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Michelle Obama's style: Change you can wear

The first lady taps up-and-coming designers for her inaugural dresses: Isabel Toledo and Jason Wu. It's a fresh generation for a new brand of American fashion.

January 21, 2009|BOOTH MOORE | FASHION CRITIC

Just as Barack Obama turned the page on American history in Washington on Tuesday, Michelle Obama turned the page on American fashion and reaffirmed her commitment to being a new kind of style leader.

The lemongrass wool lace ensemble she wore for the swearing-in wasn't designed by one of the aging custodians of the Seventh Avenue Establishment -- Donna Karan or Calvin Klein. It was by Isabel Toledo, a Cuban American whom nobody knows but everyone should.

For the inaugural balls, Obama chose a creamy one-shouldered gown by 26-year-old Taiwanese American designer Jason Wu.

By wearing clothes from up-and-comers such as Wu, Toledo, Narciso Rodriguez and Thakoon Panichgul, Obama is ushering in a new generation of talent and writing the next chapter in American fashion.

Toledo has been designing under her own name for 20 years in New York and was briefly the creative director for Anne Klein. (Bet they wish they'd hung on to her now!)

"She's never been about making clothes to make herself famous," said Rosemary Brantley, chairwoman of the fashion department at L.A.'s Otis College of Art and Design, where Toledo has taught since the 1990s. "She's about flattering the figure, and she's curvaceous herself. Everything she does is thoughtful. She would never bang out a dress with a normal side seam."

With their retro "Mad Men" silhouette and of-the-moment yellow hue, the Toledo dress and coat proved that Obama can strike a balance between being conservative and taking risks.

Some might consider the beaded collar on the inaugural dress too formal for morning. But those rules were rewritten long ago. Today, you can wear black to a wedding, bling during the day and white at night.

Obama did that too. Her gown was an unusual choice, even for the new political red carpet; it could have been a wedding gown. (The president's white bow tie and tux combo was an even more unusual choice.) Obama's one-shouldered style was downright sexy, and the powdery hue was on-trend with what we saw at the Golden Globes.

Through days of inaugural events, she wore several pairs of shoulder-sweeping diamond earrings designed by L.A. jeweler Loree Rodkin. They were borrowed from Ikram, one of Obama's favorite Chicago boutiques. Nancy Reagan was skewered for borrowing clothes. But that was before the red carpet became the runway and lending became a key form of advertising for designers.

Besides, Obama knows how to do the high-low thing too. She wore J. Crew for the Kids' Inaugural concert on Monday. And just hours after the inauguration, e-mails were already flooding in from Dress Barn, Bluefly and other retailers about how to get the look for less.

Because fashion is a business, and Michelle Obama means business.

--

booth.moore@latimes.com

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