Obama begins her term as style icon with true panache


THE DRESSES:Michelle Obama’s striking style will make its mark on the new presidency, writes DEIRDRE McQUILLAN.

AFTER WEEKS of frenzied speculation by the US media and hundreds of suggested designs, Michelle Obama displayed real fashion panache as her husband made history on Tuesday. Her clothes choices have always been her own, free of interference or impositions by stylists, and even the designer of her inauguration ensemble, the Cuban American Isabel Toledo had no idea that Obama would wear the yellow coat and shift dress in Swiss wool lace until that morning.

Mrs O has worn Toledo before – memorably. Last summer she wowed the fashion crowd in New York at a Vogue fundraiser wearing a full-length black Toledo tunic and trousers with a dramatic necklace by Tom Binns, an award- winning jeweller from Belfast now living in the US.

With yellow traditionally the colour of hope, the choice was an apt one for the inauguration ensemble which not only set her apart visually from the crowd and suited her statuesque 6ft figure, but sent out a subliminal message of optimism to the millions watching. “I wanted to pick a colour that had sunshine” Toledo told the New York Times. “I wanted her to feel charmed”.

The green (rather than more predictable black) leather gloves from mainstream US retailer J Crew were another innovative touch, along with her green kitten heels. There is no doubt that Obama’s striking style will make its mark on the new presidency.

Her ball gown, a white off-the-shoulder silk chiffon number flecked with flowers and crystal by 26-year-old Taipei native Jason Wu, was another statement of confidence in lesser known US designers rather than fail-safe establishment bets such as Oscar de la Renta or Vera Wang. Sparkling in the light, it looked romantic and feminine and though it showed off her well- toned arms and shoulders, its trailing length tripped up her husband from time to time as they danced. Traditionally these ball gowns are donated to the Smithsonian; the last one, a slim blue sheath for Laura Bush by Oscar de la Renta for the 2005 inauguration of President Bush had embroidery designs by Irish designer Helen Fitzpatrick of Lurgan.

All along the campaign trail, Obama has displayed a highly individual and powerful fashion sense, championing edgier US designers such as Mario Pinto and Thakoon and mixing them with high-street buys, a combination that has become her signature and one to which many women can relate. She clearly loves fashion, is confident and adventurous in her choices unlike other presidential spouses and buys her own clothes, mostly from a high-end store called Ikram in Chicago, but also online. She prefers dresses to trouser suits, favours cardigans, doesn’t wear tights, regularly goes sleeveless and has made huge Carolee faux pearls a style statement.

If some items like the purple Mario Pinto silk sheath worn at the nomination won universal praise, her choices have sometimes been controversial. The black and red Narcisco Rodriguez dress worn in Chicago at the election victory was criticised by many, although in the current issue of US Vogue she cuts a regal dash in a blue silk gown by the same designer, her hair drawn severely back.

In the main, her no nonsense, well-cut shapes in solid colours serve her well and communicate the image of a modern, intelligent, well-balanced woman to whom style matters. With many of her choices being instantly copied, much hope has been invested in her ability to rescue the ailing US fashion industry and raise its profile internationally as the economy struggles.

As first lady and style icon, she’s off to a promising start.