Can Mrs. O revive a flagging fashion industry? Certainly, the hopes of American designers, merchandisers, and fashion journalists are riding high on the possibility. With Macy's closing 11 stores in nine states and with various established designers (Vera Wang, Carmen Marc Valvo, Betsey Johnson) pulling out of the Bryant Park fashion tents in February's New York Fashion Week, there is no doubt that fashion is flagging.
"Michelle Obama is already incredibly influential," Sally Singer, Vogue's Fashion News Director, tells us. "There is an immediate buzz in the fashion world. She motivates people to think about wearing something that looks beautiful, regardless of the price point." For the fashion industry, it might be coming just in the nick of time.
Last Thursday, Chicago shoppers lined up in the sub-freezing temperatures, waiting for the doors to open at the Maria Pinto boutique. It was the first sample sale there since the election and the occasion brought both established Pinto customers as well as many newcomers who wanted to purchase part of a brand made famous by Mrs. O. Sales ranged from $25 suede bustiers to $75 casual wraps to $500 party dresses.
Coincidentally, the same day the New York Times ran a story titled, "U.S. Fashion's One-Woman Bailout?," which discussed Mrs. O's penchant for high-low dressing and her ability to create shopping frenzies (both the $148 White House/Black Market black print dress from The View and her Tonight Show J. Crew yellow cardigan sweater and silk printed blouse and skirt sold out in less than 48 hours after she appeared in them).
"With flashcard clarity [during the campaign], she signaled an interest both in looking stylish and also in advancing the cause of American fashion and those who design and make it," wrote NYT writer Guy Trebay. The article praised her fit, athletic figure, her sense of making clothes work for her needs, and, according to one subject interviewed, "her very conservative, jock-preppy....safe American WASP way of dressing." Hmm, we would beg to differ a bit on that last point.
Yes, the J. Crew outfits she wore in southern states during the campaign (printed cotton skirts with matching T-shirts and cardigans) could fall into a preppy category. And yes, her puffer coat (which she just wore again Saturday night when the family visited the Lincoln Memorial) could be described as somewhat jock-athletic. But who would call the black and red Narcisco Rodriguez Election Night dress "safe"? Or by what stretch would the clothes she wore at the Democratic Convention (Thakoon, Moschino, Peter Soronen) be considered "conservative"?
One of Mrs. O's most intriguing style approaches is her ability to mix up her look-wearing flats with sheaths, tossing shrunken cardigans over beaded dresses, using jewelry in unexpected ways. All of that is a major break with the fashion sense of past First Ladies and other public women, whom we have been used to seeing in complete matching ensembles off the designer rack. In the photo shown at the top, taken in October 2008, we see Mrs. O in a look that is beautiful yet unusual for her: wearing a black-on-black fitted suit jacket and top. The buttons on both the jacket and the top are the same fade-to-black color as the fabric. Even the necklace (we wonder if it is oxidized sterling silver beads by jewelry designer Tom Binns-perhaps part of his Couture Tough Chic collection?) falls into the same color family, offering tonal sheen to this dark outfit. It is one more new spin on a standard look from Mrs. O.
With her fresh approach to clothes, maybe she shouldn't worry about the hopes of the fashion industry. Maybe she just needs to keep dressing for herself. And the rest will follow.