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Something old, something new — nothing borrowed, but again Jason Wu.
That could describe First Lady Michelle Obama’s wardrobe for the Inaugural Weekend festivities, which she capped by stepping out at the two inaugural balls Monday night in a custom gown by the designer she catapulted to fame four years ago: Wu. She accessorized it with a handmade diamond ring by Kimberly McDonald and shoes by Jimmy Choo.
This story first appeared in the January 22, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Of his second stint in the inaugural ball spotlight, an ecstatic Wu told WWD he was as shocked as anyone and just as nervous as last time. “Mrs. Obama likes to keep her secrets. She surprised me again. She’s really good at it,” he said. “I was so nervous. You’d think I wouldn’t be since I’d experienced it before but I really was.”
Unlike four years ago when he had three employees and was home with a friend eating pizza, this time around Wu was surrounded with his team of 30 in his airy downtown design studio. “I was just elated. It’s hard to describe,” he said.
The ruby-red custom woven faille coupé gown has a white gold ring with pavé diamonds at the collarbone thanks to McDonald. Wu said of the gown, which will be donated to the National Archives, “Like last time, I had to go with my gut. I instinctively had to think of the woman in the dress. After four years in office, I thought the country was ready to see a confident First Lady in red. It just felt right.”
Running to answer his parents’ phone call, Wu said he would soon be ordering in Champagne for his staffers. The night was still young — there was work to be done. “Fall’s coming up — you know that,” he said.
The Wu gown was only one of a string of ensembles the First Lady wore all weekend as she time and again brought her A-game, sporting an assortment of predominantly American designers, including a few unexpected labels. Like the President, who donned the same Brooks Brothers cashmere coat he wore for the 2009 Inaugural, the First Lady wasn’t afraid to repeat a few looks she’d been photographed in before. On Saturday night she chose a 2011 pre-spring white Alexander McQueen jacket and Sunday night called for a 2009 Michael Kors black sequined dress. But for the rest of the festivities, the First Lady went all out, wearing a host of one-of-a-kind designs made specifically for her by New York-based designers.
By 9 a.m. Monday, fashion insiders were excitedly texting and e-mailing her choice of a specially created navy silk tie jacquard Thom Browne ensemble for a prayer and church service, which she also wore to the swearing-in ceremony outside the Capitol. Even Browne, who was in Paris having just presented his men’s collection Sunday, was caught blindsided, getting the news via texts and e-mails from TV-viewing friends in New York. Champagne corks would fly later in the day at his hotel, once Browne had a chance to get used to what he described as “amazing and one of the most humbling moments of his career.” It will no doubt be a major boost for his women’s wear business, which has been generating buzz lately. (With Monday’s TV audience in the millions, more noise about the brand is a given.)
Taking the safe bet that the President would wear a navy suit, which he did, the designer selected a color that would enhance the Commander in Chief’s look. Browne opted for a silk tie jacquard material that was initially developed for his men’s collection. But he also wanted to play up the First Lady’s signature strength, which he’d seen up close last summer after meeting her at a White House luncheon she hosted for National Design Award honorees. Clear-sighted as he was about how the outfit’s color and fabric’s structure would convey the strength, style and confidence the First Lady embodies, seeing his vision through was no small feat. “It is such another level [trying] to get something perfect so that she feels really great, comfortable, confident and fashionable,” he said. “She is such an amazingly strong woman who looks good in everything she wears.”
Reed Krakoff was an unprecedented “three-peat” winner, having designed the ultramarine abstract wash print sheath dress and cashmere sweater Obama wore to her husband’s official swearing-in ceremony Sunday morning in the Blue Room. Krakoff also designed the customized blue suede boots she sported outside the Capitol Monday for the ceremonial swearing-in. And she broke out the cashmere cardigan for the second time in 24 hours, wearing it to the Capitol luncheon Monday afternoon. Having launched his signature collection less than three years ago, Krakoff, who is also president and executive creative director of Coach Inc., sounded all-American, making a point of saying more than once that the First Lady’s outfit was made in his West 34th Street atelier in New York. None of the seamstresses knew who it was being made for. “More than anything, what this gives us is a sense of purpose that what we’re doing is on the right track,” he said. “It will long outlive the moment but at the same time we are incredibly honored.”
Krakoff said the color of the historic interior of the first event was “a happy coincidence” and the design concept was driven more by the First Lady’s sense of style than the room. He, too, focused on the fact that she is a “strong, confident, modern woman. She knows what she likes and what works for her and that’s what makes a style icon,” he said. “She very much embraces fashion but in a way that works for her.”
So much so that she took the liberty of changing out of her J. Crew Valentina heels after Monday’s prayer service and adding a J. Crew black beaded belt to her Thom Browne coat in time for the descent down the Capitol steps. Her 14-year-old daughter Malia was also J. Crew’ed out from head to toe and no one was more excited about that than the retailer’s chief, Millard “Mickey” Drexler. “There have been lots of exclamation points and e-mails all in big giant block letters,” said creative director Jenna Lyons.
While more than 15 designers had to sweat out the wait to see whether the First Lady would choose their customized pieces, J. Crew maintained its position as a First Family favorite by simply being there: The Obamas didn’t phone in any favors or special requests. “As far as we know, they literally ordered online and they shop like anyone else in America,” Lyons said.
As for the DIY belt, Lyons said, “I love that she dresses in a way that says, ‘This is the way I want to be.’ I think it looks great — I hope Thom is all right with it.”
The entire weekend was a parade of American designs and other fashion rarely seen outside of New York Fashion Week and seldom seen in Washington. Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, wore a cerulean blue silk column gown by Vera Wang to Monday night’s two official inaugural balls. Beyoncé wore an Emilio Pucci black velvet and chiffon beaded cutout long-sleeve gown to sing the National Anthem outside the Capitol Monday. Jill Biden also went with a gray silk coat and three-dimensional organza embroidered dress by Lela Rose. The Obamas’ 11-year-old daughter Sasha sported a Kate Spade coat, providing one of the few shots of color in a crowd wearing mostly safe shades like black and blue. The President’s brother-in-law Craig Robinson was another standout in a fluorescent orange and black striped scarf and matching tie — not exactly an Aretha Franklin-worthy hat moment circa 2009 but singular just the same.
By nightfall, Tommy Hilfiger suited up “Glee” cast member Darren Criss in a midnight blue tuxedo from his spring tailored collection. Kors sent actress Kerry Washington to The Daily Beast’s bipartisan brunch Sunday in a “cashgora” shift with cap sleeves. Wang, who designed the wedding dress Biden’s daughter Ashley wore at her nuptials last summer, turned up at Monday night’s two official inaugural balls in a sleeveless black lace gown with a black and white floral peplum she designed for herself. Marchesa’s Georgina Chapman and her husband, Harvey Weinstein, also planned to party with the President. More than 4,000 well-wishers were expected at the Commander in Chief’s ball, the Obamas’ first stop of the night, and 35,000 more were lined up for the inaugural ball, both of which were being held at the 700,000-square-foot Washington Convention Center.
However many times the President has promised transparency in his administration, the First Lady and her inner circle held tight to her inaugural wardrobe choices as if they were the most heavily guarded state secret — just as they did four years ago in order to lessen the focus on and perhaps potential criticism of Michelle Obama as a fashion plate. As has believed to have been the case during the administration’s first term, designers who dress the First Lady for major appearances do not know of their good fortune until she is photographed or televised in their clothes.
After parting ways with Ikram Goldman, the Chicago boutique owner who had been her go-to stylist, the First Lady turned to Meredith Koop as her in-house stylist. The fact that Koop, a thirtysomething Vanderbilt grad and former sorority sister, ascended from Goldman’s onetime prodigy to a permanent White House confidante was not lost on the Beltway media, which reported an “All About Eve” situation underfoot. Goldman did not respond to requests for an interview and the First Lady’s press team said Koop would not be available to discuss her role.
“From the beginning of the administration, Ms. Koop has served Mrs. Obama as her personal aide, a well-established staff position through which First Ladies are supported in managing the [White House] residence and the needs of the First Family,” said a White House official. “Ms. Koop’s responsibilities include advising the first lady on her wardrobe and acting on her behalf in arranging for purchases,” a White House spokeswoman said via e-mail.
Asked to clarify how the First Lady’s clothing for formal occasions is paid for, and whether designers are paid wholesale or retail prices, Semonti Stephens, deputy communications director for the First Lady, said via e-mail Sunday, “I can’t go into the private details of Mrs. Obama’s life and that includes precise details for her clothing choices.”
A few designers who have dressed the First Lady in previous years said off-the-record that the pricing was up for negotiation and they were usually wholesale ones or even greater. One insider described them as “severely discounted.” Skittish as they were to discuss the details of dressing the First Lady, several designers indicated that the privilege and no doubt the publicity made their efforts worthwhile.
But while Michelle Obama has boosted the careers of many American designers by wearing their clothes, she hasn’t exactly embraced the New York fashion world with open arms. She has eagerly attended private fund-raising events hosted by the likes of Anna Wintour and Sarah Jessica Parker, drawing such designers as Tory Burch, Michael Kors and Narciso Rodriguez. And a battery of designers including Marc Jacobs, Derek Lam and Tracy Reese designed one-offs for the Runway to Win effort, which helped raise money for the President’s reelection campaign.
The First Lady has yet to attend New York Fashion Week or any other public fashion event, though, including the CFDA Awards. She accepted her special tribute award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America at the 2009 event via video. She also continues to draw criticism for failing to don clothes by the likes of Oscar de la Renta. CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg and de la Renta aired their disappointment publicly when the First Lady wore a red Alexander McQueen gown for the 2011 state dinner in honor of Chinese President Hu Jintao.
It remains to be seen whether the First Lady’s ties to the fashion industry will continue along for appearances only over the next four years. Regardless, she still has the Midas touch. After wearing Wu’s ethereal white one-shoulder gown at the inaugural balls four years ago, his company’s Web site received four million hits and his company skyrocketed. In his seventh year in business, the Taiwanese designer now sells his collection in 190 doors in 39 countries. This time around, by 10 p.m., Wu’s Web site crashed from all the new interest.