Dressed up or down, Michelle stands tall as a natural fashion star
by Marcia Froelke Coburn
The hoopla over Michelle Obama’s clothes started during the political primary season, when she appeared onstage with her husband. First, she wore several flirty fitted suits, which prompted Politico.com to ponder whether Michelle was the embodiment of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s fashionably chic style. Then on June 3, 2008, Senator Obama secured the Democratic presidential nomination, and Michelle appeared onstage with him in St. Paul, Minnesota (1), wearing a royal-purple silk sheath ($900) by the Chicago designer Maria Pinto. The dress was sleeveless and formfitting; Michelle had accessorized it by cinching an Azzedine Alaïa black patent leather belt ($350 to $500) around the dress’s Empire waist and wearing a faux-pearl necklace by Carolee ($50). “The combination of that dress with that belt was amazing,” says Sally Singer, the fashion news/features director of Vogue. “Her clothes said that she was authoritative and appropriate, yet also very accessible and very refreshing.” That night a fashion star—for both the apparel industry and the public—was born.
Any possible doubt about a growing national interest in Michelle’s style disappeared two weeks later when she appeared on ABC’s daytime talk show The View (2). She did not wear a luxury brand name, but a black-and-white floral cotton dress designed by Donna Ricco and sold at the shopping-mall boutique White House/ Black Market. “She was still on The View when our phones—both in our corporate headquarters and in our stores across the country—started ringing nonstop,” says Jessica Wells, the director of public relations for White House/Black Market. The dress, which retails for $148, sold out in 48 hours. “It was purchased by women of all ages and all sizes across the country,” says Wells. The same thing happened during the fall campaign, when Michelle appeared on The Tonight Show and told Jay Leno that she had purchased her yellow cardigan and her print top and skirt online from J. Crew (3). This time, the outfit sold out in less than 24 hours, as did the J. Crew floral-print skirt she wore with silver flats while campaigning in Florida.
“This high-low fashion style is the way chic women of the world dress,” says Singer. “You have one quality thing, and everything else is a lesser price point. It completely reflects the way people shop. She has the ability to make clothes seem optimistic, which is something we need now. That floral Thakoon kimono dress she wore with flats the last night of the Democratic convention was the sign of a happy, confident woman. And I don’t know anyone who isn’t happier for seeing a beautiful floral print.”
Before stepping into the public spotlight, Michelle Obama had been a fashion plate for years, working without a stylist and putting her own creative touches to high-low ensembles. Many of the high-end fashions came from either Pinto or Ikram, the primo Rush Street boutique owned by Ikram Goldman. (Pinto was profiled in Chicago, March 2008; Goldman, in February 2006. Both articles are available in the archives on the magazine’s Web site, chicagomag.com.) Michelle wore Pinto gowns to black-tie affairs for her job with the University of Chicago Hospitals and to Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball in 2005 (4). When Michelle was named to Vanity Fair’s 2007 best-dressed list, she said her favorite outfit of the past year had been a Sonia Rykiel black suit worn with a white chiffon blouse by Noir and, again, an Alaïa belt—the touches of Noir and Alaïa a strong indication of Goldman’s influence.
Michelle reportedly still works without a stylist, but for many of the important moments during the campaign and after the election, she again turned to the two Chicago women who sartorially know her best. On the night she spoke at the Democratic National Convention (5), Michelle wore an aqua sheath from Pinto accented with a large brooch by Erickson Beamon, a London-based team whose jewelry is sold at Ikram.
On Larry King Live, Michelle sported a feathery purple brooch by Carolyn Rosenberg, another purchase from Ikram. She chose an iris-colored tweed top and skirt by Pinto for 60 Minutes and a coral-red dress with bracelet-length sleeves by Pinto when she went to the White House to meet Laura Bush (6). For her interview with Barbara Walters, she wore an ivory silk sheath embroidered with black rosettes, an advance production from the 2009 spring collection of the New York designer Jason Wu and rumored to have been special ordered by Goldman.
Goldman declines all questions about Michelle. Pinto says in an e-mail, “Her style is timeless. She possesses a natural sophistication. . . . But what I love most is her brilliance and eloquence coupled by the grace and beauty of a dancer. Style aside, it is her wit and intellect that will make her an extraordinary First Lady.”
The clothes won’t hurt, though—particularly in this rocky economy. Already the fashion industry is gearing up to tap into a market of sheath-dress-loving, costume-jewelry-wearing women. The designer Elie Tahari (whose clothes were favored by the Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin) has unveiled a purple floral sheath named “the Michelle dress.” Talbots has added images of Michelle to the image book, videos, and storyboards circulated to its internal design and sales employees. And Mark Mendelson, the president of Ellen Tracy—a brand popular at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s—recently told The Wall Street Journal that his company was considering running ads with photographs of Michelle from the campaign trail. And last fall Pinto reported a 45 percent increase in sales in the past year.
In the blogosphere, fashionistas comment on every clothing choice that Michelle makes. Some are favorable. “She has brought the brooch out of the shadows of tacky Christmas pins and shown it can be a versatile accessory,” says Mary Tomer, a cofounder of Mrs. O, a blog dedicated to tracking everything Michelle wears. And some are not. Wonkette called the black-and-red Narciso Rodriguez cocktail dress that Michelle wore to election night’s Grant Park celebration “hell-colored.” And an online poll conducted by People magazine showed that 65 percent of those who voted “hated” the dress. “Oh, I was stunned by that dress—and in a good way,” says Timothy Long, the curator of costumes for the Chicago History Museum. “I thought she looked great.”
“Loved that dress—particularly the little sweater shrug she threw over it,” says Singer of Vogue. “We are used to seeing political women—either candidates or spouses—looking just one way: with a helmet of hair and those matched outfits we don’t know where they buy,” continues Singer. “Clearly now there is a change.”
“That red dress she wore to meet the Bushes at the White House announced, ‘I am ready to be page-one, top-of-the-news-hour, insta-blog news,’” says Bonnie Fuller, the founder of Bonnie Fuller Media and a former editor of Us Weekly and Glamour magazines. “That dress said, ‘I will be a self-possessed First Lady.’”
Of course, any dedicated fan of Michelle’s style already knows that. She is five feet eleven but doesn’t shy away from stiletto heels, even if that makes her taller than her husband. She told the women on The View that she might wear tights but never pantyhose. Three days after her husband was elected the 44th president of the United States, she wore workout pants and a baseball cap to take her daughters to school. Her style is less formal and more personal than we are used to seeing in a First Lady, combining a sense of humor with a sense of glamour. She is confident in her clothes—high fashion or low. And that speaks to us.
Photography: (From top left) Morry Gash/AP photo, Michael A. Mariant/AP photo, Chris Carlson/AP photo, Mary F. Calvert/AP photo/The Washington Times