more human, funny side,” Abigail Klem, her head of brand, tells me. “She’s grown up in the public eye, so she is poised all of the time or certainly all of the time where she’s being interviewed and all that … so we’re trying to get Ivanka to showcase a more sort of silly side of herself. We’ll see if that happens,” Klem says. “I have encouraged her to highlight the times when things aren’t so easy for her or when she has felt that she’s failed.”
There’s a moment in The Trump Card when she recalls wishing, when she was a little girl, that she were like everyone else. Her parents’ divorce in 1992 was front-page fodder for New York tabloids and photographers often hounded young Ivanka as she walked to school. A reporter once asked the nine-year-old Ivanka if relations with her father had really been, as a New York Post headline declared, the “best sex” his then-new girlfriend Marla Maples had ever had.
“What type of person would ask a nine-year-old girl that kind of question? About her own father, no less?” Ivanka writes in the book.
“From time to time,” she writes, “my sideline interests collided head on with my parents’ desire to provide as much as possible for their children. And somewhere in the pile-up was whatever was left of my desire to have a normal childhood. That was always a big deal to me when I was little, to be just like everyone else, the kids whose parents weren’t being written about in the tabloids – but, alas, normal wasn’t always possible. Not in our house.”
The last question I ask Ivanka is whether she felt that childhood desire, to be like everyone else, during her father’s campaign.
“It’s interesting, because anonymity is a very valuable thing. Sometimes, obviously, I wish I – there’s a tremendous amount of pressure in having your family member run for the highest elected office in the country, arguably the world,” she acknowledges. “But visibility to create change and positive change for this country … is worth any of the other personal challenges that come with the presidential campaign.”
She’s made it this far, but it’s anybody’s guess what will happen next. In the meantime, don’t expect you’ll ever have Ivanka Trump totally figured out.
“Perception is more important than reality,” she writes in The Trump Card. “If someone perceives something to be true, it is more important than if it is, in fact, true. Let the other guy think what he wants. This doesn’t mean you should be duplicitous or deceitful, but don’t go out of your way to correct a false assumption if it plays to your advantage.”