8 YEARS, THOUSANDS OF OUTFITS, IMMEASURABLE IMPACT
What the first lady of the United States wears is always noteworthy.
As one of the most visible women on the global political stage who is, in many formal and official settings, seen and not heard, what she wears can be loaded with meaning. No first lady in recent memory has understood this as well as Michelle Obama.
I’ve spent most of my career chronicling Michelle’s fashion in some way or another. The only front-page byline I ever got as a reporter at the New York Daily News (in tabloid parlance, the only time I made the “wood”), was thanks to Michelle―she wore a sleeveless Michael Kors shift for her first official White House portrait, and I wrote a few sentences about it. I’m pretty sure the genius headline writers there announced that Michelle Obama had “The Right to Bare Arms.”
Michelle Obama’s arms made headlines because the first lady’s arms hadn’t really been on display before. The shift dress, a silhouette FLOTUS preferred, was a thoroughly modern and casual one. Not only was Michelle bringing an attitude of accessibility to the White House with her fashion choices (who doesn’t own a sleeveless LBD?), but she was also showing that she cared about fitness, too—those arms were seriously toned. It was about the dress, yes, but also about the woman in it.
That’s just one instance in which the first lady used fashion to telegraph that she was just like us. She wore affordable brands like J.Crew, ASOS, and Target. And then she wore them again. And again. When she wore designer clothing, she was careful to select pieces by American designers, particularly designers of color like Tracy Reese, Naeem Khan, and Jason Wu, to name only a few. These were designers whose businesses she could bolster—and in some cases catapult from obscurity to household-name-level success.
We spoke to several of those designers to present, in their own words, the impact Michelle Obama has had on their careers. —Leah Chernikoff
We met when Barack won the Senate and she wore a suit of mine for the swearing in. She was referred to me by a mutual friend. She was such an easy, thoughtful client. I knew her as the senator’s wife, as a Chicago woman, and then to be on that path from Chicago senator’s wife to the wife of someone running for president—thinking about what her needs were going to be, whether she’d be in Iowa or NYC, and what would be appropriate for these different situations.
I think the most memorable moment for me was the fist bump on the night Obama clinched the nomination—she was wearing the purple sheath.
But there are so many memories. One that was super exciting is when Oprah had a fundraiser in Santa Barbara and we did this beautiful dress for Michelle. Oprah introduced Barack and Barack introduced Michelle—and Barack said, “Doesn’t the first lady look beautiful? And the designer is here today,” and he said my name. I almost fell off my chair. That he would even take the time to say that—they’re just really great people.
I think it’s amazing what she’s done. From the beginning, blending high and low—that gave such a great message to everyone. The sleeveless sheaths that I encouraged her to wear—it brought sleeveless into a space that was considered more acceptable. News anchors weren’t allowed to wear sleeveless on TV before Michelle. There are so many ways she subtly impacted fashion. I think what she also did was bring a certain level of understanding of how to dress in a feminine way and be very empowered. That silhouette—the sheath—is a perfect example. You’ll find more and more women going to the boardroom and it’s okay; you don’t have to be in a version of a man’s suit to be meaningful and equal to anyone.
Michelle Obama is a decisive dresser, such a dream client for a designer! She (and her team and stylist Meredith Koop) knows what she wants and knows what flatters her. She has a keen awareness of the impact she wishes to make through her wardrobe choices. There is nothing wishy-washy about working with her. What she requested was invariably always worn. In this, and many more obvious ways, she has demonstrated incredible respect for designers and the fashion industry. There is no doubt that being represented by her has been a highlight in my career.
The first time I dressed Michelle Obama [was for the Indian state dinner]. When I was asked to do that, I really asked myself, Who am I? Where has my life been within the fashion world? That dress has a lot of information. For example, I kept the cut super simple because I felt it was very American, strapless and clean. When I came up working for Halston, strapless was a clean, American style. But for the print, I decided to use an inspiration from Warhol. When I worked for Halston, Warhol was very much part of the group. There was a time when I was drawing poppies because Halston had asked me to—and Warhol was standing behind me guiding me. So I took inspiration from that print.
I WOULD LEAVE THE WHITE HOUSE THINKING, I’D GIVE MY LIFE FOR HER, SHE’S SO WONDERFUL.
Then I thought, How do I embroider so there’s history? My grandfather made embroidery for the Indian royal family. There was one sequin—and they were hand-beaten—made from 24-karat gold. This was a technique that stuck in my mind. I took plated silver sequins and I embedded them so it looked like diamonds.
Of course, our relationship became more intimate. We began working with measurements after that. It became much more casual. Once you know the person well, you design differently. And FLOTUS is so kind and warm that being around her is like being part of a family. The first thing she does when she sees you is to give the nicest, warmest hug—and you feel like you want to do whatever possible to make her happy. It’s done genuinely—it’s not politically motivated. I would leave the White House thinking, I’d give my life for her, she’s so wonderful.
I really care for our fashion industry—and the first lady was so conscious of that. She would tell me, “I have to wear every designer.” It was important to her. My business is known all over the world now because of her. European designers have always been ambassadors to their country. She was so instrumental in giving designers [in the U.S.] the opportunity to become ambassadors. She knew that this would be important for the industry. She was not just getting dressed to look pretty.
I will miss the depth of her realness. She is so elegant; truly American royalty.
I’m not a politician—I’m a fashion designer. But I do have a point of view and I do have loyalty. I really care for the values of our country, and I feel like there’s something missing in the new administration. I don’t know how to react yet. But I am very skeptical, and I’m afraid of where it’s going.
It is always a huge honor [to dress Michelle Obama] and I have great respect and admiration for her. I am so proud for her to be representing my creations that are developed and made in America. My most treasured memory is when I went to the White House and hosted a creative and fashion workshop for children to encourage their creativity and further their passion. She was just so gracious with the children and me.
Keren Craig: We’ve been so honored to have had the opportunity to dress Michelle Obama multiple times throughout her time as the first lady of the United States. One of our most wonderful memories was when Mrs. Obama chose to wear an emerald green Marchesa gown for the Kennedy Center Gala in December 2013. The first lady radiated grace and elegance—to us, that’s what style is all about
A few weeks before the election we got a phone call asking to submit dresses for Mrs. Obama to wear at the convention. They gave us just a few guidelines, basically that it was going to be warm because it was in North Carolina. We were excited to do it and there was a dress that we actually had in the collection that spring and I had some of my favorite fabric under the table and I was like, ‘Why don’t we try this dress in this fabric?’ It was just sample yardage from this Italian mill that I loved. So we cut the dress and sent it down. They don’t ever give you the heads-up that she’s going to wear something, just in case the situation changes.
So we were just busy getting ready for runway, because it was literally just days away. I was working in the office and I got a phone call from our controller who was at home and she was like, ‘Mrs. Obama is wearing our dress!’ She just looked so amazing and more than that, though, the speech was so strong and eloquent and everybody was really mesmerized. Then the next day it just went off the hook, like, ‘What is she wearing? What shoe is she wearing? What nail polish is she wearing?’ That was interesting because I understood that they really have to try to strike a balance between her looking amazing and people listening to what she has to say.
But it was a huge honor and obviously she looked really beautiful and that was a turning point for us. Then the dress didn’t really exist in that form or in those colors, and we had to go into production for it. There was such a huge demand for it. We probably sold like 2,400 units. Stores were calling and customers were writing into the website and we had to take a lot of preorders. We couldn’t ship it for another three months, and it still sold out.
[Her decision to wear my dress] meant that she really thinks about her clothing choices and I think she really wants to make sure that she spreads the love and gives opportunities to designers, not just large names but small names also. I think she really thinks about what she’s wearing where and when and why, and I was thankful that she chose that platform to show my designs. I knew that it wasn’t just as simple as her saying, ‘Oh, I’ll wear the pink one.’
She’s just an incredible role model to us all, to people of all colors and genders—she embodies true grace, true caring, true giving. It’s something that we really need to treasure and remember going forward because I think you get to a point where you start taking it for granted a little bit. We’ve got kids who are like 10 and 12 and 15 years old who really don’t know much different. I think that she’s going to go down in history as one of the most incredible first ladies we’ve ever had the pleasure of having.
There’s something about her that’s unparalleled. I went to the White House a couple months ago and I saw her only for the second time, but she greets everyone with a hug, remembers details about your life. I don’t know how she does it, but it feels totally real. She just feels like she is working hard for the right things. That’s kind of been what I’ve seen in the eight years. Her cause has just gotten stronger and her voice has gotten stronger. I think it’s so exciting to see her grow.
If you look at the early looks and where she goes now with shape and color, it’s awesome. I think it’s such a ‘Go girl!’ moment. My mom watches what she wears. I do. She is able to really have a wide reach of impact with women. She’s made it okay for women to see fashion not as this vacuous fluffy thing, but to see it as expression. She definitely finds a way to make it complement her positivity as a person.
It has been one of my proudest moments as a designer, and as an American, to dress Michelle Obama. My parents came to this country as immigrants and made so many sacrifices for me to become an American citizen and to follow my dreams. When Mrs. Obama wears something I have designed, it reminds me of my parents and how they would never in a million years have dreamed that their hard work could lead me to this. I am humbled by it and very thankful.
WHEN MRS. OBAMA WEARS SOMETHING I HAVE DESIGNED, IT REMINDS ME OF MY PARENTS AND HOW THEY WOULD NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS HAVE DREAMED THAT THEIR HARD WORK COULD LEAD ME TO THIS.
My most treasured moment was when Mrs. Obama wore custom 3.1 Phillip Lim to the Welcome Ceremony for the Chinese president and his wife at the White House in September 2015. The timing was right around our brand’s 10-year anniversary, so emotions were particularly heightened. It was a really incredible moment for me—as I mentioned before, my parents came to the U.S. as immigrants and I was raised in the merging worlds of American and Chinese cultures, so to watch the two first families unite firsthand was quite touching. That same evening, I was honored to attend the China State Dinner at the White House. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my entire life. Halfway through the evening, I was tapped on the shoulder and escorted to a side room outside of the ballroom. The president and the first lady were standing in this room and thanked me for making Mrs. Obama’s morning ensemble. I could barely speak!
I came to America as an immigrant, I knew no one. I just had a hope and desire to pursue a career in fashion and have my own label. I went to school, worked, paid my dues. Mine is the cliché American story coming true. So for me, for the first lady of the United States, who is the most-watched person around the globe, to embrace me, an immigrant from Nepal, and wear my clothes, it was an incredible moment. Not only was she fulfilling my dreams and desires to dress her, it was a message she was sending about inclusion. That gesture impacted so many people around the world, especially people back home in Nepal, who may have thought it was impossible to have that big of a dream.
I would always call my mom to tell her XYZ actress is wearing me, or I’m on the cover of a magazine, and she’d always respond, ‘Let’s talk when the first lady wears you.’ Cut to a year later, and I said ‘Mom, let’s talk.’ Years later, I was invited to the White House and got to take my mom. When I introduced her to the first lady, [Michelle Obama] said, ‘Do you know how proud we are of Prabal?’ And I lost it. I will never forget that moment. When I was leaving Nepal to come to New York City to study fashion, everyone back home was like, ‘That’s a great hobby, but what do you really want to do?’ My mom said, ‘If you want to do this, I want you to be happy. Go for it.’ For FLOTUS to validate my mom’s trust in me, that was a powerful moment.
Michelle Obama decided to consciously wear designers that meant something to her, to the nation, to the narrative. How many times have we heard: ‘Oh, it’s just fashion. It’s so trivial’? I get it all the time. But for her to make that constant statement for eight years about politics and fashion, we could not have asked for a better champion.