WASHINGTON — First Lady Michelle Obama certainly likes to promote young designers.
This story first appeared in the March 10, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Even as she lauded Jason Wu’s ivory, one-shouldered inaugural gown as a “masterpiece” at the induction of the dress into the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s First Ladies Collection on Tuesday, Obama chose to wear a black-and-white brush-painted rose silk dress by Prabal Gurung, paired with silver metallic pumps by Jimmy Choo.
But her real focus was on Wu, who she was meeting for the first time. “It is simple, it’s elegant and it comes from this brilliant young mind, someone who is living the American dream,” Obama said of his crystal beaded embroidered silk chiffon gown. “The countless hours that you can see that he spent sewing this piece made my night even more special and now I am proud that millions of visitors will be able to see just how talented this young man is.”
And Wu is fully aware of the value of Obama’s support. “To say that she has changed my life is truly an understatement,” said the designer, who placed his hands over his heart and turned to thank Obama for her vision. “Thank you for having the courage and the vision to choose a gown made by a young designer who didn’t fit the traditional mode.”
In Wu’s opinion, Obama’s impact on fashion since the election campaign and her family’s moving into the White House a little over a year ago can’t be overestimated.
“Young women who are very ambitious see inspiration in her,” Wu said in an interview. “I think they feel like they can have fun with fashion and still be really great at their jobs. They don’t have to dress up like men. They can embrace their femininity and be just as capable as men.”
Wu said he has seen a change in the way career women dress since Obama has been First Lady.
“It was much more strict suiting in the past, very uniform and very masculine,” he said. “I think now there is a definite sense that women have to be a little more fun [with fashion], but still be taken seriously at their jobs and that is a very important, empowering thing. What Michelle Obama has shown is that fashion can be a really powerful message in itself.
“I think there is something to be said about a woman embracing her femininity in a very political environment where everybody is in suits, yet she can be taken just as seriously,” Wu added. “She can deliver a message and she can support the President just the same. That is something we haven’t seen before.”
Loree Rodkin, a Los Angeles-based jewelry designer, was also on hand to see jewelry Obama wore to the inaugural balls inducted into the museum. The designer donated triple rose-cut earrings set in white gold, a “Michelle” signet ring of white gold and black rhodium with rose-cut diamonds and a rose-cut diamond center stone and 13 white gold and diamond bangle bracelets.
The First Lady’s inaugural shoes, white satin sandals by Jimmy Choo, were also donated to the museum.
“She is so statuesque and dramatic and beautiful, and she has really brought style back to the White House again,” said Rodkin. “We haven’t had style since the Sixties with all due respect to everyone that preceded her.”
Tory Burch, who attended the induction ceremony and was in town for events honoring her foundation, said Obama has shown the world she is not “afraid of fashion.” Burch said she was also scouting locations for a D.C. area store.
“I think Michelle Obama is incredibly chic,” Burch said. “She has brought a little bit of style to the White House and to the world and I think people are following her every outfit.”
Wu said he has seen Obama wear the same dress two or three times and dress it up differently with a pin.
“I thought that was really a great touch,” he said. “There is a realness about her that women look up to and are inspired by — the fact that they can see themselves in her.”
That honesty and “realness” was apparent at Tuesday’s ceremony. Obama said she was humbled, but also “a little embarrassed” by “all of the fuss being made over my dress.”
She confided she is “not used to people wanting to put things I’ve worn on display” and said the dress evoked questions about the most intimate moments of that evening in January 2009, such as whether her feet hurt or how many times her husband, the President, stepped on her train.
But she also wove those human feelings into a narrative about the symbolism attached to first ladies’ gowns through time.
“The detail of each gown — the fabric, the cut, the color — tells us something much more about each single first lady,” she said. “It’s a visual reminder that we each come from such different backgrounds, from different generations and from different walks of life. In the end of the day, today is about much more than this gown. It’s also about how, with enough focus and with enough determination, someone in this room could be the next Jason Wu. Someone in this room could be the next Barack Obama.”
On Monday, the eve before his speech and a meeting at the White House with Obama, Wu strived to put the historical moment in context.
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Wu struggled to break through cultural barriers to pursue fashion as a career in his own country and in his own extended family. He was sketching gowns in bridal shop windows in Taipei from the age of five, a fact Obama noted in her speech, and he learned how to sew and draft patterns and sketch by using dolls as mannequins after moving to Vancouver when he was nine years old. Wu later studied sculpture in Tokyo and spent his senior year of high school in Paris. He then enrolled in the Parsons School of Design in New York and interned with Narciso Rodriguez before launching his own collection.
“I came from a culture where fashion wasn’t considered a serious career, where most of my peers I grew up with were all academically accomplished and I was the artist of the family,” Wu said. “Nobody ever understood what I did and I think this has made people back in my country see that fashion and the arts in general can be taken seriously as a career.
“In a way, it was my American story.”