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She wears the trousers

New Zealand

In the second of our series decoding power dressing, we look at New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark. In an appearance-fixated world, she is a startlingly low-key, practical dresser. But touched-up election campaign photographs and a softer wardrobe hint she knows that sometimes glam sells.

Helen Clark is New Zealand’s second female Prime Minister and, aged 57, is ranked by Forbes as the 20th most powerful woman in the world. Leader of the Labour party since 1993 and Prime Minister since 1999, Clark’s down-to-earth style is in stark contrast to that of New Zealand’s other great lady, the late Maori Queen Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu who died in August 2006.

Clark’s political style also sets her apart from New Zealand’s larger, sometimes bullying neighbour Australia, whose macho persona is shaped by the brash conservative leadership of John Howard. Clark doesn’t do queenly and she doesn’t do brash; a policy wonk to the core, she has been a slow and reluctant convert to the importance of public image, and this pragmatism appeals to New Zealanders.

Recently, although her favourite phrase is “no surprises”, Clark has shown she is not above calling in the spin doctors. The politician’s pallor and vampiric red lipstick are Clark staples. However, she consented to appear on posters for her 2005 campaign having been photographed – and Photoshopped – by New Zealand’s celebrity photographer Monty Adams, dazzling her constituents with white, straight teeth that they didn’t know she had (she doesn’t). She has also been known to have her hair done by top New Zealand hairdresser Paul Huege de Seville – but then cuts her fringe herself when it gets in her way.

During the 1980s Clark’s wardrobe palette ran from slurry to sludge and featured frumpy blouses and bows. Since election she has perfected her prime ministerial look of sensible black shoes and trousers paired with a slightly more interesting top, usually a plainly tailored but perhaps coloured jacket. There are often 1980s-style shoulder pads. It is headmistress-meets-social worker, and both analogies fit a woman known for being so in charge that opposition wags suggested changing the name of New Zealand’s capital to Helengrad.

Clark’s trouser-wearing reflects her background as a typical New Zealand woman, hardy and descended from farming stock. She wore trousers for a state dinner with the visiting British Queen in 2002, and was astonished, according to acquaintances, at the fuss that followed. Irate British tabloid writers who thought she was making a passive-aggressive anti-monarchist statement – Clark is openly a republican – were wide of the mark.

“I think the choice of trousers would have been deliberate,” says Audrey Young, political editor of the New Zealand Herald. “She would have thought that the Queen didn’t give a toss. She is pretty sensitive about who she’s meeting.” Her republicanism is well known but not flaunted. She is biding her time until public opinion catches up with her.

Clark has definitely relaxed, however. In the past few years she has worn skirts. Her wardrobe has been made more feminine, her palette broadened; she favours home-grown designers Jane Daniels and Adrienne Winkelmann. This superlative politician, with a Clintonian memory and grasp of detail, but none of his smooth charisma, will now work a room where once she could be found in a corner discussing arcane agricultural subsidies.

The confidence will be useful in the 2008 election, when she will face the smooth, sharp-suited John Key, who has charisma in spades. But critics are still waiting for him to prove whether he has the depths to match the well-cut shallows. Helen Clark does what her clothes say: she means business.

Woolly thinking

Australia

Michael Kiely and his wife Louisa were sitting at the kitchen table feeling miserable. Australia’s drought – six years running and the worst since the country became a federation in 1901 – had already forced the couple to sell 1,000 of their Merino sheep.

Kiely switched on the television, where an advertisement for “adopting a child” through sponsorship appeared. A former copywriter, he started playing with the idea, and “adopt a sheep” popped into his head. Kiely set up a website, where he lamented the situation on his farm in New South Wales.

Just four months later, Kiely has had 2,300 of his sheep adopted and inspired 30,000 hits on www.adoptasheep.com.au. For AUD$35 (€20) supporters can buy oats and clover hay to feed a sheep for 100 days, and name it: Baaarbara and Baaaart have proved popular. “I’ve stumbled on a way to help people relieve some of that anxiety about how to help farmers,” he says.

Kiely, a self-described land ethicist, has bigger ideas, too. He and Louisa run the 550-member-strong Carbon Coalition Against Global Warming, a lobby group, which is pushing the controversial idea of farmers being paid to “farm carbon”.

Carbon Dioxide (C02) is one of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. Scientists suggest that C02 captured from the atmosphere could be stored in soil. Farmers could play a part in this “carbon sequestering” with improved farming practices. The carbon thus stored could then be sold by the ton to industries or individuals wanting to offset their C02 emissions. The result? Farmers would have a new source of income. Kiely is impatient to begin and hopes to be able to sell carbon credits to individuals and companies via the internet, alongside the hay.

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