On Tuesday night, the Obamas hosted the eighth state dinner of their seven-year administration, welcoming visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Washington, D.C., with plenty of pomp and circumstance — new presidential china, a sake toast and Japanese American food cooked by the former chef of swanky restaurant Nobu.
But with civil unrest at the backdoor in Baltimore, First Lady Michelle Obama, 51, chose a gown by a Japanese American designer that plays as well on Main Street as on the red carpet.
She chose a sleeveless purple gown with a feather motif-embroidered skirt by L.A.-based, Japan-born Tadashi Shoji, who in 2013 celebrated 30 years of making formal wear for the rest of us. Shoji’s namesake collection is sold around the world, in more than 700 stores in 45 countries.
The gown is from the fall 2015 collection, and looked much more risqué when it came down the runway at New York Fashion Week. It appears the plunge neck was modified for Obama, and maybe the lining.
Although his more elaborate gowns have been worn on the red carpet by actress Octavia Spencer, musician Florence Welch and now, the first lady, the bulk of Shoji’s $50-million plus namesake business is department store sales of tasteful, figure-flattering and wallet friendly cocktail dresses and gowns ranging in price from $198 to $508, and worn by women who want to feel like celebrities in their own lives — prom queens, mothers of the bride and the like.
I was wondering, even hoping, that the first lady would go out on a limb on Tuesday night and wear something daring by one of Japan’s avant garde designers — a hybrid coat-gown by Chitose Abe of the label Sacai perhaps, or a frock with some offbeat embellishment and asymmetry, like the edgy blush chiffon and pearl Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons that then-social secretary Desiree Rogers wore to a state dinner in 2010.
It would have been a fun sartorial last stand for a first lady who has been under a fashion microscope like no other, at what could be the last state dinner of the Obama administration.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
Obama learned her lesson about wearing non-American designers, no matter how well intentioned, at the state dinner for China in 2011.
The offending gown was actually quite beautiful — draped in red roses, designed by Sarah Burton of the British label Alexander McQueen. But the Council of Fashion Designers of America released a statement criticizing her choice, Oscar de la Renta called her out and online pundits dubbed the mistake Dress Gate.
“Look, women, wear what you love. That’s all I can say. That’s my motto. I wear what I like because…I gotta be in the dress, so…,” the first lady told Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America” at the time, in response to the fashion kerfuffle.
But she must have taken the criticism to heart, because Obama has stuck with American designers at state dinners ever since, even if those designers have been from the same, rarefied, New York-centric milieu.
For the last state dinner in 2014, the first lady chose a gown by Venezuelan American Carolina Herrera with a black lace bodice and blue taffeta ball skirt. Priced at $12,000, the gown came on the heels of the president arguing income inequality had become a major problem facing America. It was another state dinner fashion faux pas.
Based in L.A., Shoji’s business is as Eastern-facing as it is Western-facing. He spends as much time traveling from his home in Pasadena to Tokyo and Shanghai (where he is now, and where much of his production takes place), as he does traveling to New York.
And while Shoji’s state dinner design may lack the Vogue magazine-approved wow factor of many of Obama’s fashion choices (it’s not nearly as embellished or extravagant as some of her hand-embroidered evening wear has been and is by no means edgy or avant garde), it was the right dress for a difficult time.