At next week’s inauguration, Michelle Obama will be as much in the spotlight as her husband as he is officially inaugurated for his second term as President. Much has changed in how America views the Obamas since their first Inauguration four years ago, especially for the First Lady, and particularly for her fashion choices. Viewed as just short of a seditious revolutionary during the 2008 campaign, her image changed almost immediately after wearing a flowing white gown by Parsons’ own Jason Wu at the 2009 inauguration. As Liza Mundy told The New York Times’ Cathy Horn recently, “What struck me was that on the inauguration, every single Google alert was about what she was wearing that day. The conversation had completely changed.”
In addition to that dress by Jason Wu, throughout the past four years Michelle Obama has shown a particular affinity for Parsons-trained designers. She’s worn looks by at least two dozen of them, across a range of high-end and mainstream consumer fashions, including Derek Lam, Doo-Ri Chung, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, J. Crew’s Jenna Lyons, and many more. They have all helped define her image of accessible elegance.
How has Michelle Obama leveraged fashion to shape her image over the past four years? And how has she benefited the American fashion industry? To discuss this, we recently sat down with Simon Collins, dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons, and Hazel Clark, research chair of Fashion at Parsons and a professor in the MA Fashion Studies Program.
Why is fashion a thing that we talk about when we talk about first ladies?
Hazel Clark: The First Lady in this country is very much the female figurehead. It’s also playing very much on celebrity culture – the First Lady needs a strong personality and a strong image. There’s obviously a parallel with Princess Kate and prior to that Princess Diana in the UK. Michelle just fits that role really, really well. She’s relatively young, she’s stylish, and so on. She’s kind of perfect in that way for media purposes.
Simon Collins: I think your point about Princess Diana is very relevant. She is, in the way that Jackie O was, a figurehead for American women. Michelle Obama is who she is… If you look at this picture right here of her wearing Jenna Lyons, it looks like it could be out of a catalogue– it’s very chic and very posed. But also it’s perfectly normal and natural. But what’s more important than that is they [the president and the First Lady] have accepted that the fashion industry has a voice. Fashion is an enormous industry, and they’ve acknowledged that. And they even seem to tacitly respect it.
There have been studies that have said that having Michelle Obama wear your dress is worth about $14 million to a designer.
SC: I would respond to this with a recent quote from Jason Wu, who said having Michelle Obama wear your dress is worth zero unless you can do something about it. It’s just one of many different things that will help your business, if you are in the position to be able to do something. If you make one dress and it’s not cost effective to make another one, then you’re done and out of business, it’s worth zero. But it could be immensely valuable to J.Crew. It’s one part of your PR campaign, a very big one, if you capitalize on it.
In the campaign of 2008, Michelle Obama had a negative profile among a lot of people. She’s been able to completely turn that around. How do you think her fashion choices have helped change her image? Or has it been other things?
HC: I think partly it’s because she’s made very kind of realistic choices, actually wearing what real people wear. There’s a sense of being very much one of us, so I think that’s been very clever. As well as making choices that are not far from what she would wear if she were not the First Lady: wearing flats, wearing cardigans. I think she’s seen as a real, thinking, everyday, intelligent working woman. She’s kept herself in that position.
SC: One thing I think proves her genuine interest in fashion is that she doesn’t just wear American designers. I’m a vocal supporter of the fact that she wore Alexander McQueen when she went to China, and any push back from the American fashion industry is just ridiculous. She wants to wear what she wants to wear, and if that’s a Commes de Garcon cardigan, good for her.
In general, do you think her choices have any impact on people studying to be designers now? Say, students at Parsons?
SC: No. We should be realistic about the influence she has. She influences some people, but nobody wants to build their career around designing for the First Lady. They want to build their career around being fashion designers. If she wears their clothing, that’s wonderful, it’s an incredible honor. But it’s not what you’re there for.
HC: I think it’s much more about being a woman of the people. She’s been very good at identifying with regular people, with the consumer. But I don’t think with designers. She would look completely different if that were the case.
HC: Simon, I wanted to ask you a question. Is it a coincidence that during the period that during this past presidential term, J. Crew has also come up? Obviously, Jenna Lyons, a Parsons graduate, has worked very hard on that. But, you know, five years ago, would they have had such a profile with Michelle Obama then?
SC: I’d like to think that she’s wearing it because it’s good, and J. Crew now looks so much better than it did five or six years ago. They produce quality products, and she recognizes quality. I think that goes hand in hand.
HC: My point is more that J. Crew is much more stylish now, and much more interesting, than it was five or six years ago. Maybe she wouldn’t have chosen them then, when they were preppier and more safe.
What do you think it is about Parsons particularly that makes us produce so many designers that she’s gone on to wear?
SC: Well, the bottom line is that a large percentage of the industry went to Parsons. If you went into Barney’s, and you counted the American designers there, a large percentage would be Parsons graduates, and the same is true in Bergdorf’s. So, if she just went shopping and happened to pick up 10 designers completely randomly, they’d probably be from Parsons.
I don’t claim that we’re brilliant, but the best students do come to us. And we give them the best education. And the combination means that they go out to become as successful as they are. And we’ve been doing it a long time, so we know what we’re doing. We’re always evolving, but we know what we’re doing. And, in interviewing the designers that came through the school, they all came because someone was here before them. Donna Karan came because she was inspired by Claire McCardell. Narciso Rodriguez was here because he was inspired by Donna. It all begets itself.
HC: Also, Simon, I wanted to ask what color do you think she’ll wear to the Inauguration? I thought it was interesting that she wore white the first time – I don’t know far the symbolism went, but, you know, white, the virginal bride.
SC: She’s got to wear red this time, hasn’t she?
HC: I think she’ll wear blue. Something like turquoise blue. Obviously, it’s the color of the Democratic Party. I was also thinking she might wear gold…
SC: That’s a bit opulent, though, isn’t it?
HC: Well, yes, but the Toledo [dress, which she wore to the public swearing-in] was a bit gold last time. I think that would be interesting.
SC: I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s an interesting question.
HC: We could put bets on the table!
SC: I can’t see her wearing white. I think blue is a good option.
Or is blue too partisan?
SC: Well, thankfully, finally, he’s sticking up for himself a little bit; “I’m a Democrat, I don’t like it, so I’m not going to do it.” Maybe there should be a little of that. So maybe she will do that.