NEW YORK (Reuters) - The policies of U.S. President Barack Obama and his potential Republican rivals differ, but when it comes to campaign trail fashion they could not be more alike with their style at the frontline of winning votes.
Whether it's rolled-up sleeves, or a checked shirt with no tie, candidates vying for the White House in November balance their fashion to appeal to average Americans and yet still look like a world leader, said experts at New York Fashion Week.
With the U.S. economy slow to recover from recession and the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement putting economic inequality on the national agenda, experts said the Republican candidates were focusing more on casual styles.
But don't expect to see them in shorts and t-shirts, they still need to retain the look of a leader, experts say, with some criticizing former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum's staple sweater vests as maybe a little too informal.
"The Republican candidates have dressed down more," said Tracy Taylor, U.S. editor of luxury online retailer Net-A-Porter. "It could be that they are trying to counterbalance Obama and how buttoned up and chic and refined he always looks."
"It's also a response to Occupy Wall Street," she said.
Obama has won more than just praise for his fashion from designers and editors. U.S. Vogue editor Anna Wintour hosted a reception on Tuesday to launch "Runway to Win," a collection from designers including Marc Jacobs, Tory Burch and Diane von Furstenberg, being sold online to raise money for his campaign.
But Obama didn't always have such a polished look, said Robert Burke of luxury consultants Robert Burke Associates. "President Obama used to get razzed about having oversized suits that were two sizes too big," Burke said.
GAP JEANS, SWEATER VESTS
Republican frontrunner former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney may be worth up to $250 million after a career on Wall Street, but jeans -- reportedly bought by his wife in Gap -- and checked shirts with no tie have been a mainstay in his wardrobe.
"Romney has actually had to really tone it down because he's known as this really swanky, sleek businessman. So he had to go further by wearing ill-fitting jeans and looking more roughed up so he could communicate more with the people," Taylor said.
Santorum drew attention not only for his surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses in January and sweep of nominating contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Tuesday, but for his preference for sweater vests in a variety of colors that even sparked a Twitter account by supporters -- @FearRicksVest.
"Santorum looks like a college professor at best," said Burke. "He's trying to project a very conservative, all-American, 'Leave it to Beaver' look."
Some fashion critics said that as the Republican primary campaign progresses, Santorum has had to step up his style.
"With his sweater vest he was just trying to break out from the pack," said Patricia Pao, of Pao Principle retail consulting firm. "However, it fails to make him look 'Presidential.' I think that is why we are seeing him (now) alternating with wearing suits."
Former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich has rarely been seen without a suit and tie and his wife Callista favors skirt suits and coiffed hair. Fashion experts say they fit the mold of a political couple.
"Newt and Callista are a matching pair even down to the helmet hair," said Irma Zandl, president of the trend and consumer insight firm the Zandl Group.
Burke was a little more blunt: "I don't know that a fashion statement and Newt Gingrich can be said in the same sentence. I don't think that's really on his radar."
Fashion critics say style also does not appear to be a concern of Texas congressman Ron Paul and likened his look to that of a college professor.
"He dons a suit and tie when he needs to for a debate, but apart from that he's walking around in a striped polo shirt," said Net-A-Porter's Taylor.
FIRST LADY STYLE
The wives of potential Republican presidential candidates will find it hard to follow in the footsteps of First Lady Michelle Obama, who quickly won over fashion designers and critics four years ago with her style choices, experts said.
There are websites devoted to documenting Michelle Obama's wardrobe and she has won praise for not only supporting emerging U.S. designers, but also mixing designer fashion with clothes from Main Street retail chains.
"Michelle Obama has set the stakes very high when it comes to her fashion choices," said Marc Karimzadeh, an editor at Women's Wear Daily. "Anyone hoping to come into the White House as first lady is going to have to measure up to Michelle Obama."
With Romney the Republican frontrunner to challenge Obama for the White House, Kibwe Chase Marshall, an editor for trend forecasting firm Stylesight, said it might be up to their wives "to duke it out for the title of fashionable first couple."
"(Ann Romney) has yet to seize her potential to captivate American voters via a dynamic choice in coat or shift dress. If and when she does, expect a political race of another sort to really pick up steam," Marshall said.
Some 90 designers are showing their fall 2012 collections at New York Fashion Week, which starts on Thursday. It is followed by similar events in London, Paris and Milan.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)
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