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 a Jason Wu dress on Mar. 31

Photo By Mandel Ngan/Afp/Getty Images

Yet the designer who retailers report as most clearly benefiting from the benefactor-like role Obama has undertaken is Wu, whose dresses she has worn on multiple occasions, most memorably to the Inaugural balls and on the cover of Vogue. It may be that the aura of glamour and white-hot media coverage surrounding his Inaugural gown propelled him ahead of his colleagues — or perhaps, with recent trunk shows at Jeffrey in Atlanta and a Saks Fifth Avenue outside Philadelphia, an appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the Met Gala and a recent spread in New York magazine, Wu is simply, as they say, working it.

“First of all, I think Jason is incredibly talented, but he’s really catapulted because of Michelle,” said Jeffrey Kalinsky, president of Jeffrey and director of designer merchandising at Nordstrom, who noted that a Jason Wu trunk show held in Atlanta on May 8 was “an absolute mob scene” and had sales of more than $125,000. (As for the other Obama-favored designers Kalinsky carries, Rodriguez and Thakoon, neither has had a recent trunk show, yet sell-throughs of their spring collections have been 60 and 50 percent, respectively, a remarkably healthy number, even in flush times.)

At Saks, “the thing we notice is women coming out, whether to the store or going onto the Web site, and looking at what else he’s doing,” said fashion market director Colleen Sherin. “We carried Jason early on, but this has taken him to a whole new level,” she said. “For customers who hadn’t heard the name before, they come in and see it, and there’s name recognition….It validates [the designer].”

Added Brian Bolke, co-owner of Forty Five Ten in Dallas: “I don’t think our customers are the kind of people who are going [to say], ‘I want the Michelle Obama dress,’ but the fact that she wears these designers legitimizes the purchase they’re making. They feel like their head is in the right place.”

And while those high-end designers may not be experiencing skyrocketing sales, their buyers are downright effusive when it comes to the unorthodox relationship between the First Lady and the Oz-like Goldman. The effect is such that the (pricy) little shop around the corner is getting its own boost: Despite criticism that turning to only one store for her wardrobe necessarily eliminates designers from the First Lady’s consideration, Obama, said boutique owners, has piqued interest in their own businesses (it should be noted that Ikram does not carry Sophie Theallet, Michael Kors or Tracy Feith, whom Obama has also worn).

“I don’t want to speak for Ikram, but I don’t think the exact thing she’d have Michelle Obama wear would be the thing she’s telling other women to wear, which is how a great store owner should operate,” said Forty Five Ten’s Bolke. “If anything, [Obama] has given a boost to the idea of shopping in a specialty store that’s really looking out for their clients.”



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