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Wayne LaPierre: Dapper as Charged

Wayne LaPierre: Dapper as Charged

You’d think Wayne LaPierre would have read the playbook. After decades in the spotlight, the former chief executive of the National Rifle Association could have been expected to know that, for public figures, conspicuous consumption is always a bad look.

This is seldom truer than when sartorial choices come into play. And among the dominant motifs in the reporting and online chatter about Mr. LaPierre’s civil corruption trial were his fashion habits and the unpardonable fact that the face of an organization purporting to speak for the country’s heartland had billed it hundreds of thousands of dollars for suits, many from a luxury boutique in Beverly Hills.

Haven’t we been here before? Wasn’t Sarah Palin rudely schooled on the matter back in 2008, when, even as she campaigned alongside Senator John McCain as a champion of blue-collar workers, it was revealed by Politico that staffers shopping for Ms. Palin spent more than $150,000 on clothes and accessories from high-end retailers like Neiman Marcus — in a single month.

Long after details evaporated as to why exactly Paul Manafort, who served as chairman of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, had been sentenced to jail for seven years (tax fraud, bank fraud and conspiracy, to remind), plenty of folks can recall in vivid detail how eagerly the press publicly depantsed the former lobbyist for his unseemly taste in finery.

“The poor slob should have known that flagging a taste for expensive clothes always gets you in trouble,” said Amy Fine Collins, a fashion expert as keeper of the International Best Dressed List and an editor at large at Airmail.

“Superiority in dress is inherently seen as elitist,’’ Ms. Collins said. “And we know how American feels about elites.”

We do, in part, thanks to Mr. LaPierre himself, who, in an official N.R.A. video released last year, invoked the menace of deep-pocket, fancy-pants bogeymen. “Elites threaten our very survival, and to them we say: ‘We don’t trust you, we don’t fear you, and we don’t need you. Take your hands off our future.” Mr. LaPierre, as it happened, was dressed in the video in his almost unvarying public uniform of a smartly tailored single-breasted black suit, a crisp white shirt with a C.E.O.’s spread collar and a dark four-in-hand tie.

Testifying in court before the jury was dispatched to deliberate on the fate of Mr. LaPierre, a man Letitia James, the New York attorney general, accused of using the N.R.A. as his “own personal piggy bank,” Christopher Cox, a former lobbyist for the group, said he was “disgusted” at learning that not only had Mr. LaPierre drawn funds from various arms of the nonprofit to underwrite private aviation and vacations on yachts but had put more than $250,000 in luxury clothing expenses on the N.R.A. tab.

For most of us, of course, the jets and the yachts remain abstractions. Yet Mr. LaPierre’s pricey threads from Ermenegildo Zegna (where suits can sell for $6,000) are, like the contents of anyone’s wardrobe, an all-too-visible representations of self, an unwitting tell. As such, Mr. LaPierre’s suits will live on a timeline of shame alongside Ms. Palin’s Neiman Marcus frocks, Mr. Manafort’s $15,000 ostrich skin jacket and, let us not forget, Senator John Edwards’s $400 haircuts.

During Mr. Manafort’s trial, back in 2018, Judge T.S. Ellis III admonished jurors not to be swayed by testimony about expenditures on crazy duds like python jackets costing more than the deposit on a new Chevy pickup. “We don’t convict people because they have a lot of money and throw it around,” Judge Ellis told the jurors.

We do unconsciously judge them, of course, said Kristin Lee Sotak, an associate professor of management at SUNY Oswego and an author of a 2023 paper in the Journal of Business Ethics on the role attire plays in our in perceptions of “ethicality.’’

“People make split second judgments, and there are seldom second chances,” Barry A. Friedman, a professor of organizational behavior at SUNY and one of Ms. Sotak’s co-authors of the attire study, said in a phone interview. “Is that first impression valid? Who knows?”

For three decades, the impression Mr. LaPierre sought to convey, as he lobbied for the interests of gun manufacturers and owners, was of authority and rectitude. As Ms. James alleged and the jury on Friday decided in finding him liable for financial misconduct, Mr. LaPierre’s finery was perhaps in the end less symbol of moral uprightness than a second skin for what Ms. Sotak referred to as the “stereotypical snake in a suit.”

Entering and exiting the courthouse throughout the trial, often dressed in a nondescript parka better suited to a Tractor Supply store than the corridors of power, Mr. LaPierre made an apparent bid to temper his image in the eyes of a censorious public.

“That may have been a strategic decision,” Ms. Sotak said. If so, the strategy was a fail.

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