Fashion and the First Ladies

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

Michelle Obama has spent the last week in China, where she has taken her daughters and her mother on a cultural tour, with time saved for a few impassioned addresses on freedom of speech and minority rights.

Those looking to follow their exploits can head to the first lady’s daily blog. What they won’t find there is any description of her outfits, which remain a source of considerable interest among fashion followers. And, as it turns out, for her own team. A former aide told The New Republic: “The first lady having the wrong pencil skirt” is as big a misstep (the term used was a less-publishable one) as “a policy initiative that completely failed.”

Her wardrobe, it turned out, was steadfastly American.

Obama landed on Chinese soil in a patchwork dress by Derek Lam. For her speech at Peking University, it was a color-block shift by Carolina Herrera. At a dinner in her honor in Beijing, it was custom Naeem Khan in red, the Chinese color of luck.

For sightseeing, she chose sportier options, to the surprise of even the designers. At the Forbidden City, she wore a vest, blouse and trousers from Phillip Lim.

“I was really taken back, obviously in a pleasant way,” Lim said. “Really? Sportswear, from us?”

Narciso Rodriguez was similarly pleased (“I put her on such a pedestal,” he said) by a request from her office for a suit straight from his fall 2014 runway, which she wore to see the terra-cotta warriors in Xi’an.

The Chinese were no less engaged by Obama’s style, though they have their own first lady to admire: the glamorous Peng Liyuan. Her outfits, often shunning foreign labels popular in China, lit up Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

Lim, who is of Chinese descent, could see her appeal, too. She is “supremely elegant,” he said. “I love how it’s restrained but just enough that you know, oh, you know what you’re doing.”