2008: The year politics rocked design

Annie Deakin looks back at a year of chic campaigns in the Cabinet
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The Independent Online

With headlines focusing on financial Armageddon, it would be easy to forget the highlights of 2008, a year when style and substance met in the world of international politics.

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Supermodel Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's state visit in March was breathtaking, but the jaw-dropping moment of the political year came when the twice departed Peter Mandelson returned to the Cabinet. While tabloids feasted on the controversial October news, the style conscious rejoiced; Mandelson, who attends international design fairs and buys designer furniture is a keen advocate for the industry. With him back in power as the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the future of British design looks brighter for 2009.

Mandelson's personal love affair with interior decorating became public knowledge during a notorious photo shoot for Vogue magazine. He posed, feet up, in a Charles Eames ergonomic leather recliner at his ill-fated, former Holland Park home. The cultured spin-doctor had bought the chair the day after admiring one at a dinner with the award-winning architect Sir Richard Rogers.

At a lunch last month, Will Knight, deputy director of the London Design Festival, identified the Prince of Darkness as "a design champion-in-waiting". "There's been a lack of a design figurehead in politics recently," Knight told me over the phone. "But Mandelson has an inherent understanding of design. He has grasped the subject in various forums which was evident when he spoke at the opening of London Design Festival in September." Like fashion designers Alexander McQueen and Paul Smith, Mandelson is an admirer of Matthew Hilton's handmade furniture that is available at mydeco.com.

Last year, the Labour politician boasted patriotically at the Milan Furniture Fair, "No-one compares to our standards of quality and finish." Having him in next year's Government might be just the ticket to global prominence for our country's designers.

While it's no secret that Mandelson wants to dance in a future series Strictly Come Dancing series (imagine the sequins), his fellow politicians' wives have swapped frumpy skirts for cutting edge couture. It's not the first time campaigns were catwalk cool - Jackie O launched Finnish textile brand Marimekko by wearing their wacky dresses during JFK's 1960 presidential campaign. Following in her designer footsteps is President-Elect Barack Obama's wife Michelle who has said, "It's fun to look pretty". Looking back at 2008, the politicians (and their spouses) we once judged irredeemably dowdy have became super stylish.

Today's First ladies are hailed as IT girls. As a result, politics now appeals to the design-savvy youtube demographic. Samantha Cameron, wife of Tory leader David, joined Alexa Chung in the front row at London Fashion Week. Famed for her good taste, Samantha, creative director of luxury stationer Smythson, keeps the interior stylish at her eco-friendly Ladbroke Grove home. Samantha's mother is, lest we forget, co-owner of ethnic upmarket furniture chain Oka.

This year, high politics met high fashion at Downing Street. Dressed in Jaeger, Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister's wife, hosted a reception to celebrate 25 years of the British Fashion Council. Naomi Campbell, Henry Holland, Nicole Farhi and Julien Macdonald (with the British flag draped across his shoulders) flocked to the political helm. Inspired by Obama, Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani dedicated 100 pages of photographs to only black models in the July issue. Where politics leads, design follows.

Back in London, style gurus Trinny and Susannah named Boris Johnson Politician of the Year at the GQ Awards in September. Popular with the fashionable in spite of his oft-dubious appearance, the blonde bombshell Mayor of London is campaigning hard for design. He uttered his trademark classical references when opening the month-long London Festival of Architecture. Johnson compared himself to Augustus, the Roman Emperor who boasted of turning Rome from brick to marble.

Many people think politics is a dirty business. Yet, as this year draws to a close, much-needed glamour has entered the Government. "Fashion and Downing Street haven't always gone hand in hand," said Sarah Brown. "But I feel Gordon has done his bit by losing a few inches."

Politics, dirty? It's now a designer destination.

Annie Deakin is acting editor of mydeco.com