Given the thirst for all things Michelle Obama, the likelihood that a few of her go-to designers would get together for a public chat about her personal style was inevitable.

Diverse as their designs are, Maria Cornejo, Thakoon Panichgul and Narciso Rodriguez each gave the First Lady points for her unpredictability, multidesigner high-low wardrobe, bold color choices, sleeveless dresses, unexpected personal touches and indifference about Seventh Avenue’s Old Guard in a discussion Sunday at The New York Times’ headquarters with fashion critic Cathy Horyn. The trio of designers practically saluted Obama for dressing like a modern working woman instead of following the same-as-it-ever-was dress code of some of her predecessors.

This story first appeared in the May 5, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“She shops. She looks at collections and fashion shows I guess like everyone else does. She picks what she likes and she wears it,” Rodriguez said. “That’s very modern. I don’t know of anyone who dresses in just one fashion designer. Do you?”

“I’m an exception,” Cornejo said with a laugh. “I’m not big on choices.”

Apparently, the First Lady is. So much so that she still doesn’t clue in designers and, to date, she has worn Isabel Toledo, Michael Kors, Sophie Theallet, Tracy Reese, Azzedine Alaïa and others. While Rodriguez met Obama years ago in Chicago, Cornejo and Panichgul never have. Asked about a WWD article in which some designers questioned why the First Lady wasn’t wearing designs from established houses, all three panelists piped up. Rodriguez said, “That was outrageous,” concurring with Horyn it was a case of sour grapes. “How dare anybody tell the First Lady or any woman today what they should be wearing?”

Panichgul added, “If anything, fashion embraces change and modernity. For that statement to be made is old-fashioned.”

Cornejo said, “She is giving a lot of people like myself the chance to be seen. She is being much more democratic instead of using people who have been like dinosaurs on Seventh Avenue over and over again.”

Like the bulk of designers dressing the First Lady, they funnel all their clothes or sketches through Ikram Goldman, owner of the Chicago boutique Ikram, where Obama has shopped for years. Each is given complete creative license. “No one gave me direction or a color story. I did what I felt was appropriate,” said Rodriguez, whose dresses have been worn by the First Lady in recent months.

Panichgul said the floral ensemble Obama wore to France for her fashion showdown with French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was actually designed with the inaugural in mind. “In hindsight, I could have lined it with wool. It was too cold for her that day,” he said. “For me, the face-off with Carla was fantastic from a fashion designer point of view.”

Panichgul and his fellow panelists even defended the First Lady’s right to wear European designer labels — they wouldn’t even criticize her for wearing $540 Lanvin sneakers last week to volunteer at a food bank in Washington. “She has done a pretty good job of being quite democratic, much more than anyone else ever has. This is a 45-year-old career woman who has earned her own money. If she wants to blow it on clothes, why not?” Cornejo said.

“At least she shops and is not borrowing, so that’s good for the economy,” Panichgul added.

And if she wants bare arms, so be it, Rodriguez said. “The fact that people criticize her for doing so and she doesn’t care, she continues to do that — I admire her for that,” he said.

Appraising a photo of the First Couple with Queen Elizabeth II, Rodriguez said of the 83-year-old British monarch, “I actually don’t like the pink dress and that handbag — I mean…it’s almost become a parody of what you’re supposed to wear. [Michelle] looks totally beautiful.”

Panichgul agreed, “She’s not bounded by these rules of what not to wear and what to wear. The fact that she’s not is why she is so popular.”

Cornejo challenged Horyn’s assessment of former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton looking fantastic in pantsuits. “I don’t think a woman has to dress like a man to be efficient or to be perceived as being efficient,” the designer said.

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