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Kors, the only major designer to have found his way into a recent photo op, defends Obama’s range. “She’s the first First Lady who’s ever worn sportswear,” he says. “If you think about it, she’s worn everybody from Azzedine Alaïa to Michael Kors to Isabel Toledo or Jason Wu to J. Crew to Donna Ricco.”
Certainly, there’s still plenty of admiration for Obama’s embrace of the younger set. “I think it’s all right that she chooses young designers, because it’s American fashion that’s going around [the world],” observes Carolina Herrera. “And J. Crew is a huge company, no? It speaks very well of her that she wants to include everyone.”
Well, not everyone, Carolina. Along with Herrera herself, names missing from this most prestigious wardrobe roster include Ralph, Calvin, Oscar, Marc, Vera, Tommy and Isaac, although Obama has worn Liz Claiborne. Even those of the Obamas-walk-on-water ilk would like to see that change. “I hope and believe that this is just a moment,” says Karan. “And I hope to be able to dress her, and not only dress her but address her, sit down — I’m interested in her totality as a woman.”
Ditto Wang. “I love seeing young designers and their vision and how they grow and all of that,” she says. “On the other hand, of course, I wish she would consider some of us, because I think we also have contributions to make.”
Wang acknowledges the resonance of an association with Obama. “She represents modern womanhood, a brilliant, active woman and mother, because of her position, her beauty and her stature. She embodies America right now. She is the face of America.”
By extension, then, Obama’s choices represent what’s right, active and modern about American fashion, and her omissions — well, you get the idea.
While clearly any designer Obama wears gets to bask in the reflected glory, it’s not all one-way sparkle. Despite the flood of accolades, Obama’s is a style in development, one that can sometime seem more forced practicality than innate polish. At the same time, she has succumbed to a moment or two of trying too hard, such as Thursday’s unfortunate Junya-cum-Jason rhapsody in blue.
It is widely accepted that most, if not all, of Obama’s clothes go through Ikram Goldman of Chicago’s Ikram boutique, although the likes of Michael Kors, for instance, are from collections carried at the store. (An e-mail request to Goldman for an interview went unanswered.)
“I think Michelle Obama has a lot on her plate right now,” offers Karan. “I think there’s a lot of confidence that she has with the woman that she’s working with….I don’t think this is a thing that’s going to last forever. I think the doors are going to open up.”
For his part, de la Renta notes that, in recent history, first ladies have always had direct contact with a designer, typically relying on one or two. He suggests that, designer or otherwise, Obama would benefit from expanding her current range of fashion advisers, particularly on matters of protocol. “You don’t,” he declares definitively, “go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater.”