First Lady's Passion for Fashion Earns Kudos, Makes Unknown Designers Overnight Celebs

Michelle Obama's style is celebrated for reflecting her role as a working mom.

January 18, 2010, 10:14 AM

Jan. 19, 2010— -- First Lady Michelle Obama came to Washington a year ago with an agenda: settle her family into a new life in the White House, focus attention on the challenges of the work- and family-life balance and reach out to military families.

Mission accomplished.

But it's her wardrobe choices that seem at times to draw the most attention and media coverage. From belted cardigans to sleeveless sheath dresses and bold-statement jewelry, Obama's style has been celebrated for its innovation and reflecting her age, 46, and her role as a working mother; functional yet fashionable, classic yet affordable.

The first lady's style is "incredibly modern," Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan said.

"She looks like someone, a very stylish person that you would meet, you know, in a business setting, in a restaurant, just on the street," said Givhan, author of the book "Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady."

"She looks like someone that you would know as opposed to someone who looks like there's a wax statue of her somewhere."

Obama was celebrated last month by Glamour magazine as one of its Women of the Year and graced the fashion magazine's cover, the first time a first lady had been featured.

Although she was honored for her work on issues such as nutrition and health, perhaps the most significant detail, from a fashion perspective, was that her wardrobe choice for the cover shoot came straight from her own closet.

Yes, the first lady, who could have had her pick of designers, chose to wear her own red cocktail dress and large bold necklace.

Glamour's newsstand sales for the issue increased 11 percent from December 2008 sales.

Obama's image has been splashed across the covers of several other national magazines, including Vogue, O and Essence. She was named to Vanity Fair's International Best Dressed List and was honored with a special tribute award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

The first lady even earned a spot on US Weekly's Best Dressed in 2009 list, keeping company with Hollywood stars such as Angelina Jolie and Blake Lively of "Gossip Girl."

There's little question that the first lady has quickly become a fashion tour de force and her stamp of approval on a designer or brand may be just the boost they need to spur sales and gain media attention in tough economic times.

When she and the president met British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife at their London residence, Michelle Obama wore a sparkling, cardigan J. Crew sweater -- a $298 item called the Crystal constellation cardigan -- and the item sold out online within an hour.

The pencil skirt Obama paired with the sweater also was an instant hit with shoppers.

J. Crew's revenues increased 7 percent from February to October and store sales increased 11 percent from the same period in 2008.

While it's difficult to measure any Michelle Obama effect, analysts note that when the first lady wears a brand, there is a spike in media attention for the label that can only help spur sales.

Dissecting Michelle Obama's Signature Style

As for Michelle Obama's style, unique but consistent seem to be key themes.

She regularly sports bright-colored cardigan sweaters topped with wide belts, sometimes layered over a blouse or lighter sweater. She is modern yet feminine, pairing bold-patterned skirts with flats or low kitten heels.

Her signature go-to accessories include bold-statement jewelry; large necklaces, colorful brooches and an armful of bangle bracelets.

Mary Tomer, who in September 2008 created a blog in September 2008 dedicated to the first lady's fashion and style, said Obama's "range and adventurous spirit" are the most defining characteristics of her style.

"In 2007 and 2008, Michelle Obama's style was almost synonymous with the fitted sheath dress, a belt at the waist and a classic strand of pearls," Tomer said. "In the White House, we've seen Mrs. Obama branch out from that, embracing an adventurous sense of style that includes everything from full skirts to off-the-shoulder tops."

Perhaps her most well-known fashion statement; the daring decision to bear arms.

The first lady's toned biceps and triceps have been the subject of countless columns and articles, fitness routines and watercooler discussions among women of all ages. She is not afraid to wear sleeveless dresses and even posed for her official White House portrait in a sheath dress by Michael Kors that showed off her buff physique.

Another key element of Obama's style is her ability to mix high-end fashion with items from everyday retailers that the average U.S. woman can afford.

She has drawn rave reviews for her creative balance of high-priced designers such as Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo and moderately priced wardrobe pieces from retailers such as J. Crew, Talbots, White House/Black Market and even Target.

Such fashion choices, compared to previous first ladies, make her relatable, fashion editor Givhan said.

"Women look at her and they see more of themselves in her than they would perhaps, you know, someone who dressed more like a traditional first lady," she said.

But, Givhan added, the style also makes her more open to criticism.

"She dresses with personality," she said. "And when you dress with personality, some people are going to embrace that with incredible enthusiasm, and then there are going to be others who not so much."

Blogger Tomer said there is a "degree of direct influence" that the first lady's fashion decisions have on the average U.S. woman.

"The belted cardigans, pencil skirts and brooches are a few styles American women have adopted," she told ABC News. "And, certainly, I think everyone is working out their arms a bit more."

First Lady's Style Also Includes High-End Designers

The mixing and matching of high- and low-end clothing can sometimes cause trouble, as the first lady learned in the spring.

At a public service event at a Washington D.C., food bank, Obama went for a casual look, sporting a sweater and capris pants, as well as a pair of pricey, suede/metallic/pink sneakers from French label Lanvin.

The Lanvin sneakers were available in a variety of colors at Barneys and other high-end retailers and cost a pretty penny at $540.

The sneakers did not fit into the image of Obama as an everyday mom and seemed especially inappropriate given the nature of the event.

The Washington Post's Givhan said at the time that the sneakers were not something to get into a "tizzy" about when one puts the first lady's fashion into context.

"This is a woman, after all, who regularly wears [expensive] Jimmy Choos. If that's your price point, these shoes are no big deal," she said in an e-mail to ABC News in May.

It's not just the price of her duds that can earn Obama a thumbs down from fashion critics. She took some heat this summer for sporting casual shorts during a family trip to the Grand Canyon in August. The temperatures were hot in the desert but that didn't stop critics from decrying the high hemline of the shorts, deeming it unbecoming for a first lady, even one as young as Obama.

In one year alone, Obama has turned lesser-known U.S. and European designers into overnight sensations by sporting their merchandise.

Obama's handmade gold strapless dress for the administration's first state dinner, held in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was designed by an Indian-American, Naeem Khan, who became an instant hit.

Khan told the Wall Street Journal that he was the third-most searched person on Google after the first lady wore his gown.

Her one-shoulder white gown for the evening of inaugural balls was designed by Wu, a 26-year old designer who was suddenly thrust into the spotlight when the first lady and the president stepped on stage for their first dance.

Obama has not faced heavy criticism for flirting with non-U.S. designers. Her ice-blue gown for the Nobel Peace Prize banquet in Oslo last month was designed by the Tunisian-born Azzedine Alaia.

Toledo, who designed her Inauguration Day dress and jacket, is from Cuba.

Obama has "done a great deal to bolster the American fashion industry, wearing a wide range of designers and recognizing young American design talent," which spares her criticism at home, blogger Tomer said

"The degree to which she has supported American fashion designers has perhaps afforded her the flexibility to wear European and Japanese designers from time to time without controversy," she said.

U.S. Women Relate to Obama Through Fashion

Tomer also doesn't believe there is the same "nationalistic demands" on fashion that may have been around when Jacqueline Kennedy was first lady [in the early 1960s].

Similarly, fashion editor Givhan said, the first lady has escaped criticism for her dips into high-end fashion because of the labels she has selected.

"She's been kind of smart in the people that she's chosen when she's gone high-end, because she hasn't gone for the kind of flashy sort of logo-oriented designers," Givhan said.

Whatever Obama's preferences, an official in the her office said, the first lady is subject to the same gift rules as West Wing staffers, meaning she cannot accept freebies from designers looking to dress her.

Tomer decried what she said was at times a "frivolous" portrayal of the first lady's style and said that looking at her fashion decisions that way "overlooks and undervalues the true power of her style.

"Through fashion, millions of women have been able to relate to Michelle Obama," she said. "As she has traveled overseas, she has improved perceptions of American culture, and certainly her style has been a part of that."

ABC News' Yunji de Nies contributed to this report.

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