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The Obama Momentum: Smarts, Style Create a New Kind of Power

When Barack Obama takes the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States, he assumes the mantle of Leader of the Free World.

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The First Family celebrating election night.

Photo By EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Sasha and Malia Obama at the "We Are One" concert.

Photo By REUTERS/Jim Young/Landov


Ah, the youth factor. Barack Obama did something that not even the randy, sax-playing, MTV-loving Clinton could achieve: He brought out the youth vote in droves, not to mention unprecedented numbers of volunteers, while capturing the attention as well of the under-18 set, so much so that the proverbial “rock star” status hardly applies. As far as millions of kids are concerned, Obama is a deity, and educators, especially those working with urban, minority populations, are adopting a simple credo: Carpe diem.

Father Christopher Devron, SJ, is president of Christ the King Jesuit College Prep School in Chicago, part of the Cristo Rey network of schools built upon a work-study model within which students earn tuition money by working five days a month. The school opened in September with 104 freshmen, 102 of whom are African-American (only eight are Catholic). Not surprisingly, the election process was integrated into the fall curriculum. “Every day, our students are going to see President Obama, an African-American president, in a shirt and tie,” Devron says, noting that the wardrobe is particularly symbolic for Christ the King students, who adhere to a professional dress code appropriate for the offices in which they work. “It’s a subtle teaching method — less explaining, more showing,” which highlights the relevance of the school/work day. As for whether the presidential example would resonate as well if Obama were 20 years older with a pot belly and a frumpy wife, Devron thinks probably not. “Of course our students respond to the charisma and to the style of Barack Obama,” he says. “He speaks to their generation — his desire to keep his BlackBerry. Inner-city kids are very tied to information and information technology. It’s a generational thing, and our kids are going to tap into it.”

Though hardly impressionable adolescents, many fashion luminaries act plenty love struck when it comes to the President-elect and Michelle Obama. But then, they hail from a world more prone to hyperbolic indulgence than most multibillion-dollar industries. Had Obama lost the election, “I would be ready to cut my wrists, because everything that’s going on would be so depressing,” says Diane von Furstenberg. “Oh my God,” offers Isaac Mizrahi, “is there anything more glamorous than Michelle and Barack Obama? There’s nobody more glamorous than them. Totally, no.” And from Donna Karan: “When I look at them and I hear them and I see them, and their sense of style and grace and humbleness and clarity and strength, I think they really are iconic. I think people search their whole life to become what they emanate.”

Once they’ve gotten a grip, major designers and fashion execs share the concerns and hopes of the general population regarding the economy and the wars, while copping to surface attraction. “There’s a sophistication level there, an education, a background and style, that I think all of us think of as glamorous,” notes major Hillary Clinton-ite Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs. “When you’re inspired by someone’s speech and there seems to be some validity to it, that’s glamorous.”

For the most part a worldly lot, fashion folk also understand and delight in the instant upgrade of the United States’ global image afforded by Obama’s election. “It’s like waiting for the savior of the world,” says Carolina Herrera. “[Especially in] Latin America, which has been a little bit abandoned, everyone is waiting for this man. It seems that he’s very determined to do good things, to make this country loved around the world again. You used to go to Europe and you’d say, ‘the United States,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, my God, what a disaster.’”

Expressing the view from afar, Karl Lagerfeld writes in a fax that the Obamas are “better than glamorous,” and have already accomplished some profitable p.r.: “Mr. Bush was never liked in Europe. Mr. Obama was loved in Europe when he did his big tour even before he was president.” Musing as only he would, Lagerfeld adds that had the election been open to Europeans, Obama “would have gotten SO! much more.”

Stella McCartney concurs. “Obviously, being half American and having a lot of family there, I’m more interested than most people I guess,” she says. Still, she observes that overall European interest throughout Obama’s rise was and remains acute. Obama has buoyed the U.S. image “absolutely,” McCartney says, “beyond a shadow of a doubt. More so, I think, than anyone living in the States will ever know.”

Obama’s international appeal is clearly a combination of ideology and style, inclusive of the fact that the man holds and uses a passport. But having left these shores is hardly the sole testament to his modernity. In one of fashion’s favorite motifs — ye olde “It’s not an age, it’s an attitude” — two of our quite different elder statesman note that, hey, in running his campaign, Obama went where no man has gone before: the 21st century.

That he was a candidate virtually “without a résumé,” doesn’t matter, notes Nicole Miller president and chief executive officer Bud Konheim. “The phenomenon is, we have a whole generation of people that are not turned on by anything, it’s woe in the economy, whatever. He gets on the Internet and raises $150 million in September when supposedly nobody has any money,” Konheim explains with typical relish. “Let’s look at the donut. The donut is that there are people that are able to be motivated, because you give them a reason to be motivated, and Obama did that.…His thing was hope, change, optimism and he sold it.”

Oscar de la Renta is on the same page. “You’re talking about a man who ran a brilliant campaign,” says de la Renta, like Duffy and Weinstein, a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter. “He didn’t make a single mistake, and he did this with a tremendous amount of grace.

“Governments, not only in the United States, but governments all over the world, are run like we are in the 19th century,” de la Renta continues. “This is the first man who has used modern technology to reach people. There has never been the mass of young people believing in a man as for Obama. Why? Because he reached them through the media that they all understand, through new technologies, through the Internet.”

Nor can we discount the pretty wallop packed by the young-family imagery, and not only among the multitasking mom-and-dad demographic. “They have such a beautiful family, they have young children,” says Rodarte’s Laura Mulleavy, who is in her mid-20s. “That brings forth a different level when people think about who their president is and the family who is coming into office now. It’s different for my generation, anyways.…I think it’s already a more hopeful image that you have in your mind.”

And with the little ones ages 10 and seven, whatever limited press there is likely to be all good. “They have to hit the age of 14 or 15, when they’re dating, to be a possible negative factor,” notes Baldrige.

So might all of this walking on water backfire? Not anytime soon, maintains Schiller, since “nobody is willing to burst the Barack Obama balloon,” a few early signs of discord notwithstanding. “If he maintains the same demeanor and the same cool composure” — style meeting substance — “then people believe he has a handle on things. If Congress gets in his way or the Republican party gets in his way or the Supreme Court gets in his way, voters will blame them. They’re not remotely willing to blame Barack Obama for anything in the near future.” And that, she argues, is not necessarily a good thing: “You don’t ever want a circumstance where the president says I want A, B and C, and everyone says OK. It’s not the way our government is supposed to work.”

Goodwin, however, sees things differently. “The expectations are both a danger and a great possibility,” she says. “Right now, they give Barack Obama the chance to do something quite extraordinary, with the country behind him.”
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