Will Michelle Obama avoid a diplomatic fashion controversy at the White House state dinner for China?

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — During her tenure as first lady, Michelle Obama has rarely made a fashion choice that sparked criticism from Seventh Avenue. American designers, it is no exaggeration to say, love her. Adore her. She represents them on the world stage with her willingness to wear a wide variety of both barely-known brands and household names.

But in January 2011: the horror! Obama sent American designers into a tailspin by wearing a British label on the occasion of a White House state dinner in honor of China.

On Friday, Obama will return to the scene of the fashion crime when the White House hosts a second state dinner for China, this one for president Xi Jinping.

Aesthetically, Obama's Alexander McQueen gown was a stunner. It was a fiery shade of red - representative of good luck in Chinese culture - with a bold print of palm leaves. It also came with an emotional backstory: Obama wore the dress only a year after the suicide of the house's founder and just as his successor, Sarah Burton, was taking her first tenuous steps as creative director.

Still, American designers were not pleased. Diane von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, issued a statement noting that "Obama has been wonderful at promoting our designers, so we were surprised and a little disappointed not to be represented for this major state dinner."

The late Oscar de la Renta was a bit less diplomatic about Obama's choice in an interview with Women's Wear Daily: "The visit was to promote American-Chinese trade - American products in China and Chinese products in America. Why do you wear European clothes?" De la Renta asked, noting the valuable attention that Obama can bring to a label. "I'm not talking about my clothes, my business. I'm old, and I don't need it. But there are a lot of young people, very talented people here who do."

As the kerfuffle simmered on, von Furstenberg had second thoughts and said she was a bit embarrassed by her statement. But others didn't think the CFDA overreacted at all. For her part, Obama, publicly shrugged off the incident, explaining it away as a personal, aesthetic choice that people should not get hot and bothered about. "Look, women, wear what you love. That's all I can say. That's my motto," she said during an interview on "Good Morning, America."

Personal mottoes notwithstanding, Obama went on to make undeniably patriotic choices for subsequent state dinners - selecting U.S-based labels such as Carolina Herrera, Doo-Ri Chung, Peter Sorenen, Tadashi Shoji, Marchesa and Naeem Khan. The designer's background has often reflected the country being honored.

As the Obamas host their second state dinner for China, will Obama take advantage of a fashion do-over?

The industry has certainly given her plenty of inspiration. "China: Through the Looking Glass," the recent blockbuster exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, underscored the aesthetic connection between the West and China. And the opening-night gala had guests draped in designs by Chinese designers, those of Chinese descent and those who simply found inspiration in Chinese culture.

Among Chinese designers, Obama could select a gown by Guo Pei, the Chinese couture star who crafted the sweeping yellow extravaganza - which Twitter dubbed the "omelet" gown - worn by Rihanna on the red carpet at the Met. In the case of the first lady, a shorter train might be preferable.

There's the rising fashion entrepreneur Masha Ma, who studied at London's famed Central Saint Martins design school and shows her collection in Paris. She also participated in a cultural exchange sponsored by the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund during which she spent two weeks in New York immersed in the American fashion industry. Or Obama might prefer the talented Yang Li, who was born in China, studied in London and also shows his evocative collections in Paris.

There are also a host of American designers who come from Chinese lineage - Vera Wang, Alexander Wang, Derek Lam, Phillip Lim and the Taiwanese-born Jason Wu. Wu is, of course, a favorite of the first lady's having designed both of her inaugural gowns.

Alexander Wang - known mostly as a sportswear designer despite his tenure at Balenciaga, which comes to a close with his spring 2016 collection - recently displayed his eveningwear talent with a gown worn by Taraji P. Henson on the Emmy red carpet.

There is no shortage of designers whose background would speak of cultural diplomacy and cultural exchange and who have expertise in eveningwear. In keeping with Obama's motto - perhaps she will fall in love with something they have to offer.