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WASHINGTON — Hope.
From the millions who crowded the Mall here as far as the eye could see to President Barack Obama’s rousing speech promising “We will act” to the tiniest little detail — such as the color of First Lady Michelle Obama’s day coat and dress by Isabel Toledo — that was the resounding theme of the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States on Tuesday. Even Jason Wu’s ivory, one-shouldered goddess gown with crystal-beaded embroidery and rosette appliqués worn by Michelle Obama to the official inaugural balls seemed to emote optimism.
This story first appeared in the January 21, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The new First Family somehow managed to remain completely in control of the event — not releasing details of who designed the First Lady’s outfits until after she was in the public eye, for example — and also act natural even as the eyes of the world were upon them. From laughing together as the First Couple strode down Pennsylvania Avenue in the cold to their children Malia and Sasha being bored and playing during the swearing-in’s musical interlude — it was clear there was a new game in town.
And it’s a game the fashion world, for one, can’t wait to play.
“I needed to do this,” said Toledo of dressing Michelle Obama for the afternoon ceremonies on Capitol Hill and beyond. “I really wanted to make her glow. I wanted to make her look luminous. I felt it was my duty.”
The designer said she was pleased the First Lady was willing to go with lemongrass, “a hopeful color that is so to the core of the beginning of things.
“It could have been blue, red and more in keeping with tradition, but I really felt we could do something different,” said Toledo.
The Obamas seem determined to do things their way all around. On Tuesday, the equally fashionable — and image-conscious — President proudly wore a cashmere topcoat said to be by Brooks Brothers (in another subtle nod to his love of Abraham Lincoln, who also wore Brooks Brothers at his inaugural) and an American-made Hart Schaffner Marx suit and Cole Haan shoes — as well as a custom Hart Shaffner Marx tuxedo to the evening’s inaugural balls. His wife, meanwhile, doesn’t hesitate to mix high and low. Sure, she wore the Swiss wool Isabel Toledo dress and coat lined with pashmina tulle for warmth and Jimmy Choo shoes on the historic day, but the evening before donned a J. Crew ensemble for the Kids’ Inaugural Ball, where her daughters wore the brand’s Crewcuts coats to jive to the Jonas Brothers. They wore Crewcuts coats on Tuesday as well, while Sasha wore the brand’s dress.
“Not just for fashion, but for the U.S. right now, it’s sort of an instantaneous connector,” said J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons Mazeau. “Most people in this country can afford to wear something by J. Crew, or probably they know what J. Crew is, and that is pretty amazing when you think that the First Lady can wear anything she wants….She actually picks something people know.
“I think that to me is a true testament to the kind of person she and her husband are. They are people of the people.”
That was a comment echoed by others. Toledo is far from a household name, yet Lyons Mazeau praised the choice because it shows Michelle Obama “doesn’t need validation from anyone. She really is the validator.”
Toledo said her day of reckoning “almost didn’t happen” due to the tight turnaround time. After her proposed design was green-lighted following her submission of several possible ideas for the big day, she called her fabric contractor on a Saturday to see if he could even get the wool lace. The factory in Switzerland agreed, but then the expediency of shipping became another factor. Once that hurdle was passed, Toledo’s 10-person team rolled up their sleeves, toiling through the holidays and logging overtime without question — even though it wasn’t certain the First Lady would even wear it. They knew only on Tuesday, just like the rest of the world.
“It really was an international effort. The fabric was from Switzerland and we are all immigrants,” she said with a laugh.
After briefly meeting Michelle Obama at a fashion industry event last summer, Toledo felt compelled to dress her. “The few seconds I met her I felt so inspired,” Toledo said.
The designer said she has been working closely with Ikram in Chicago, the retailer that appears to be the gatekeeper of the new First Lady’s fashion choices, and Obama had purchased her clothes in the past. But as much as the designer hoped to be among the chosen on Tuesday, she wasn’t banking on anything for certain.
“I’ve been working for this moment. One of the reasons I am still around is because of knowing that things can happen. And also knowing that if she had had a change of heart, other things would happen,” Toledo said. “I am just happy that she loves the work and loved it enough for me to be part if this.”
Michelle Obama has certainly shown a knack for diplomacy when it comes to fashion. So much so that even a few of the designers she has worn have been caught completely off guard. Wu, Toledo, J. Crew, Maria Cornejo and accessories designer Loree Rodkin only learned their respective designs had made the final cut once the First Lady wore them. A confidentiality agreement prohibited Rodkin from elaborating about Obama’s choices, though WWD reported Monday that her white gold and diamond quatrefoil chandelier earrings with black diamond centers that Obama wore Sunday retail for $17,313. The First Lady is believed to have borrowed them from Ikram.
While Obama wore Rodkin earrings twice over the holiday weekend, the designer scored a trifecta when Obama wore another pair of earrings, as well as a ring and bracelet, at the inaugural balls. “Let’s put it this way: If she winds up in any of my pieces tonight, my jewelry ends up in the Smithsonian. That’s the finest pinnacle any one of us can wish for,” said Rodkin earlier in the day.
Fellow Cuban-American designer Narciso Rodriguez was equally excited. Michelle Obama wore two of the designer’s outfits on Sunday after previously dressing her on Election Night. “She is such an elegant woman, and that speaks volumes about her,” Rodriguez said. “It’s something that comes very natural to her and she makes the choices she likes, and therefore always looks very comfortable and very right.”
And it isn’t only Michelle Obama who has designers hopeful. The newly minted vice president’s wife, Jill Biden, also can hold her own in the fashion department. Biden, who modeled on the side in college for extra cash, has a keen sense for what complements her physique. She is known to support independently owned Wilmington, Del.-area boutiques, with Tory Burch, Milly, Diane von Furstenberg, Nanette Lepore and Robert Rodriguez being among her favorite labels. Biden isn’t above borrowing if need be. Ellie’s owner Donna Schneiber loaned Biden a few Sayami scarves from her own closet for the inaugural weekend, since the Greenville store had already sold out of that resource.
At the swearing-in ceremony, Biden went with an off-the-rack $360 Milly houndstooth roll-neck dress with a Fleurette coat. Milly designer Michelle Smith said, “As an American designer with a tradition of manufacturing my collection in the U.S., I was humbled to see my dress on such a chic and sophisticated Second Lady.”
Biden also didn’t cut any corners for the inaugural balls, buying a red strapless Reem Acra dress from a store — not the designer.
So with a young, fashionable First Couple and a chic vice president’s wife, the new administration — which also includes such fashion-conscious members as social secretary Desirée Rogers and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett — has the fashion industry eager to become involved with Washington politicians in a way it hasn’t in decades. The nation’s capital, once scorned by the fashion set, is now embraced by it with open arms.
“To have a First Lady who loves fashion, and who is promoting American designers, is so important and we need that so much, with the way the economy has impacted fashion, and everybody trying to make their way through it,” said Rodriguez.
“What is admirable about her is that she makes her choices and they are her personal choices. It’s fantastic to see and to discover who she is through her choices,” he added. “For us, to have someone like her who is bold in her choices, it’s an inspiration.”
And that is the way most observers, both the millions present and those watching worldwide, felt on Tuesday. Milan hotels set up TVs in their lobbies so guests there for the men’s shows could watch the inauguration live, and there also were numerous viewing areas set up in London — from restaurants and hotels to pubs. People wanted to observe the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American President, who admitted to the immense challenges ahead.
“Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred,” Obama said to more than 1 million people who braved the frigid temperatures for hours on the Mall. “Our nation is weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered.”
Obama said the challenges the country faces are many, but “they will be met.”
“The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth,” Obama said. “We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.”
Obama also addressed political turmoil abroad, indicating that he will seek peace in a time when the U.S. is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history,” he said. “But that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in an interview that Obama is “going to have some very tough times.”
“He’s not going to wave a magic wand and fix all of our problems, but he can provide the confidence that the public needs to have and get the public to make investments and buy houses, and run risks and that’s what you need,” Bloomberg said.
He noted that even businesses of famous Seventh Avenue designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang and Carolina Herrera are “slowing down,” but he was optimistic that companies will adjust and Obama will restore confidence among consumers.
“In this case, you’ve had eight years of one president so there’s plenty of time to say ‘OK, now’s the time for something different,’ and we’ll probably think that eight years from now but change is always good,” said Bloomberg, who is seeking his third term in office.