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Michelle Obama: A Woman of Substance

For the first of the inaugural festivities, Michelle Obama opted for a pledge of allegiance to Narciso Rodriguez.

President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama arrive at "We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration At The Lincoln Memorial" January 18, 2009 in Washington, DC.

President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama arrive at "We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration At The Lincoln Memorial" January 18, 2009 in Washington, DC.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

While it’s Barack Obama who will today take the oath of office as President of the United States, the broad-stroke Obama Style is clearly a partnership in which Michelle Obama plays a mega role. She’s the one whose high-low fashion mixes and savvy updates of time-honored (read safe) classics have telegraphed the family ethos to the world: This is a modern, busy woman whose stylistic choices, both in fashion, and one presumes, in decorating, will continue to be driven more by practicality than whimsy.

This story first appeared in the January 20, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.


That said, it has become ever so clear that Michelle Obama recognizes the power of her photo op bully pulpit, and she intends to use it to advance a carefully honed image. Take, for example, today’s Inaugural wardrobe, which at press time remained a secret. As of late Friday afternoon, the soon-to-be First Lady had not yet made her final sartorial decision regarding her ballgown, according to her communications director, Katie McCormick Lelyveld.

Lelyveld explained that preparations for the move into the White House and Obama’s focus on settling her children had pushed the fashion decision to the back burner. She said Obama would likely delay her choice until Monday, or perhaps even this morning. In the meantime, another source maintained that Obama had narrowed her evening choices to three, although whether that meant three designers or three dresses from one designer was unclear. Either way, since at the Democratic National Convention and on election night the Obamas displayed a penchant for family-portrait dressing, Obama and her daughters in complementary looks, one can assume that a basic color palette has been in play for some time.

Also unclear is whether Obama has decided on her day look for the swearing in, though a credible report indicated that she purchased a Thakoon coat and dress from the Chicago retailer Ikram with the understanding that it was indeed for the Inauguration. Others known to have submitted work with today’s festivities in mind include Tracy Reese and Kai Milla. According to several fashion sources, all of Obama’s options funnel through Ikram, either in sketches or full garments.

Since her arrival into the national limelight, Obama has displayed a fondness for several labels, including Narciso Rodriguez, whose clothes she wore on Sunday; Maria Pinto, Isabel Toledo, Thakoon and Zero + Maria Cornejo, whose purple coat she chose for Amtraking from Philadelphia to Washington. More economical labels, such as J. Crew and Donna Ricco for White House|Black Market, show off Obama’s high-low bravado while fostering not only a pragmatic image but sensitivity, too, Obama not wanting to appear frivolous in a dour economy.

Still, Obama’s choices indicate that she clearly understands and enjoys working high-end designer duds, as evidenced by her two-part celebration of Rodriguez on Saturday, when she donned a purple coat and dress for the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in the morning and a shapely camel coat for the afternoon “We Are One” concert at the Lincoln Memorial, looking fabulous in both. The mere fact that she changed at all, from one day look to another, offered her tacit acknowledgement of the power of the photo op. In addition, Obama’s familiarity with the likes of nonmajors Thakoon, Toledo and Cornejo, not to mention her choice of an Azzedine Alaïa belt, suggests that she possesses a considerable fashion IQ. Either that or she gets ample advice from someone who does, which could be Ikram’s role.

Certainly Obama is the number-one dream client of American fashion designers. “I think Michelle has a great attitude about style,” observes Tommy Hilfiger. “I like the fact that she has a mind of her own. I like the fact that she puts her children, her husband and her country ahead of her own personal style. I don’t think that she’s obsessed with her looks.” What’s this? A hint of “room for improvement” between the lines? “As the female representative of the United States,” Hilfiger says, “she will need to evolve into a more solid position as it relates to fashion and style.”

Not so, says Donna Karan. “She and [Barack Obama] are not being dressed from the outside,” Karan gets to the essence of the matter. “They are being dressed from the inside.” Nevertheless, whatever it is that keeps Michelle Obama clothed on the outside, Karan longs to do her part. “Who wouldn’t?” she muses. “She’s a woman of stature, a woman of grace.”

Ditto fashion’s most notorious aisle-crosser. Oscar de la Renta has learned that Obama has bought pieces of his clothing at Ikram, and would love to see her wear them. But he doesn’t buy into the Jackie comparisons. “Mrs. Obama is not the new Jackie Kennedy,” he maintains. “Mrs. Obama is Mrs. Obama. She is a woman of the 21st century. Not only does she have great looks, she has great brains.”

Letitia Baldrige, Kennedy’s White House social secretary and chief of staff, concurs. “Jackie was born to be a hostess and a figure in society,” she observes. “Michelle was born and raised to be an intellectual, a good lawyer, [to] strike out on her own. Jackie was absolutely fascinated with anything to do with fashion. It was first and foremost in her mind. Michelle doesn’t have that same mad fascination.”

One thing that hasn’t changed since Jackie’s day: The expectation that the First Lady wear all American, all the time (a mandate which Jackie learned to circumvent cleverly). Especially in this horrid economy, designers here see Obama as a fabulous ambassador with the power to telegraph to the best of American fashion in all its cross-price point, functional-chic glory, “I believe that she is representing the United States of America, and she has to represent the United States of America in every way,” says Hilfiger, a sentiment echoed again and again by his colleagues. “It’s nice to pay homage to people of your country,” Diane von Furstenberg offers. “I would if I were a First Lady, for sure.”

Of course, it all depends upon one’s particular perspective. “If I were Michelle Obama, I would probably stick to the American brands for now. But,” Stella McCartney deadpans, “I would open up to the half-American brands.”