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Michelle Obama Honors Francisco Costa

First Lady Michelle Obama gives an award to the Calvin Klein designer Francisco Costa.

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Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown

WASHINGTON — Calvin Klein designer Francisco Costa was living the American Dream on Friday.

Costa, winner of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards fashion design category, found himself at the White House being honored by First Lady Michelle Obama for 17 years of creative and innovative women’s wear design.

A Brazilian who came to the U.S. in the early Nineties, Costa graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and went on to design for such houses as Oscar de la Renta and Gucci before joining Calvin Klein as creative director for women’s Collection, where his first collection for the house debuted for spring 2004.

“I had a dream to come to America, which I did, and I worked really hard,” he told WWD. “To me, what is most incredible — I have such a thick accent — I feel totally integrated into the country. America has given me so much opportunity and I don’t think you’ll find that anywhere else in the world.”

As for being in the White House and being honored by the First Lady, he said, “To me to be here today, it’s a pretty strong feeling as a citizen and I feel very grateful.”

Costa said Obama has already “made a tremendous contribution to fashion in the sense that she has broken all modes.”

“I think it can only get better,” he said, adding Obama has made fashion “more acceptable…less of a pedestal thing. I think she is becoming more heartfelt and there is a level one can understand. She is very casual in jeans, but also very chic and gorgeous in a gown and I think that is a good blend.”

Obama flexed her fashion muscles at the National Design Awards ceremony, donning a bold yellow Michael Kors skirt suit, gold bangle bracelets and shimmery snakeskin shoes.

“What I love about design is the artistic and scientific complexity that becomes useful — a laptop, a bridge, an outfit — all drawn from a thousand wells of inspiration yet grounded in the basic principles of math or science,” she said.

In addition to Costa, other Cooper-Hewitt design winners included Bill Moggridge, who created the first laptop computer; Reynold Levy, president of the Lincoln Center; Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown of Tsao & McKown Architects; Hood Design for landscaping; Amory Lovins, a green energy visionary; Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; SHoP Architects; the New York Times graphics department; Boym Partners, designer of consumer goods, and Perceptive Pixel, which specializes in digital, interactive technology.

Target Corp. sponsored the awards.

Obama also gave a nod to the designers for participating in the debut of the National Design Awards’ series of design seminars.

“From type fonts to technology, from silks and satins to sustainability, you brought science to life at these seminars,” Obama said.

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Five seminars were held Friday morning at museums throughout the Washington area.

Ebs Burnough, White House deputy social secretary, told attendees at one panel that the White House and the First Lady wanted to make sure the design winners got out into the community. The goal, Burnough said, was to make the winners accessible, “so the community at large had the opportunity to really benefit from their knowledge and their expertise.”

Costa participated on one of the panels titled “Design X Details: Materials and Their Effects” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art with interior designers Tsao and McKown, who have designed everything from skyscrapers and furniture to housewares and private home interiors.

“We are mirrors to society, but we have the tools somehow to connect with that sensibility, that temperament…to transform it into something tangible,” Tsao said.

Costa said he sees design as an “intellectual resolution,” a place where beauty, society, practicality and service intersect.

Prior to the panel discussion the three winners presented examples of their work. As he narrated a video showing his sculptural spring 2009 collection, Costa said he thinks of himself at times as a frustrated architect. Producing his spring line was the most design-oriented undertaking he’s accomplished, Costa said.

Tsao and McKown said they were jealous of the work Costa is able to do in apparel. Architecture is shelter, Tsao said but, “before that you need to shelter the body,” he said, telling Costa, “You are an architect.”