The most important thing Obama has done for women in terms of fashion is give them a sense of liberation to explore and experiment. Even when she is doing a sack race in the White House with Jimmy Fallon, her exercise clothes are original. “First Lady Michelle Obama has freed America from the old rules of style, from the idea that fashion has to be exclusive, that there’s one right way to dress and one group of arbiters to set the standard. She projects a new kind of glamour that is relaxed, fun, and deeply democratic,” says author Gioia Diliberto. “In subtle but fundamental ways, Michelle has transformed how we dress.
“I have always said I design for the thinking man’s sex symbol, and she defines it in every way,” says Prabal Gurung. “Every time she wears something of mine, it has given my seamstresses and tailors, my factories here in the Garment District a new zeal. They have felt a sense of pride, a renewed sense of purpose and hope. More important, what she has done is give millions of people back home in Nepal and around the world a message, a hope that with perseverance, hard work, and integrity, the dream that came true for me could also be theirs.”
She is never out of fashion for a simple reason that has nothing to do with the runway seasons: “Everyone talks about Michelle Obama’s sense of style and the firmness of her arms. It is true she loves clothes and looks amazing, and I love to see her wear vibrant colors and interesting bias cuts and show her fit and strong body,” says von Furstenberg. “But what comes across is her incredible intelligence, her caring being, her true substance. That fabric is indestructible and very colorful. It is called character.”
One morning in late January, I am standing at one end of the grand red-carpeted corridor that runs through the center of the White House, when suddenly the First Lady appears at the other. “Heeeee’s comin’,” she says of her husband’s imminent arrival. “He’s coming down the stairs now.” The president is on his way from the residence above, and just a split second before he appears, the First Lady, in a midnight-blue Reed Krakoff sleeveless dress and a black kitten heel, slips into the tiniest bit of a surprisingly good soft-shoe, and then the two of them walk arm in arm into the Red Room to sit for a portrait by Annie Leibovitz. The photographer has her iPod playing the Black Eyed Peas song “Where Is the Love?” It is a mid-tempo hip-hop lament about the problematic state of the world. As the First Lady and an aide laugh together over some inside joke, the president starts nodding his head to the beat: “Who picked the music? I love this song.”
A few minutes later, Leibovitz has the president sit in a comfortable chair and then directs the First Lady to perch on the arm. At one point, the First Lady puts her hand on top of his and, instinctively, he wraps his fingers around her thumb. “There’s a lot of huggin’ going on,” says Leibovitz, and everyone laughs. “You’re a very different kind of president and First Lady.”
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