Lest anyone question the power of fashion, a week after the fact, people are still debating Michelle Obama’s choice of a British McQueen frock for the state dinner in honor of Chinese President Hu Jintao. And this, in the midst of a busy news week that has included confirmation of a serial killer on the loose on Long Island, a horrific airport attack in Moscow, Keith Olbermann’s abrupt exit from MSNBC, two NFL conference championship games, announcement of the Oscar nominees and the run-up to Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.
While recovering from her skiing accident, CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg sent a statement to WWD explaining the Council’s position on the issue. “CFDA believes in promoting American fashion,” the statement read. “Our First Lady Michelle Obama has been wonderful at promoting our designers, so we were surprised and a little disappointed not to be represented for this major state dinner.”
In a later conversation, Steven Kolb, the CFDA’s executive director, stressed the importance of showcasing American fashion on the global scale. “[That’s] one of the things that’s been our priority at the CFDA last year and will continue this year,” Kolb said. “For a lot of designers, their ability to grow their businesses is going to be in the global marketplace. In some instances, there’s really no growth in the U.S. and [these designers] need to do that to succeed. That’s important to us. So anytime that there’s a stage or international setting that you can celebrate American fashion, it’s a good thing.”
Though Kolb, too, expressed disappointment at Obama’s choice for the dinner — he nonetheless thought she looked fabulous in her red-and-black Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen — he stressed how much Obama has done for American fashion, from an overall morale standpoint and specifically for younger designers. He considers dressing the First Lady, “the pinnacle” for a designer. Especially early in their careers, he said, it instills confidence in designers “to know that what they’re doing is interesting and is appreciated by someone of her level.”
Kolb cited Joel Diaz of Jolibe, a participant in the CFDA’s Fashion Incubator program, whose work was scouted by Obama’s wardrobe adviser, Chicago boutique-owner Ikram Goldman. “Mrs. Obama wore his skirt. That, to him, was such encouragement,” Kolb said. “It’s validation in a lot of ways.”
Asked if he thinks Obama should incorporate more clothes from major designers into her public wardrobe, Kolb implied that, while such occasional sightings might be nice, the First Lady should feel no pressure to wear clothes that don’t suit her. “When it comes right down to it, there are no greater American ambassadors in fashion than Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta. That’s just a fact, right?” he said. “Mrs. Obama is the First Lady, but she’s also an individual and she’s a woman. She’s going to dress in clothes that she looks good in and that she feels comfortable in. I don’t think she’s making a statement by not wearing someone. She’s just choosing clothes as a woman.”
As for whether Obama’s forays into the worlds of Azzedine, Junya and others have released all future first ladies from the expectation of wearing primarily American clothes, Kolb hopes not, at least for most of their public lives. “I believe one has individual choice and preferences,” he said. “For the President and First Lady, part of that is spotlighting America, American jobs, American industry, American innovation. She can do that.”