The First Lady Effect

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

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Michelle Obama wearing Thakoon in Europe on April 3.

Photo By Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Lyons wouldn’t comment on direct sales figures, though she did acknowledge the company is watching the First Lady’s aesthetic for clues as to what women may want from future collections. “A lot of the things she’s been wearing from us are sort of classically in our repertoire, like cardigans and pencil skirts, but one thing we have paid attention to is the height of her heels,” Lyons said. “Everybody notices she wears low heels. We’re like, ‘Ah-ha.’ I imagine there will be a lot more kitten heels on the market next year.”

And then there are those New York-based designers — Isabel Toledo, Thakoon, Maria Cornejo, Rodriguez and Kors — whose names are inextricably linked to the First Lady, forming an elite club to which every young (and not-so-young) American designer wants entrée.

“Everybody called me to say the dress sold out,” said Sophie Theallet, the group’s latest addition, whose spring 2009 striped shirtdress (retail price: $1,925) Obama wore in early May to an event honoring Sojourner Truth. Sounding a bit flustered, the French-born, Brooklyn-based Theallet added, “We are still going through all e-mails from new stores that want to take appointments to see the next collection. And I have a lot of women calling [and] asking if I can make a special dress for them.”

Special orders aside, not all of the favored designers have experienced an uptick, despite the invaluable publicity. “As far as people coming in and asking specifically for what she is wearing, no,” said Cornejo, whose bell-sleeved wool coat and cropped jacket were worn by Obama. (The designer’s outerwear retails from $437 to $1,099.) “I think we’re all very privileged to have her wear our clothes, but we don’t count success by number of pieces sold. And honestly, it’s more about reaching the right clientele. The women who come into my store, the last thing they want to do is buy something just because it’s been photographed a lot.”

For Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte — whose day dresses retail for between $2,500 and $13,000 and whose taupe pleated dress from fall 2007 the First Lady wore on several occasions, most recently to meet with Jordan’s Queen Rania — the impact is about visibility among industry insiders: “We had so many people contacting us, because they were so excited to see [her] in one of our dresses,” the Mulleavys wrote in an e-mail.

And for a designer lucky enough to have his designs worn on foreign soil, such as Thakoon, whose floral dress and coat Obama wore for her photo op with French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the exposure can result in a blitz of worldwide press clippings (that dress and coat were special orders made prior to the Inauguration, though a similar floral shift costs about $1,250).

“It was like having an international ad campaign,” Thakoon said. “There are a lot more stores coming to market appointments than ever have before, people from other countries who seem to feel that whatever is good enough for the U.S. is good enough for them.” Yet he added that, while he has not observed a tangible increase in sales, he hasn’t had time to sit down and measure such a shift. “I think the effect is something that will be felt more down the line, when stores that have placed their first orders start selling the designers she’s wearing.”

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