How to Dress to Win an Election: The Sebastian Kurz Primer


According to Sylvia Kritzinger, a professor at the University of Vienna, the People’s Party leader “says almost the same thing the rival Freedom Party was saying — things that would normally be labeled extremism about immigrants not being Austrians — but makes everyone feel comfortable with it.”

That’s not simply because of his age and unthreatening youthful appearance, but because of the depth of his understanding of the power of a brand — an understanding shared by Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Macron. (See the official “behind-the-scenes” video of Mr. Macron arranging various heavily symbolic items on his desk before his official portrait.)

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Mr. Kurz changed his party’s name, making it the New People’s Party, and its official color, making it turquoise instead of black.

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Joe Klamar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Kurz branded not only himself, but also his party. He changed its official color from black to turquoise and referred to it as the New People’s Party, the better to transform it from a familiar part of a coalition government to a “movement” (a word seemingly borrowed from Mr. Macron) shaped in his own image. During his election night rally, supporters wore turquoise jackets, shirts or sunglasses and carried turquoise balloons emblazoned with “Team Kurz.” It wasn’t the only thing he gave a specific look.

“Everything he does is styled to the last breath,” said Eugen Freund, a Social Democratic member of the European Parliament. “Not just on the fashion side. Everything is thought through: every movement of his hands, the way he gazes at people with a slight forward tilt of the head as if to indicate his attention. He does not leave anything to circumstance.”

It began very early. In 2009, not long after Mr. Kurz became leader of the youth wing of the party, he went on an image-ineering campaign, with the tag line “Black is hot,” featuring a picture of himself perched on the bonnet of a Hummer, in jeans, an untucked shirt and a come-hither look, surrounded by some equally satisfied-looking peers. It was broadly mocked, but it was also the beginning of a pattern.

Since becoming foreign minister in 2013 at age 27, Mr. Kurz has become known for his slim-line suits, a tendency to forgo ties (though he does wear them in debates and during state occasions), open collars and slicked-back hair. On his website, Kurz2017, not one of the multiple photographs of him staring soulfully out a window at the future, hard at work and talking to “real” men and women, features a tie. Occasionally he is shown in jeans and a pressed shirt, or a jacket, but never a T-shirt. His casual Friday look is not about a rejection of convention, but rather a noncontroversial loosening up.

“People can connect to it very easily,” Ms. Kritzinger said. “The ties symbolized the idea he was trying to do something different.” Though not, it should be said, different from Mr. Trudeau, who is also often tieless (or before him, President Barack Obama). Rather, it’s different from his older colleagues.

“It’s very unlike what you usually see,” Mr. Freund said, noting that ties have always been de rigueur in political dress in Austria, a country that hews closely to tradition and formality. “It makes a statement. And the collars are very specific: shark collars, never a button-down, the two ends spread wide apart.”

Mr. Kurz also flies economy class, works at a standing desk, likes to tweet (he has 253,000 followers) and, like Mr. Trudeau, will engage in selfies with fans for hours. Also like Mr. Trudeau, sports are a key part of his image: His website has videos of him biking, playing tennis and solo climbing a mountain under the stars, only to arrive at the metal cross on the summit as dawn breaks over the Alpine vista.

Subtle it isn’t.

Pointedly, the selfie thing, as well as the slightly hipster suits, were also hallmarks of his rivals, but none of them got quite the same credit for it. Indeed, the current chancellor, Christian Kern, was occasionally criticized as a “slim-fit chancellor” thanks to his suits. Yet Mr. Kurz wears pretty much the same style with impunity, perhaps because, thanks to his age, it seems authentically chosen, as opposed to adopted out of political calculus.

The truth of that is debatable, but it’s the appearance that counted. Which is the point.

Indeed, Gernot Bauer, the national desk editor at the Austrian newsmagazine Profil, told NPR that Mr. Kurz was like Justin Bieber. On Twitter, a fan compared the new chancellor to James Bond. (His critics use “mini-dictator” and even “Baby Hitler.”)

All of which underscored the message that Mr. Kurz represented something new. That the newness seems to be in fact a swing to the right, and may involve a coalition with the far right populist Freedom Party, has been made palatable by the artful way Mr. Kurz used his image to make the medicine go down.

It’s not the triumph of style over substance; it’s the use of style to convey, or sometimes camouflage, substance. And like it or not, it is increasingly looking like strategy. A spoonful of turquoise, and all that.

Correction: October 19, 2017

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Sebastian Kurz’s framing of the Austrian People’s Party. While Mr. Kurz rebranded the party and referred to it as the New People’s Party during his campaign, he did not change the party’s name.

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