Michelle Obama always looks good: impeccable and offbeat, simultaneously approachable and glam. Her choices involve the kind of designers—Thakoon, Maria Cornejo—worn by editors and insiders who know people on Barneys’ fourth floor. That’s why she’s been hailed as a lifeline for the drowning world of expensive clothes, and part of why it’s considered such a big deal that she might grace the March cover of Vogue.
But for all the excitement about her Isabel Toledo this, her Jason Wu that, there lurks an unspoken, uneasy relationship between the industry and its newest icon. During the campaign, designers, from Marc Jacobs to Tory Burch, celebrated Obama in a frenzy of T-shirts and tote bags that conflated change and style. But despite such liberal goodwill, the industry is overwhelmingly white, both in its makeup and its view of its customer. Not long ago, Stefano Pilati, the designer of Yves Saint Laurent, saw no problem telling Robin Givhan of the Washington Post that black models just don’t look right in his clothes. Michelle’s rumored cover aside, Vogue has only ever had five black celebrities (including LeBron James) on its cover. Vogue Italia ran an issue starring black models in July; it was presented as a special issue, much like American Vogue’s “Shape” issue, the one time a year it nods toward women of varying sizes. It’s an inclusion that only highlights the exclusion: So separate are black (or normal-size) women, they need an issue of their own.
An even more vexing question when it comes to Michelle is the fact that she uses fashion but is not defined by her interest in it. She’s no Jackie Kennedy, whose tenure as First Lady is remembered precisely for her interest in style. This seems an unlikely course for Michelle Obama. Here is a beautiful, well-dressed woman for whom fashion is a sidebar. Hers is the kind of résumé that can induce a certain self-hatred among people who’ve devoted their lives to tracking hemlines and hairdos. Called to a local news show on Inauguration Day, I went on live after an emotional talk by one of the first black players in Major League Baseball. He was remembering Jackie Robinson. And I was there to talk about … the dress.
“I think she should wear whatever she wants,” says Diane Von Furstenberg of Michelle’s effect on fashion. As president of the CFDA, she could ostensibly be crowing about Michelle’s ability to inspire women to, well, shop (everything she wears on TV catapults off the racks). But she had a hard time focusing on that. “What I really think is to have two Harvard graduates in the White House is not so bad.”
Michelle Obama seems poised to lead the fashion world to the promised land, where every woman can have great style. But for fashionistas, as of yet, that is a very confusing place to be.