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Designers Praise Michelle Obama’s Refreshingly Down-to-Earth Style

Washington is about to get a whole new jolt of energy.

Washington is about to get a whole new jolt of energy.

This story first appeared in the November 6, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.


The first African-American president in history and one of the youngest — and with the youngest family since the Kennedys — will bring a different vibe to the nation’s capitol compared with the socially inactive years of the Bush administration. Designers are already jockeying to dress both President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle; hostesses are polishing their crystal and silver; hip D.C. restaurants expect a boom from the influx of young administration workers and questions are swirling: Where will the Obamas’ daughters, Sasha and Malia, go to school? What will be Michelle Obama’s main causes? How will the Obama White House entertain? And will the new president install a basketball hoop in the White House (after all, Richard Nixon put in a bowling alley)?

While many of those questions couldn’t be answered on Wednesday, those who have met or know the Obamas emphasize one thing: the mood will be relaxed, low-key, family-focused and, above all, modern.

“That’s what [the Obamas] are,” said Chicago-based designer Maria Pinto, whose clothes Michelle Obama has worn for several years. “They’re modern. It’s a refreshing, youthful, modern point of view that we’ve been desperate for.”

And designers all agreed the next First Lady could be the spark the challenged fashion business needs right now. Her approachable and down-to-earth style is likely to have a big influence on the way American women dress, they said.

On Tuesday night, Obama gave another nod to American designers when she stepped out on stage before her husband’s victory speech in a black and red embroidered dress from Narciso Rodriguez’s spring 2009 collection and earrings by Loree Rodkin. In recent months, she has dressed in looks by Maria Pinto, Thakoon, Isabel Toledo, White House|Black Market and J. Crew.

Pinto, the Chicago-based designer who has dressed Obama for many important occasions, including the night she famously knuckle-bumped her husband clad in a purple Pinto silk sheath dress and Azzedine Alaïa belt as he claimed the Democratic nomination, described her style as “very approachable. That’s what people love about Michelle — she’s comfortable in her own skin. She can go from J. Crew to designer.”

As for whether she’ll dress Obama for the inaugural on Jan. 20, Pinto said, “I hope so.” Obama had alluded to Pinto designing a dress, but she said she didn’t want to jinx anything. Pinto said they will likely meet in the next few weeks to discuss her wardrobe needs.

Oscar de la Renta said this is the moment for “an American woman to mark her time.”

“Hopefully, she will do that,” he said. “ It’s not only about the way she dresses, but also the way she will conduct her life. She has an extraordinary opportunity to be an icon to a lot of different people. The eyes of the world will be on her. She will have a big impact. Obviously, she’s a professional and she manages the life of a mom in an extraordinary way. Those two little girls look adorable.”

Tracking First Lady fashion is an American sport of sorts and always has been, according to de la Renta, who noted that, with the exception of France’s Carla Bruni Sarkozy, most countries don’t pay much attention to how their leaders’ wives dress.

“Mrs. Obama is certainly stylish and very good looking. It will be great for any American designer to dress her,” de la Renta said. “Paying attention to what the first lady wears has always been part of the American syntax even though there isn’t a special budget allocated for her to dress well nor has she been able to accept clothes for free.”

Obama has bought some of de la Renta’s clothes at the Chicago boutique Ikram and he hopes to dress her during her White House days.

“She is powerful, elegant and sophisticated,” said Donna Karan. “You see the woman first, she is not overpowered by the clothes. We expect a role model. She is a mother, a wife. She has all the attributes that matter.”

Diane von Furstenberg said the future First Lady is “smart, engaged, beautiful and confident.”

“Her style is who she is…and people will discover it little by little,” she said. “Fashion is a reflection of our time and this is truly an exciting time.”

Jenna Lyons Mazeau, creative director at J. Crew, lauded her classic style that brings an ease to the clothes with personal touches. She expects Obama to bring those characteristics to the White House.

“I love that she wears color and I love that she wears dresses,” Mazeau said. “There has been this whole movement about suits. She looks feminine and dresses beautifully, but never overtly sexy.”

Mazeau said she would be honored to dress Obama for the inauguration.

“This is such an amazing time and they are such an inspiring couple that it would be an honor, not just because she has great style, but also because she is probably one of the most important and inspiring women of our time,” Mazeau said. “This is not just about getting our clothes on somebody, it’s really about a part of history. It’s exciting to have somebody [in the White House] who seems to really care about clothes. She has a real personality and it comes through in the way she dresses.”

Mazeau is equally encouraged by the President-elect’s style.

“He could wear a paper bag and I would still love him,” she said. “He just looks effortless. He understands how his clothes should fit.”

If he wanted to wear a J. Crew suit, she said she would “do back flips and give him 10.”

“They are very healthy and they exude a kind of hopefulness,” she said. “And I love that he and Michelle and the children coordinate their colors together. They look great in pictures.”

Elie Tahari expects Michelle Obama to be elegant and classic.

“I see her wearing tailored clothing, as well,” Tahari said. “I think she is a quality human being. She is young, pretty, smart and well put together. These are a lot of great qualities. I think we have Mrs. Sarkozy, who is very fashionable, and right now, we have Michelle Obama in the U.S., which will be great for the fashion industry. She will ignite the fashion industry.”

Asked if he would like to dress Obama for the inauguration, Tahari didn’t miss a beat. “We have a whole sample room — one of the best in the industry — and a whole floor that we will devote to it, should we be asked,” he said.

Ditto the President-elect, whom Tahari called “Mister Handsome.” “He could be a male model,” Tahari said. “Whatever he has been wearing has been appropriate. I think the fashion industry will have a ball with him. They will have so much fun because he is built so well. They all love to dress him and I’d love to dress him too. We do men’s wear.”

Barack Obama is known to wear union-made suits from Chicago-based Hart, Schaffner, Marx & Hillman.

Marc Bouwer also praised the Obamas’ style: “I love that he wears narrow, fitted suits and that he doesn’t wear the typical Washington suit with baggy pants. And she is not afraid to take risks. What she wore on election night was such a bold choice for such an important night. I’m glad that she’s not wearing the little tweed suits that a lot of senators’ wives feel they have to wear once they get to Washington. We are definitely going to see many more fashion moments from her.”

But just as her husband must put together a team of advisers, so must the next First Lady. While many of them are expected to come from the team Michelle Obama assembled for the campaign, no doubt résumés are flooding in already for other positions. Given her background working in the health care industry as a lawyer, that is likely to be one of her focuses.

But she faces challenges.

“Michelle Obama has not been in position of being first lady of a state the way Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush were,’’ said Cokie Roberts, who called her “well up to the task, smart as they come and an accomplished public person.’’ Still, Roberts said, “She hasn’t had the experience of picking the cause, organizing the people behind that cause, seeing how effective she can be and effecting change for that cause. It ought to be an interesting set of decisions for her. A lot of people will be trying to put their own issues at the top of the list. They’ll be lobbying her and everyone who knows her.’’

Among those hoping to create a social buzz of their own are two rival social camps jockeying to give the best inaugural party, including Rima Al-Sabah, wife of the ambassador of Kuwait, and veteran socialite Buffy Cafritz.

“The President-elect and Mrs. Obama have shown grace throughout the campaign and I am sure they will reach out, entertain and showcase the best America has to offer,” said Al-Sabah, who is co-hosting her event with Ken Duberstein, the Reagan White House chief of staff who endorsed Obama just days before the election.

Duberstein is in the bipartisan catbird seat, having worked behind the scenes to help orchestrate Colin Powell’s Obama endorsement. Also co-hosting the Al-Sabah event are Washington Mayor Adrien Fenty and his wife, Michelle, and socialites Grega and Leo Daley. Cafritz will be hosting her event with Vernon and Ann Jordan.

Among the guests hostesses will be scrambling to woo are vice president-elect Joe Biden and his extensive family, Sen. Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Richard Luger, rumored White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and Susan Rice, rumored to be on the short list as Obama’s National Security Chief.

However Washington changes, odds are what’s ahead will be different from anything that has come before. Asked whether Washington is in for a second coming of Camelot, Oatsie Charles, who introduced John F. Kennedy to spy novelist Ian Fleming, said, “I hope they’ll make their own way. I think that wife of his is smart as a whip. It leaves us speechless because it is such a wonderful change.”

“You might see a less conservative Washington in terms of its traditionally conservative fashion,” said Kassie Rempel, owner of local shoe boutique and online catalogue SimplySoles. “With Obama, it’s really about respecting the individual. There’s going to be more freedom and creativity of expression as we feel like there’s more of a platform for being heard.”

With the broadening of individuality and creativity, political life could shift out of the traditional mahogany-walled steak houses to the growing crop of new, eclectic restaurants and bars in the Washington area, Rempel said. This includes spots such as Marvin, a restaurant-lounge with a low-key black glass facade, an open deck that encourages socializing and communication that seems appropriate for the new spirit imbuing the Capital, Rempel said.

The U Street part of town has been one of Washington’s rising star neighborhoods in recent years as an increasing number of restaurants, lounges and boutiques move in. It’s a neighborhood of young people as well, a group that could be a big part of the sea change possible in Obama’s Washington.