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Fashion designers take note of Michelle Obama

Inspiration for collections often comes from the past. But the first lady is a modern muse.

January 17, 2010|By Vincent Boucher
  • NOMINATION NIGHT: Michelle Obama opted for a fierce and sophisticated print dress by Thakoon at the end of the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver.
NOMINATION NIGHT: Michelle Obama opted for a fierce and sophisticated… (Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty…)

First Lady Michelle Obama has become something of a muse to several New York designers, who showed pre-fall 2010 collections in December that reflected signature elements of her style.

"She's a fashion icon, an inspiration for designers," Sasha Charnin Morrison, fashion director at Us Weekly, said in an interview. "Instead of looking at historical figures, which doesn't really work anymore, they are looking to someone so modern, who takes risks and wears clothes so well." The magazine recently bowed to Obama's fashion prowess -- and unspoken sex appeal -- by including her slinky but stately strapless Naeem Khan gown in a spread of best red-carpet dresses from 2009, alongside Angelina Jolie, Megan Fox and Blake Lively.

Pre-collections are shown without the hoopla of runway collections to a select group of buyers and minimal press. Generally comprising a designer's most wearable pieces, pre-collections often supply the bulk of a store's inventory.

Obama could easily have stepped into one Oscar de la Renta pre-fall ensemble -- a runway mash-up of her trademark looks, starting with a belted coral cashmere cardigan that was a ladies-who-lunch, luxury version of her redoubtable J. Crew sweater. Underneath, a full-skirted day dress sported a bold floral print in coordinating pinks and soft browns. The sweater was accented with its own tromp l'oeil beaded flower "brooch."

Carolina Herrera also picked up on the floral pin motif, notably in a draped cobalt-blue short-sleeved dress, accented with a brooch in the same color. (Obama wore a similar shade of blue recently in Hawaii for a trip to the zoo.) Since Herrera and De La Renta have yet to dress the first lady, maybe these familiar gestures were an exasperated bid for a little more attention, a pique of chic.

Elie Tahari covered the casual side of the first lady's style with his deep-lapeled zip jacket, which was a ringer for an oft-worn piece in her wardrobe designed by Azzedine Alaia. All Obama would have to do is replace the skin-tight black leggings of the runway with her favorite straight-leg trousers and she would be good to go, especially since Tahari thoughtfully accessorized the look with a beaded necklace complete with -- need it be said -- attached floral brooches.

Donna Karan also hasn't been tapped for this White House playbook yet, perhaps because of her long association with Hillary Clinton (the exposed shoulder gown for her first state dinner) and President Clinton (she was his White House tailor). But she gamely featured several draped dresses in the same lemon grass shade as Obama's inaugural ensemble.

For the lucky designers already in Obama's inner circle, the obsessive attention from both print and the blogosphere has made them instant stars. "She's doing what the stores and magazines used to do, building up designers, but now it's global," Morrison said. "I've never seen anything like it."

Designer Michael Kors is one name at the top of the first lady's list. She famously wore his arms-baring tank dress for her first official portrait. Now she has previewed his new collection by appearing in one of the pre-fall 2010 variations on that sleeveless shift -- in a red rose print -- in a photo accompanying her joint interview with the president for a January issue of People magazine. Kors will have a similar style available in spring's must-have sleek glove leather.

Jason Wu is also getting into leather for the first time in his hard-edged collection, leaving behind the fluffy and feminine style of his inaugural ball gown for Obama that catapulted him to household-name recognition. Perhaps as a tribute to his patron's penchant for belts, Wu cinched nearly every jacket, sweater and smock in the collection.

Thakoon, another young designer frequently worn by Obama, has funked up his signature floral prints (he notably designed the floral coat and reverse-tone floral dress worn in her fashion showdown with French First Lady Carla Bruni) by finishing them off with edgy patent leather or sweeping fringe, which will probably have to come off to make them White House-worthy. And was another favorite, Narciso Rodriguez, leaving a subtle reminder that he was there first, dressing her for the election-night celebration in sparkly red and black, with his pre-fall bi-color sheath in the same tones?

In the end though, says Us' Morrison, the first lady's fashion importance eclipses the very designers she chooses to wear: "I think her real message is based on her individual style. It's not so much about who's dressing you anymore -- it's how you put it together."

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