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January 29, 2009 4:32 PM

Eye, Fashion, Media

Presidential Fashion: Should Race Be An Issue?

Michelle Obama in an Isabel Toledo design. The Black Artists Association's criticism of Michelle Obama's inaugural outfits has touched off a firestorm of debate about race.The association criticized the First Lady for not including clothes from an African-American designer...


Michelle Obama in an Isabel Toledo design.
The Black Artists Association's criticism of Michelle Obama's inaugural outfits has touched off a firestorm of debate about race.

The association criticized the First Lady for not including clothes from an African-American designer in her inaugural wardrobe that covered Narciso Rodriguez, Isabel Toledo and Jason Wu, which WWD first wrote about in its Jan. 22 issue. In a subsequent item five days later, BAA founder Amnau Eele stressed she wasn't speaking on behalf of designers. As her nonprofit's name suggests, it is made up of artists, not designers.

Nonetheless, Eele's comments have set off a backlash.  She claims she's received death threats, and there have been strident rebuttals posted on WWD.com as well as nymag.com, the Huffington Post, Jezebel, Politico and other Web sites. CNN's Wolfe Blitzer tackled the subject on air Monday with political strategist Donna Brazile, and Matt Drudge spotlighted the issue on his Drudge Report that same day, as did the Chicago Sun Times.

Last week, the First Lady's press secretary was contacted by WWD for comment before the initial item ran, but she did not respond.

Not wanting to leave anything open to interpretation, African-American designer B. Michael weighed in earlier this week: "I understand their sensitivity and respect their right to express it," he said of the BAA's stance. "I personally believe it is an unfair expectation to place on the First Lady. Fashion is subjective and a matter of personal choice."

WWD readers seemed to agree with Michael's view. As one posted last week, "Please allow her to be who she is and embrace her style and taste. Be grateful that she is a woman of style who has lots of time to pick and choose the designers SHE wants to wear."

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Another reader asked, "Why is what she wears such a political obligation? She is already displaying rather diverse and overlooked American talent. Does she have to wear designers she may not like simply because they are black?"

Eele said earlier this week, "We don't represent designers, we represent painters. We spoke up for black designers because we felt it was the right thing to do."

And it's clear the matter isn't settled. Next month, Eele plans to host a forum to encourage young talent that will use the Michelle Obama dust-up as a starting point for the discussion.
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