Michelle Obama Fails to Incite Sales Boosts for Her Favorite Designers

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Michelle in Peter Soronen in February. Photo: Getty Images

To say they have been fussed over and fawned over would be an understatement, as the media now watches their every move. But Michelle Obama's favorite designers — Narciso Rodriguez, Maria Cornejo, Thakoon Panichgul, and Peter Soronen among them — haven't experienced sales boosts since Michelle Obama stepped into the limelight in their clothes. Soronen told WWD that MObama has merely helped him maintain his business in hard economic times, after interest in special orders increased. But major retailers haven't called to place orders. Cornejo said people don't come into her store and ask specifically for what Michelle has worn, which would be a cheesy thing to do — unlike the sort of woman she dresses. "[W]e don’t count success by number of pieces sold," she added. Perhaps most surprisingly, Thakoon said he hasn't seen a tangible increase in sales, though he hasn't had time to sit down and crunch numbers to see if that's the case.

Sales figures aside, the designers are benefiting from the publicity. Thakoon said having Michelle wear his clothes overseas was like a free international ad campaign. More buyers are making appointments from international markets he might never have reached otherwise. Those appointments could translate to sales down the line.

The one designer that has enjoyed maximum MObama spoils is Jason Wu. Retailers say he's doing phenomenally in terms of sales right now. Jeffrey Kalinsky, president of Jeffrey and director of designer merchandising at Nordstrom, called a Jason Wu trunk show held in Atlanta this month "an absolute mob scene." Sales there totaled more than $125,000. Saks says shoppers are increasingly interested in what Wu's doing, though not looking for the exact pieces MObama's worn. Wu may be more successful because he designed Michelle's Inaugural ballgown, the dress she wore on the cover of Vogue, and the dress she wore when she stepped off the plane on her first overseas trip as First Lady — just a few of Michelle's most important outfits. Perhaps he's working the publicity better. Anna Wintour also attended his fall 2009 show, and confabbed with him backstage, so having her in his corner surely helps.

Michelle Obama may make fashion more fun, but she's not saving the industry in this terrible economy. So contrary to what the media has posited, Michelle probably isn't a walking stimulus package for the retail industry, just a walking stimulus package for Jason Wu (and maybe J.Crew). It might not be fair, but are bailouts ever?

The First Lady Effect [WWD]