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November 8, 2008


Ladies first: Michelle Obama as style icon
Nathalie Atkinson, National Post
Published: Friday, November 07, 2008

Spencer Platt/Getty ImagesJackie 2.0? Michelle Obama’s style has turned many heads and is a change from the more matronly First Ladies that we’ve become used to.
Michelle Obama’s style is a notable departure from the matronly, conservative Mrs. Presidents of yore. Rather than suit up in country club Oscar de la Renta or even the stealth, jet-set wealth of Michael Kors, she opts for a succession of striking jewel-tone shifts. She’s also committed to flat shoes and kitten heels, which offer chic comfort and practicality for a busy working “mom-in-chief.”

It’s a changing of the guard that will set more than a political tone, says Barb Atkin, vice-president of fashion direction for Holt Renfrew. “It’s history in its making and a whole new voice of youth that is demanding authenticity.” For her husband’s big moment on Tuesday night, Obama chose the red and black dress by Narciso Rodriguez shown at left. Although many fashion-watchers (and questionable style pundits such as Fox News) have been critical of Obama’s election-night ensemble, Atkin loved it.

“We know Narciso does simple, clean and minimal and I thought it was perfect. I thought the colourblocking was beautiful.” Atkin points out that Obama chooses colour well – like that now-famous purple Maria Pinto dress; “always on a clean silhouette; she understands how to do it.”

Obama’s choice of designers is as progressive as her husband’s political approach. For a benefit hosted by Vogue in New York she opted for a tunic and pant outfit by virtual unknown Isabel Toledo (“now there’s a name that’s totally a fashion insider’s name!” says Atkin). For her DNC speech, she wore a teal sheath by her hometown designer Maria Pinto with a turquoise flower brooch by Erickson Beamon. Obama often personalizes with wide belts (one that appears frequently is a biker-chic black leather cincher by industry darling Azzedine Alaia) and a neckline brooch – or three. And hallelujah, the often bare-legged Obama seems reluctant to submit to the torture of wearing pantyhose.

What Nancy Reagan did for Bill Blass and Jackie Kennedy did for Oleg Cassini’s profile, Obama is poised to do for the slew of emerging American designers she wears. Plucking a newcomer from obscurity doesn’t always guarantee their success (remember Michael Faircloth, the Texas designer Laura Bush wore to the 2001 inauguration ball? Neither does anyone else), Obama has scored fashion points with the raspberry and black print dress by Thailand-born American designer Thakoon Panichgul she wore when the President-elect accepted the Democratic nomination. “Made in America is huge,” Atkin continues. “It’s a time to look at our own countries and celebrate who we are, look to the talent within our own country and help them get started. She has a strong voice and there is no better woman in the world that can give them a bigger profile, in the way that Jackie Kennedy swayed millions of women around the world and became an icon of that time.”

But where Jackie Kennedy was a privileged clotheshorse obsessed with fashion, Obama is a brainy Princeton and Harvard-educated lawyer who also understands the potent symbolism of clothing. At rallies, she favoured T-shirt and skirt combos accented with bright-coloured flats. Instead of Kennedy’s famously fake Kenneth Jay Lane triple-strand of debutante pearls, Obama chose larger, Wilma Flintstone-sized faux strand by Carolee. For her casual stump style, she wore twin sets – far softer, ergo more of-the-people and approachable, than the structured tailoring of jackets and shoulder pads worn by Cindy McCain; and by late last month Obama had geared down to appearing at rallies in a plain white-ribbed tank and cardigan with jeans. On Election Day, Obama arrived at her polling station in casual black with her hair pulled back in a headband and, it would seem, no makeup. It was brilliantly and deliberately populist – the equivalent of her husband’s rolled-up shirtsleeves.

“One day, she wears a designer, then she’ll wear Gap,” gushes Maria Cornejo, the New York-based designer whose architectural clothing Obama has worn on the campaign trail (likely purchased at Ikram, the fabled Chicago boutique where Obama is a regular). “She’s actually how real people dress!”

And in turn, real people want to dress like her: An off-the-rack floral Donna Ricco sundress worn on The View caused it to fly off the racks (at $148, it was from the mall staple Black House/White Market), and the day after she wore a J.Crew ensemble on Jay Leno, the company added her name as a search term on their website. Their prescient tag line? “All politics aside, this outfit gets our vote.”

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