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.
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.”
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