U.S. Fashion's One-Woman Bailout?
U.S. Fashion's One-Woman Bailout?
TO the laundry list of global woes the Obama administration is expected to set right, starting Jan. 20, one can probably add the quagmire of American fashion. True, it will have to wait in line behind the hemorrhaging economy and the situations in Gaza, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. True, too, it will scarcely be a top-of-mind concern for the president himself.
But the scope of responsibility in politics these days extends to family members, and the messes are now so numerous that by the time Barack Obama sets foot in the White House, everyone in his entourage will have to grab a mop.
That includes the first lady, who throughout the campaign demonstrated not just that she understood the power of clothes to transmit a message, but a readiness to adjust that message as the need arose.
Michelle Obama was not alone in that; Cindy McCain notably tweaked her image as the campaign ground along, softening her appearance to seem more populist and less like a member of the rules committee at an exclusive country club.
Yet Mrs. Obama did something bolder on the campaign trail and, in a sense, less expected. With flashcard clarity, she signaled an interest both in looking stylish and also in advancing the cause of American fashion and those who design and make it. She wore off-the-rack stuff from J. Crew and, at times controversially, designs by fashion darlings like Isabel Toledo, Thakoon Panichgul and Narciso Rodriguez. She brought to the campaign a sophisticated approach to high-low dressing, a determination to adapt designers' work to suit herself — adding jewelry or sweaters or wearing flat shoes with sheaths or even altering dressmaking details — as well as a forthright conviction that it is the woman who should wear the clothes and not the other way around.
Insignificant as this may seem in the larger scheme of things, it is less so when one considers the distressing state in which American fashion has found itself lately, with both chain and department stores shutting their doors, consumers confidence at its lowest level in decades and manufacturers struggling to remain afloat in what, as May Chen, the international vice president of the union group Unite Here, explained, "has always been a very credit-sensitive industry."
Hamish Bowles, the Vogue editor who was curator of "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years," a 2001 show of Kennedy's style at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said of Mrs. Obama, "My perception is that she's already had an extremely potent effect" on the business.
"Just looking at the designers she's been drawn to, you can see she's shown astute sartorial judgment," Mr. Bowles said. What she has also made clear in her choices, he added, is "that thoughtful and intelligent American designers are perfectly capable of creating clothes that have an impact on the world stage."
The key word in that statement is "American," a fact not lost on the retailers burdened in recent years by the weakened purchasing power of the dollar in Europe, where most designer fashion originates, and by the decision American consumers seem to have made to shop in their closets as they wait out the recession.
"There is something timely about celebrating American fashion and American designers," said Stephanie Solomon, the fashion director of Bloomingdale's, although that "something" may be largely a function of the $5,000 price tag on a typical imported dress from Lanvin.
"Mrs. Obama is, first of all, very elegant and has wonderful taste," Ms. Solomon said. "But she also recognizes the value of beautiful dresses and not big prices. She dresses like taste doesn't necessarily have to do with brand or status, but with what looks well on your body and makes you look glamorous, bottom line." And that, she added, is "very refreshing and appropriate for this period."
American fashion, said Steven Kolb, the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, like the American automobile and banking industries, is "at a crossroads" in dire need of some kind of boost. Reviving a faltering homegrown industry may seem like a lot to expect of one woman, however highly placed. Yet, whether or not she likes it — or has any particular interest in fashion at all — the first lady has traditionally been expected to use her position to help promote American goods.
"What the first lady wears has a lot of effect on the industry, absolutely," said Arnold Scaasi, who began designing clothes for the wives of American presidents during the term of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The first lady, Mr. Scaasi said, "is seen every day in some form of media, and what she looks like is copied by other women."
Even Mamie Eisenhower managed to inspire followers with her goofy and pastel matron style. Although Mrs. Eisenhower probably never set off a shopping frenzy, as happened after Mrs. Obama wore a $148 dress from the label White House Black Market on "The View," she had an effect.
"Mamie wore bangs because she had a very high forehead," Mr. Scaasi explained. "But then hairdressers everywhere told me that women were saying, 'I want my hair just like Mamie's.' " When George H. W. Bush was president, he said, "Barbara Bush made a statement by having gray hair, and suddenly gray-haired grandmothers were chic."
When Mrs. Obama's husband takes office, she will be roughly two decades younger than Mrs. Bush was on the day her husband was sworn in. Three days before the inauguration, Mrs. Obama will turn 45. Yet like her husband she conveys a more youthful impression, and her vital appearance has a lot do with her particular appeal to the fashion industry.
"She's like 25 years younger than the last few first ladies, and her age opens her up to a more youthful approach," the designer Anna Sui said. "I loved her choice of Narciso," she added, referring to the designer Narciso Rodriguez, whose dress Mrs. Obama wore, in a version she adapted from the runway original and customized with a cardigan sweater, on election night. (That choice set off living room debates across the land over whether it flattered Mrs. Obama or not.)
"She could potentially do what Jackie Kennedy did, bring about a new awareness and a fresh outlook, just by not being so intentionally 'first lady,' by mixing designer things with off the rack," Ms. Sui said. "She can give a big boost to the American fashion industry — and we need all the help we can get."
If one thinks about it, said Thakoon Panichgul, a gifted industry favorite whose name entered the mainstream after Mrs. Obama wore one of his short-sleeved print dresses on the final night of the Democratic Convention, Mrs. Obama does not "dress so young, exactly, and yet it's young because it feels fresh."
He continued: "She'll wear a sheath with flats and not pumps. That's not, quote unquote, appropriate, and people perceive that first ladies should be appropriate. She has the chutzpah to put it out there regardless of what anybody says."
If in Mr. Panichgul's view it is Mrs. Obama's casual yet savvy approach to fashion that makes her compelling to watch, for other observers there is something deeper in play.
"Actually, her taste is very conservative, kind of jock-preppy, a version of a safe American WASP way of dressing," said Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "But what is truly compelling about her is her body. She has this athletic, commanding and confident presence that is very American." She may look great in a shift dress, he said, "but her body is so strong that I end up forgetting what she's wearing much of the time."
The potential effect Mrs. Obama's physical and intellectual confidence can have on fashion, the designer Diane Von Furstenberg, president of the council of fashion designers, said in an e-mail message from London, is to promote "individuality" at a time when fashion is casting about for ways to replace the designer cultism it so recently enshrined. It does not seem insignificant, either, that Mrs. Obama expresses her pleasure in following fashion without worrying that to do so automatically compromises her seriousness.
"The way Michelle Obama dresses is not her stimulus package to the fashion industry," said Mr. Kolb of the designers' council. "It's how she is. I think about my sister who lives in New Jersey and is a teacher, and about the women she works with, and how they can look at Michelle Obama and not have to pretend to be that woman, that working mother with kids who knows the big designer names but also shops at J. Crew and the Gap. She's who they are."http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/08/fashion/08michelle.html?ref=fashion&pagewanted=print
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