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Obamas' Social Style Has D.C. Grumbling

Michelle Obama hits New York today — and the fashion world is aflutter.

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with contributions from Marc Karimzadeh
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Michelle Obama hits New York today — and the fashion world is aflutter.

The First Lady is coming to town to attend a private Democratic fund-raiser at Donna Karan’s Upper West Side apartment, where she will mingle and chat with many of the designers she has worn and put on the fashion map over the last two years.

There’s little argument over the impact of her sartorial choices. At the suggestion of Chicago retailer Ikram Goldman, she has championed a group of young, emerging New York designers, as well as more established ones. Jason Wu became fashion’s darling du jour as a result of the inauguration gown Obama wore, while Isabel Toledo, Thakoon Panichgul, Naeem Khan, Michael Kors and Narciso Rodriguez have received major publicity boosts as a result of outfitting the First Lady. Even J. Crew got a public relations bump after Obama revealed on “The Tonight Show” that she was wearing one of its outfits.

Today’s event is the second time in two months the Obamas have hobnobbed with New York’s fashion set ­— the President hit town in August for a fund-raiser at Anna Wintour’s Greenwich Village townhouse that drew Karan, Calvin Klein, Tory Burch and a slew of other designers. It also indicates the First Lady is raising her profile again after lying low for a few months following a series of p.r. missteps (like the pricy vacation in Spain with her daughter, Malia). After the cocktail party at Karan’s apartment, the First Lady will move to Broadway’s St. James Theater, where Sarah Jessica Parker will serve as host and Patti LaBelle will do a special performance.

Throughout her time here, she’ll no doubt feel the kind of love the Obamas aren’t exactly getting in Washington these days — and we’re not just talking about Republicans. While the first couple seems only too eager to rub shoulders with the New York fashion, media and big-money sets, D.C. socialites are feeling snubbed, short-changed and officially dissed. There used to be complaints about White House red tape — now they’re complaining about the White House red rope.

A new feature in the ever-evolving bag of White House party props is causing more trouble than Nancy Reagan’s tablecloth crisis or Harry Truman’s fuss about doilies and finger bowls. To be sure, President Obama and the First Lady have agreed to honor donors to some of the nation’s top cultural institutions with an ongoing string of pre-gala, black-tie receptions. But they’ve also taken a big step back when it comes to their body language — WAY back. In fact, so far back that they’re behind a campaign-style rope line.

Instead of welcoming guests in a formal receiving line with a White House photographer on hand to help visitors capture their historic moment, or simply strolling through the Red, Blue and Green rooms chatting informally with invitees, the Obamas prefer to stand in a designated spot, such as one end of the East Room or in the Grand Foyer, safely positioned behind a red velvet rope. The kind of red velvet rope clubs use to keep out the riffraff. From there, the presidential couple smiles, chats, makes eye contact and waves as their guests jockey for position to touch their hands. No mingling.

“For a campaign rally, sure, that’s fine. But not for the White House,’’ says one museum board member who, like many, requested anonymity. “Every president — Bill Clinton, both Bushes, the Reagans — they would always have a quick receiving line. Each couple would be formally announced. A few words would be exchanged. But this President thinks he is such a rock star. It’s like he’s inviting guests to the White House just to snub them.”

“It’s the Secret Service,’’ insists the new White House social secretary Julianna Smoot, conceding that, “All the guests have already been cleared so many times before they arrive. But no one argues with the Secret Service.’’

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