N.Y. Times Styles Michelle Obama As 'U.S. Fashion's One-Woman Bailout'

January 9th, 2009 8:50 AM

The pre-inaugural glee is showing. The "Thursday Styles" section of The New York Times splayed Michelle Obama pictures all over the top half of their front page this week, with the headline "U.S. Fashion’s One-Woman Bailout? In Michelle’s approach to dressing, a faltering industry sees hope." The Times sought out designers who connected Mrs. Obama to Jacqueline Kennedy in the historical halls of stylishness.

A caption describing six color pictures of Michelle’s wardrobe reads "SUITING HERSELF: On the campaign trail Michelle Obama signaled an interest in both looking stylish and advancing the cause of American fashion by mixing off-the-rack items from stories like J. Crew with high-end pieces from designers like Thakoon Panichgul."

There is no mention of the ka-ching prices of her "high-end pieces" even as Republican readers might recall the "high-end" hazing of Sarah Palin. Fashion writer Guy Trebay makes no mention of Palin. He quickly dismissed Cindy McCain’s campaign fashions as mildly improved, that she softened it to "seem more populist and less like a member of the rules committee of an exclusive country club." Trebay told the reader the story’s subject may seem trivial, but a whole industry is on the line:

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."

Readers are told all about how Mrs. Obama set off a fashion frenzy by wearing a $148 dress on ABC’s "The View." Then comes the second reference to Jackie Kennedy, more explicit than the first:

"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. [Anna] 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.

A reader might suspect an actual critic of Michelle Obama might emerge, but there was only another encomium to unload:

"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.

But the Times ends by trying to make sure their spin is exactly right: she may be the black Jackie Kennedy, and she may thrill fashion designers, but that doesn’t mean she’s an elitist out of step with the average American female:

"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."

People who just skimmed the piece for the picture still found the budget-fashionista spin, if they saw the text box highlighting the fashion director from Bloomingdale’s insisting "She dresses like taste doesn’t necessarily have to do with brand or status." All this story was missing was hand-drawn hearts and flowers.