Leo Varadkar: How the Taoiseach's impeccable style is a true reflection of modern Ireland
Love him, loathe him or shrug your shoulders at him, Leo Varadkar is arguably the most divisive Taoiseach in recent history.
But you are in the Style section folks, so I would visit elsewhere on this website for an in-depth analysis of policy and politics for Budget Day. We’re here to talk about fashion.
Alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French president Emmanuel Macron, Leo is part of a generation of modern politicians who bring style and substance in equal quantities and are as close to eye candy as we’re getting.
While Budget Day hardly brings with it the same humdrum as a red carpet event might provide in showbiz – the opportunity to wear dazzling gowns or James Bond-esque tuxedos – it’s like the political debs: everyone wears their best suit or dress because they know that picture will follow them for years to come.
And Leo is no exception; especially in comparison to his predecessor Enda Kenny, whose too-long trousers and ill-fitting blazers weren’t particularly suited to a world leader, in fact, on most occasions I saw him on the news or at an event, I always desperately wanted to give him a sneaky hairbrush.
Never in a million years would you catch a member of the new generation of politicians in something so ill-fitting or without extra strength hair gel. To show such lack of interest in your appearance indicates you’re out of touch and would almost immediately alienate you from the next generation vote; who are statistically more likely to stick with the party they voted for the first time.
“But we shouldn’t be concerned about what he wears! The focus should be on policy!”
This, of course, is true. Policy comes first, but appearance is a narrow second. Leo’s wardrobe reflects a confident, modern Irish man, the kind of self-assurance that comes from being a post-baby Boomer, a pre-Millennial and a life-long politician who has always had his eye on the prize.
In July, during Trudeau’s visit, his maple socks nearly broke the internet. Critics suggested he was trying too-hard and that he should be spending less time sock shopping and more time in the Dail. But such a simple gesture is indicative of a forward-thinking individual who understands the importance of using fashion as a diplomatic tool.
It’s also crucial that in a world with increasingly nationalistic superpowers like Britain and the United States, that Ireland continues to stand out. So if wearing a pair of socks and a smile will result in that, I’d prefer a leader willing to take one for the team.
The idea of fashion diplomacy is a concept familiar to first ladies around the world for decades. Traditionally, they wear a dress by a famous designer from the country they’re visiting or purposely only wear designers from their home countries for state visits at their residence. It’s a powerful technique and usually spurs on an economic boost for the local fashion industry.
It’s unlikely we’ll see the ‘Leo effect’ come into place any time soon, especially since his big moment didn’t exactly result in a boom of novelty socks; but he is proof that men are finally clued into its effectiveness.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, US president Donald Trump uses his wardrobe to show just how little he cares what anyone thinks of him. He has been pictured with actual sellotape keeping his oft too-long tie in place, lest it rise above his waistline. The length of his tie was reportedly a trademark to show just how anti-establishment he is, especially while trying to garner votes during the 2016 election, because nothing says, ‘f*** the establishment’ like an old man who can’t even tie his own tie properly.
Fashion journalists are often criticised for their analysis of women’s clothing and not men’s, but the truth is: men’s fashion just isn’t that exciting. While it’s moved admirably apace in recent years, it still has a long way to go before it reaches the cultural impact of women’s, especially among Irish politicians, who seem singlehandedly determined to push the boundaries of facial grooming. Which is why it’s exciting to have someone like Leo injecting at least some life into the same old humdrum in Leinster House.
Leo isn’t trying to make his wardrobe exciting, he understands the focus needs to be on the numbers on Budget Day. Or every day for that matter. But he respects the industry. Excluding a pair of very questionable sunglasses at Electric Picnic in 2016, he is usually impeccably tailored with rarely a hair out of place. He even walked a runway before when he was Health Minister.
“He takes care of himself and when I see him representing Ireland on an international platform, I always think he looks well, which is a very important thing for a statesman,” stylist and tv presenter Darren Kennedy tells me.” When you see him standing next to Theresa May, he looks good. Unlike with previous Taoiseachs, when I would think, ‘Oh my God, he’s the face of the nation!’
“The style suit he wears is quite classic, it’s usually navy with a single button. Blue is his friend and generally he wears a bright blue tie. He has a great complexion so I would love to see him embrace slightly more adventurous colours in terms of suiting, something like a light grey or subtle check, nothing too crazy, I do appreciate his role. On balance, he always looks great.”
In 2015, he joined a number of other high profile politicians in the Oireachtas Fashion Show to raise funds for Motor Neurone Disease – sure, he looked a bit uncomfortable, but he was a good sport who slapped a smile on his face for a worthy cause. Last year, when he was Fine Gael Deputy, he was nominated in the Most Stylish Man category for the Peter Mark VIP Style Awards, a move which could arguably be deemed a vanity vote in an attempt to secure his attendance, but a nomination is a nomination.
Varadkar’s strategy has always been to enforce the image as that of the ‘cool’ Taoiseach, but the position can only ever equate to that of a ‘cool’ teacher who pretends they don’t see you texting under your desk.
There is an emerging uniform among Fine Gael politicans: the navy power suit with suitably jazzy tie to show that they too are young and hip, like their leader. Pascal O’Donohoe has a penchant for bright blue and current Health Minister and whiz kid Simon Harris prefers stripes. Leo prefers different shades of blue, especially for Budget Day, which coincidentally is associated with stability, trust, wisdom and intelligence.
For a man whose interests vary as wide as Leo’s does, it’s doubtful he isn’t aware of the subtle implications his wardrobe choices make. The clothes mightn’t maketh the man, but never underestimate the power it holds.