LONDON — Britain has caught Michelle-O-mania.
With her plain talk, pearl necklace and all-American fashion taste, America’s First Lady wowed the Brits like no other since Jacqueline Kennedy during the Obamas visit to the capital that officially began Wednesday. From the moment she stepped off Air Force One in her Jason Wu chartreuse sheath dress on Tuesday night, Michelle Obama had the famously fickle British press oohing and aahing.
“A razzle dazzling performance from the mighty Michelle,” roared London’s Evening Standard in a headline Wednesday. The newspaper’s cover carried a full-page photo of the Obamas waving alongside Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife, Sarah, and the headline “Welcome Mr. Prez.”
Even Britain’s Press Association — a wire service that usually reports stories in a staid, neutral tone — melted in her wake. “Mrs. Obama looked dazzling in a sequined champagne cardigan paired with a mint pencil skirt, both from American midmarket brand J. Crew,” said one report Wednesday morning.
It added: “Mrs. Obama did not put a foot wrong in low-heeled animal skin print heels and her signature pearls.”
The Times of London’s fashion department’s Twitter site called Obama’s cardigan “spring incarnate,” and told Brown — who was dressed in a navy blue suit by London-based designer Britt Lintner — to “lighten up, love.”
A Reuters blog carried the headline, “Michelle sparkles as hostess Sarah plays it safe,” and chided Brown for her lack of sartorial confidence, which has never been a hallmark of British prime ministers’ wives to begin with.
Jenna Lyons, J. Crew’s creative director, obviously was pleased at the First Lady’s fashion choices. “The topic of conversation is really the economy. It’s appropriate and also sends a message that she is wearing something from a brand that is approachable and known by American consumers, and a brand that people can be a part of.”
Lyons praised the First Lady’s fashion choices on her European trip so far. “She never looks stuffy, she looks modern and feminine,” she said. “It’s exciting to have a First Lady who isn’t all suited up and tightly coiffed.”
Even Queen Elizabeth II caught the bug. Although the Obamas are not in Britain on a state visit, she requested a private, informal meeting with the first couple at Buckingham Palace — marking the 12th U.S. president she’s met during her reign, stretching back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Michelle Obama arrived for the visit wearing a Jason Wu black duchess satin opera coat over an Isabel Toledo silk satin crepe dress with a black skirt and white bodice, and a black Azzedine Alaïa cardigan, her chic monochrome look a sharp contrast to the queen’s decidedly dowdy salmon pink shift dress.
The British monarch, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Obamas met for about 20 minutes before the G-20 leaders and their spouses arrived for a cocktail party at the Palace — during which Michelle Obama chatted with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall — ahead of a dinner at Downing Street hosted by Sarah Brown. Brown, maybe hearing the criticism, made an effort, donning a Graeme Black brown beaded jacket paired with a brown Britt Lintner dress, accessorized with brown leather Jimmy Choo shoes, which her spokesman said she had “picked up in the January sales.”
Earlier in the day, Michelle Obama drew cheering crowds outside a cancer care center based at Charing Cross Hospital, where she paid a visit alongside Brown. Even the nurses were hanging out of the windows to watch her arrival. In her signature, straight-talking style, she chatted with the staff about her plans to install a beehive at the White House, a perfect accompaniment to the vegetable garden she’s planting: “We have a big lawn,” she joked, and happily quaffed a cup of tea — brewed by Sarah Brown. Later the Obamas briefly met Conservative Party leader David Cameron and his wife, Samantha, who also is creative director of British stationery and leather goods brand Smythson.
On Wednesday night, the First Lady joined Brown for a G-20 spouses dinner at Downing Street, with guests including high-profile British women such as “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, Olympic gold medalist Dame Kelly Holmes, film director Gurinder Chadha, broadcaster Emma Freud and, the sole representative of the fashion world, none other than Naomi Campbell.
Obama was seated between Rowling and Holmes. The guests dined on an all-British meal concocted by Jamie Oliver, including organic salmon from Shetland, vegetables from Sussex, Surrey and Kent, and Irish soda bread.
The main course was slow-roasted shoulder of lamb from Wales accompanied by Jersey Royal potatoes, followed by dessert of Bakewell tart and custard. Other G-20 spouses invited to the dinner included Margarita Zavala, the wife of Mexican President Felipe Calderón; Sonsoles Espinosa, the opera-singer wife of the Spanish prime minister; Laureen Harper, wife of the Canadian prime minister, and Liu Yongqing, the wife of the Chinese president.
But those ladies were clearly no sartorial competition for Obama, who wore the same Isabel Toledo tuxedo tank dress to dinner she’d worn earlier to Buckingham Palace — minus the black cardigan. The First Lady will face dueling dresses at dawn in a few days, though, when she will meet French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy at the NATO 60th Anniversary Summit events in Strasbourg, France, and Kehl, Germany. The Obamas then travel to Prague for a European Union Summit before ending their first European tour in Istanbul on Monday.
Not that everything about the visit has been love-and-kisses. The Obamas were winning hearts, they — along with the other G-20 leaders — were causing serious gridlock across town on Wednesday. The traffic, compounded with the chaos from various demonstrations in the City and central London, brought parts of town to a virtual standstill. “It was an absolute nightmare in the West End and the City,” said a spokeswoman for one of the local courier services.
The roads surrounding the Bank of England — the site of a series of anticapitalist, antiwar and climate-change protests on Wednesday — were cordoned off by police. Some 4,000 protesters descended on the City, the central financial district, for the demonstrations, and riot police were deployed in some areas.
On the retail front, the vast majority of stores surrounding the Bank of England were closed Wednesday. A wall of police officers lined the entrance to the Royal Exchange, the shopping arcade opposite the Bank of England that houses labels including Gucci, Hermès and YSL — all of which were closed. Retailers including Agent Provocateur, Smythson, and Lulu Guinness had even boarded up their windows.
The atmosphere in front of the Bank of England was scary at times, with some protesters brandishing makeshift horses’ heads and skulls, as drums pounded and the crowd shouted “revolution.” Other protesters carried signs that read “Consumers suck!” and “Stop the war!” A clutch of protesters dressed like ninjas and wearing balaclavas and hooded sweatshirts ran at walls of police officers with interlinked arms.
During the day, there were some clashes, with protesters using an office chair to break windows of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Threadneedle Street branch. The BBC reported that police sustained a few minor injuries during the protests.