Dressing Michelle: Major Designers Wait for First Lady's Call

When will Michelle Obama wear Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein?

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Where in the world are Donna, Ralph and Calvin?

Certainly not on the spousal circuit at the G-20 summit in London. In fact, as President Barack Obama and 19 other global leaders huddle to ponder the world’s economic woes, Michelle Obama has reaffirmed with gusto her fashion support of America’s new and niche, and given anecdotal support as well to antiprotectionism via cardigans by Azzedine Alaïa and Junya Watanabe.

Yet, save for a recent digression to Michael Kors, Obama continues to show zero interest in the big guns of American fashion, those whose names resonate around the world, and who collectively employ thousands of people. Obama’s early appearances in the likes of Jason Wu, Thakoon and Isabel Toledo, (with the punch of Narciso Rodriguez worked in for good measure), both captivated and charmed much of the country while exciting an industry that understands the myriad challenges faced by small fashion houses even under the best of circumstances. But as time goes on, with economic recovery feeling none too close and the Obamas’ honeymoon with the world still passionate enough for the First Lady’s sartorial choices to garner major, gushing headlines, should she diversify her wardrobe choices, especially as the industry prepares to celebrate her with a CFDA Board of Directors Special Tribute? Indeed, does she have a responsibility to do so?

Like the auto and financial industries, fashion is in crisis. Yet the person in the administration best positioned to support its major players — those whose collective vicissitudes play into the economy in a considerable way and whose individual swings of fortune impact the lives of countless working people up and down the supply chain and their families — is giving them the cold shoulder. And we don’t mean Donna Karan’s. No one’s asking for a big-gun bailout, Mrs. O (at least not yet). But how about a shout-out?

Who cares about one woman’s wardrobe choices in this time of turmoil? A lot of people. London fawning has officially crossed over from gushing to silly, The Daily Telegraph proclaiming Obama “the mint-green queen of fashion,” while The Guardian said “Mrs. O has all but obliterated last year’s Carlamania from the fashion history books, with an outfit that draws a direct bloodline between her look and the wardrobe with which Jackie Kennedy wowed Europe in 1961.”

To a large extent, the fashion ship sails on such hyperbole — and on human product placement. Especially now, the kind of worldwide attention Obama and her labels are getting can boost an entire corporate psyche from designer to ground floor. It can boost sales as well. Obama’s now famous J. Crew beaded cardigan reportedly sold out by midmorning on Wednesday. Similarly, might not a chic sighting of the First Lady in Ralph Lauren or Donna Karan prod some women to stroll through Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman Marcus? As Calvin Klein’s Francisco Costa puts it, “We’d be thrilled to dress the First Lady, of course. She has the power to influence consumers.”

Within the major fashion houses, there is a growing desire for Obama to broaden her choices to include their wares. “American fashion right now is struggling,” says Oscar de la Renta. “I think I understand what [Obama and her advisers] are doing, but I don’t think that is the right message at this particular point….I don’t object to the fact that Mrs. Obama is wearing J. Crew to whatever because the diversity of America is what makes this country great. But there are a lot of great designers out there. I think it’s wrong to go in one direction only.”

Tommy Hilfiger takes a more temperate view, applauding Obama for not focusing only on the high end. “I’m happy that she’s wearing young designers and not only wearing [American] couture, which puts her more in touch with real people,” he says.

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