First lady Michelle Obama averts designer dust-up with a Vera Wang

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

It wasn't exactly an apology or a mea culpa. Call it a diplomatic clarification. Or a gesture of goodwill to Seventh Avenue.

For Friday's state dinner in honor of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, first lady Michelle Obama chose a custom mermaid gown from Vera Wang Collection. It was an inky black floor-length dress in silk crepe with a hand-draped skirt and organza sleeves. It exuded Hollywood glamour of the sort that has long defined the red carpet. And Obama's hair, styled in gentle waves and cascading down her right cheek, underscored the dress's mood of old-fashioned stardust.

But more important than the color of the gown, its luxurious fabric or its body-conscious fit was its lineage. It was created by a Seventh Avenue veteran of Chinese descent. Wang, 66, was born in New York, but her parents were born in Shanghai and immigrated to the United States.

"It is such a privilege, as an American of Chinese heritage, to have dressed first lady Michelle Obama for this state dinner honoring President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan, of the People's Republic of China," Wang tweeted.

The designer began her career at Vogue and later was a designer at Ralph Lauren. When she launched her signature brand in the early 1990s, it was focused on bridal wear - minimalist, elegant and refined - and she attracted a wealthy and celebrity clientele. She eventually expanded into sportswear and evening wear. In recent years, she developed a less-expensive line for Kohl's.

Who would design the first lady's state dinner gown was more than an aesthetic curiosity. It was a matter of smoothing the ruffled feathers of an American fashion industry that had felt snubbed when, for a China state dinner in 2011 honoring President Hu Jintao, Obama selected a fiery red gown from the British label Alexander McQueen.

It was a dynamic dress, but American designers wondered why she would not have chosen to celebrate one of their own on such a significant public occasion. The Council of Fashion Designers of America went so far as to issue a statement expressing the trade group's disappointment.

Obama always maintained that the choice of the McQueen dress was purely a matter of personal preference and not a political statement of disaffection with Seventh Avenue. Still, the decision stung.

Adding to the injury, in 2011 Obama didn't even give American designers a nod with her choice of attire for the morning's traditional arrival ceremony. She wore an embellished dress by the Serbian-born, London-based designer Roksanda Ilincic.

No one quibbled about the aesthetics of either ensemble, just the symbolism. On this most studied and parsed of days, when her words would be few but her appearance would speak volumes, Obama declined to articulate the virtues of the American fashion industry.

But in Take Two, Obama not only turned to an American label for the main event, she wore an American brand to the White House arrival ceremony. Obama chose a custom dress and coat from 3.1 Phillip Lim, a New York-based brand founded by Phillip Lim and Wen Zhou.

Lim was born in Thailand to Chinese parents and grew up in Southern California. Zhou was born in Ningbo, China, and immigrated to New York with her parents in 1985. The two met while he was a designer-for-hire and she was head of a textile company that supplied fabric to fashion companies. They went into business together when they were both 31 - inspiring the name of the company. During New York's fashion week earlier this month, the brand celebrated its 10th anniversary, having established itself as a company with a designer-driven aesthetic but more accessible prices. He was among the many Chinese American guests at Friday's dinner.

China's first lady is also known for her style and for favoring ensembles from the Chinese label Exception de Mixmind for her public wardrobe. When Peng wore a trenchcoat from the label, which is designed by Ma Ke, during a visit to Moscow in 2013, it sparked a run in China on look-alike versions. Peng has been compared in the media to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, as well as Obama. And in 2013, Vanity Fair named Peng to its International Best-Dressed List.

At the state dinner, she wore an cerulean blue gown with trumpet sleeves. Her husband's pocket square matched her dress. Together, they provided the only splashes of color in the diplomatic tableau.