Life, etc

Chronicles of Chic: And America found its Michelle O.

By Emilie Gambade 6 February 2013

There is a general agreement inside the global political arena that politics somehow must be unadventurous fashion-wise; think Angela Merkel and Julia Gillard and fashion isn’t, indeed, the first word that comes to mind. So when Michelle Obama started to wear fashion designers Prabal Gurung, Cushnie et Ochs or Alexander McQueen, and even added some bangs to her look, she very much shook the US political stage from its sleepy state-of-style. By EMILIE GAMBADE.

January 21, 2013. Newly re-elected US President Obama is talking to the American troops from Kandahar; alone on stage, naturally casual in a nonetheless formal white tie and black Hart Schaffner Marx tuxedo, Barack Obama knows how to charm and entertain the élite crowd gathered at the Washington Convention Centre for the Commander-in-Chief Inaugural Ball. Still, despite his charisma and distinctive elegance, what fashion observers from around the globe are really waiting for is the First Lady’s appearance and the unveiling of her inaugural gown.

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Photo: A combination photo shows U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (L) wearing a Jason Wu gown at the Commander in Chief’s Ball l in Washington Janaury 21, 2013 and attending the Home States Ball also wearing Jason Wu January 20, 2009. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/Jim Young

That, in the middle of this show of democracy’s power, all eyes are on the First Lady is not surprising. Since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Michelle’s outfits have been broadly analysed, praised or criticised, including the recent diatribe by Women’s Wear Daily Executive Editor Bridget Foley: “Mrs. Obama isn’t an indulged starlet primping for the Oscars, nor should she behave like one” and, as the New Yorker noted, CNN’s Alina Cho’s euphoric tweets “Michelle #Obama wearing #ThomBrowne today for inauguration, wonderful choice;” there is not one of her outfits that doesn’t spark applause or discontent, not one of her pair of Jimmy Choo’s, coats or cardigans that is not dissected to its very thread, not one of her hairdos, those infamous bangs included, that doesn’t lead to copycats or wows of horror.

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Photo: Coat by Thom Browne and belt by J.Crew – Michelle Obama arrives at the Senate carriage entrance for the presidential inauguration ceremonies at the U.S Capitol in Washington, January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, known for his caustic honesty, compared Michelle Obama’s inaugural fringe to one of a news anchor – think heavy hairspray and Barbara Walters. Joan Rivers publicly hoped that the hairdo wouldn’t last the four years of Obama’s stay in the White House, and Jon Stewart’s inauguration coverage was interrupted by the new “ba-ba-ba-bangs” of his bewigged correspondents, clearly inspired by the latest Michelle bob-effect.

The impact of her style and the study of its evolution were not always so immediate and global. In the early years of Barack Obama’s political burst, Michelle Obama preferred more conservative looks that didn’t spark much attention; sure, she was not yet the athletic model shot by photographer Annie Leibovitz for the cover of Vogue in March 2009, her confident gaze looking straight at the camera, shoulders firmly carrying a headline filled with hope and expectations – “Michelle Obama: The First Lady the World’s Been Waiting For.” But she already carried a quiet confidence that often made her look just right.

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Photo: Magenta silk sheath dress by Jason Wu for Vogue Cover, March 2009.

Thanks to some outside expertise, she was propelled from ‘just right’ to being a symbol of daring fashion choices, the new bearer of the American way-of-style, where elegance and energy go in pair. Before Barack Obama hit the campaign trail on 10 February 2007, Michelle turned to Chicago-fashion retailer and style authority, Ikram Goldman, for wardrobe advice, and later to the young Meredith Koop, Goldman’s protégée. Although the White House vetoes interviews with the unofficial stylists, simply stating that their “responsibilities include advising the First Lady on her wardrobe and acting on her behalf in arranging for purchases,” Goldman’s influence was obvious; from Chicaco-based designer Maria Pinto’s purple dress to garments by up-and-coming, avant-garde designers like Jason Wu, Michelle Obama was soon taking more risks, embracing daring looks.

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Photo: Corporate power look – U.S. President Barack Obama talks to Michelle Obama as they walk on the South Lawn of the White House upon their return to Washington from Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, December 14, 2011. REUTERS/Yuri Gripa

As years went by and her style got increasingly celebrated, one couldn’t, and still can’t, but compare her natural fashion individuality to Jackie Kennedy Onassis; both turned to fashion connoisseurs for advice, Kennedy having consulted with Vogue Editor-in-Chief and “fashion oracle” Diana Vreeland (probably best described as Anna Wintour before Anna Wintour). Both Michelle and Jackie O. share a keen fashion sense of their own, a personality that takes possession of what they wear, as no garment, be it stitched with gold, should ever eclipse their own charisma.

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Photo: Jackie O and John F Kennedy. (Reuters)

Jackie O’s clothing choices were commented on all around the globe: she was adulated, creating trends and fashion clones that are still visible today; her style was impeccable, fit as much to her dignified character as to her lithe frame. The media had a love affair with her, watching every step she made in her low heels: American style observers were desperately waiting for her next style incarnation, their adoration turned her into a walking myth that no other First Lady could have ever hoped to match.

Until now.

Michelle O’s approach to fashion is filled with gusto and originality and understanding of what suits her athletic figure. She is playful with her clothes and loyal to the designers; when it became clear she decided to wear Jason Wu again at the Inaugural Ball, the same designer twice in a row, fashion critics found it either brilliant or shocking, endearing her loyalty or dismissing her lack of originality, battling to decide if the red was ‘ruby’ or ‘persimmon’, bursting with ingenuity to describe the chiffon and velvet gown, halter-neck, V-back, flowing skirt, waist belted; the “Michelle-O-mania” matched the politics for the night.

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Photo: Ivory georgette gown by Tom Ford – Michelle Obama poses for a photograph before a State Dinner at Buckingham Palace in London May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Jackson/Pool

And with every outfit, the myth grows and America finds its new Jackie O. In 2007, Michelle was listed in Vanity Fair’s International Best-Dressed List, in 2009, the CFDA awarded her with a Board of Directors Special Tribute for her support to local designers. In 2010, she was included in the Vogue list of the Decade’s Best-Dressed Women.

She makes daily fashion statements while preaching for simplicity and individuality. In an interview with Vogue, she declares, “[F]irst and foremost, I wear what I love. That’s what women have to focus on: what makes them happy and what makes them comfortable and beautiful.”

Michelle O. looks, indeed, comfortable in her own clothes; she has access to some of the most beautiful garments available on the velvet hangers of international couture houses. Yet her picks speak not only crafted garments and designer gowns, but also intelligent and playful combinations – pieces from American retailer J.Crew and designer Thom Browne. In 2011, she dared to wear a red petal silk organza dress by the very British Alexander McQueen (designed by Sarah Burton) to a state dinner for China, facing a wave of protestations at her patronage fleeing America.

Ironically, in the early 1960’s, then-young Jackie Kennedy, fan of Parisian couture, with a wardrobe greatly composed of Balenciaga and Chanel, was given the subtle instruction to “cut the Paris cord.” Times change, and while Kennedy opted for Oleg Cassini, a sophisticated French-born American fashion designer, as her official designer, Michelle O. responded to the press with a smile and a clear “I wear what I like.”

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Photo: 3/4 sleeve coat and dress by Naeem Khan – U.S. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama walk into the National Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, January 22, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Because Michelle O. can’t only be defined by her outfits or the designers she wears, but her daring choices and an unmistakable twist to the protocol. The message: no-one owns her personal brand but her.

Over the last six years, she successfully and effortlessly brought back a theatrical glow to the political stage. And as rumours go, she will probably be the March cover of Vogue – once again featuring Michelle O; this time an icon. DM

Main photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama dance at the Inaugural Ball in Washington, January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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