The First Lady Effect

Michelle Obama’s been called a one-woman stimulus plan for the fashion industry.

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Michelle Obama in Sophie Theallet on April 28.

Photo By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

She’s been called a one-woman stimulus plan for the fashion industry. And certainly the breathless cataloguing of Michelle Obama’s sartorial choices — from the $565 two-tone Lanvin sneakers she wore to a D.C. food bank in mid-May to the black Michael Kors sheath and Peter Soronen corset she donned for a recent Time gala — has shown no sign of abating since her husband took office in January. Along the way, those who produced the clothes, whether J. Crew or high-end designers (despite the kudos she has garnered for the former, Mrs. Obama has shown a considerable penchant for expensive stuff, too), have been catapulted into the limelight. But what impact has such triple-A-list exposure had on their businesses?

Both a little and a lot, it turns out. In terms of name recognition, the effect for some of the smaller types Obama has championed, such as Jason Wu and Thakoon, has been immeasurable. But so far, the bottom-line impact on the klatch of tony designers Obama has worn consistently is, as much as can be measured, less than spectacular.

“There has been a huge interest in special orders, which honestly has helped maintain a business in this gloomy time,” said Peter Soronen, whose pieces — such as the custom-made cherry red dress Obama wore to the Alfalfa Club dinner in March; the cluster-sequined gown she wore to the Governor’s Ball, and the floral dress she wore on Easter Sunday — are sold through Ikram, the Chicago boutique owned by Ikram Goldman, the First Lady’s de facto stylist. (While Soronen’s spokeswoman would not give out specific prices, she said the latter two dresses retail in the upper $3,000 and $2,000 range, respectively.)

Soronen, who called his 11-year-old company “a semicouture house” because custom orders make up a large percentage of his business, was quick to add that major retailers have not yet come knocking for his entire collection, although the individual dresses Obama has worn have elicited direct specialty boutique sales orders and, in some instances, requests for an entire new dress.

“With the sequined dress, there were stores that said, ‘How can we get ahold of this?’ And then there were the stylists who called and said, ‘I need a version of that.’ I’m lucky because I’m pretty much a specialty designer anyway, so I can actually handle special orders a lot easier than some companies that have to go through more red tape.”

Of the larger companies from which Obama has chosen clothes, J. Crew has been the most ubiquitous, with the beaded cardigan she wore in Europe (retail price: $298) going on back order nearly immediately, according to creative director Jenna Lyons.

“We didn’t know she was going to be wearing it, so we only had 20 pieces left, and the demand was obviously bigger than that,” said Lyons, who noted that, with the exception of the children’s clothes custom-designed for the Inauguration, Obama buys her J. Crew pieces without the company’s input (as for whispers that J. Crew is simply a token affordable retailer the First Lady dons to appease the peanut gallery, Lyons said: “I really hope that she’s wearing the clothes because she likes them. Everything cannot be Narciso Rodriguez, unless you’re a millionaire….If it’s a token, we’re thrilled to be the beneficiary, but I hope that it’s not”).

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