When Michelle Obama took on the role of first lady dressed in a lemon grass-colored lace suit by cult designer Isabel Toledo, fashion observers rejoiced. Obama would be a one-woman stimulus package, able to rescue the industry from financial ruin with her bare biceps.
Or so they hoped.
Last year, she was on the covers of Vogue, Essence, Oprah and Glamour magazines; she was honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in New York; and she made the Vanity Fair International best-dressed list. Books were rushed to market, including Mary Tomer's "Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy" and Mandi Norwood's "Michelle Style: Celebrating the First Lady of Fashion."
We couldn't stop talking about her wardrobe, from the one-of-a-kind strapless gold Naeem Khan gown she chose for the first state dinner (the designer appeared on no less than "Larry King Live") to the quirky Martin Margiela open-toe flats she wore on her recent Hawaiian holiday.
The Mrs. O ( www.mrs-o.org) fashion blog that averaged 500 hits a day when it launched in summer 2008 now averages more than 10,000 hits a day. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals recognized the power of the first lady's style too, temporarily turning her into an anti-fur spokeswoman without her permission. (Last week, the animal rights group was forced to take down billboards picturing her next to Oprah, Carrie Underwood and Tyra Banks, along with the slogan "fur-free and fabulous.")
And yet, even as we admired her statement necklaces and clusters of brooches, sales of costume jewelry fell. Her knack for wearing cardigans wasn't enough to boost sales of knitwear, which also declined in 2009, according to market research firm NPD Group.
But though she may not have been the sartorial superhero retailers had hoped for, the first lady is a fashion force. By virtue of her wardrobe choices, Obama is an inspiration for experimentation, embraced by designers but not beholden to any. She has made it OK for smart women to care about what they wear, and her real-world physique is challenging the runway's ideal.
"It has to have an impact on the next generation of fashion shoppers, model bookers and up-and-coming designers that one of the top style icons in the world is not white, not a 20-year-old and not a rail-thin size 0," said Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour magazine, which saw newsstand sales increase 11% for the December issue (compared with December 2008) featuring Obama on the cover.
As a trendsetter, Obama has helped popularize cardigan sweaters, wide belts and the styling trick of belting an unbuttoned cardigan over a dress or a skirt. She's challenged the domination of platform shoes with her preference for kitten heels and given new life to brooches as an accessory, which had fallen out of fashion after their "Sex and the City" heyday. These are looks that women can emulate at any price point.
"When Jackie Kennedy was in the White House she was impeccable, but a little bit of a hothouse flower. You kind of looked up to it but never imagined you could achieve it," said designer and "Project Runway" regular Michael Kors. "Mrs. Obama is very representative of the way fashion has become more accessible. I see women on the street playing with accessories more, wearing a bold necklace during the day, wearing things that aren't necessarily matched. She's given people the confidence to experiment."
Obama has the same suit by Kors, with a pencil skirt and cap sleeve jacket, in three fabrications -- gold Lurex, yellow boucle and red silk shantung. She chose a sleeveless black sheath by the designer for the official White House portrait. Those pieces were custom-made, though Kors did add a similar sheath dress to his collection, with armholes cut in to better show off athletic-looking arms, after customers asked for it.
Whereas many first ladies have remained loyal to one designer or a small handful of designers (Jacqueline Kennedy to Oleg Cassini, Betty Ford to Albert Capraro, Nancy Reagan to James Galanos and Adolfo), Obama mixes established names with cult favorites, the high-end with the low, American with foreign.
She's worn Rick Owens, Moschino, H&M, Narciso Rodriguez, vintage Hattie Carnegie, Talbots and Crocs.
"Mrs. Obama has shown more support for fashion in her diversity of choice," Kors said. "She wears things by me and by Sophie Theallet, who's making clothes in her apartment in Brooklyn."
For last month's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Obama chose an ice blue gown and pleated jacket by Paris-based, fashion editor favorite Azzedine Alaia, whose prices typically start in the four figures.
She has given exposure and opportunities to plenty of new names too, including Rodarte and Erickson Beamon; both lines landed cheap chic lines at Target in 2009. Theallet, another Obama favorite, won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award in November, pocketing $200,000. Seeing Obama's Tom Binns jewelry prompted Disney Consumer Products to seek out a collaboration with the designer tied to the upcoming Tim Burton film "Alice in Wonderland," according to Pam Lifford, executive vice president, Disney Global Fashion & Home.
"She's not driven by labels, she's driven by aesthetics," said Maria Pinto, the Chicago designer who made the tomato red wool sheath dress Obama wore during her first visit to the White House in 2008, and again in November of last year. Sales grew 35% at Pinto's West Loop neighborhood boutique in 2009, which the designer attributes, at least in part, to the first lady. "She has the taste and the confidence to do her own thing. That's how she came to me, because I wasn't anyone."
On dozens of occasions Obama has turned to J. Crew for embellished cardigans and jacquard pencil skirts, and the retailer had a very good year in 2009. "There is a halo effect," said J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons. "It's hard for us to pinpoint her specific influence. But any cardigan with a ruffle or a detail, whether it ends up on her or not, customers love them and want them. Also pencil skirts, they're not necessarily a trend thing right now, but our customers still want them."
In April, after Obama wore J. Crew's sparkly constellation cardigan to 10 Downing Street, the item sold out within an hour on the brand's website. After J. Crew received 75 e-mails about the piece, a similar style was released in October. "We pay attention to the blogs and to e-mails, and if we realize people have missed something we will do another version," Lyons said.
Designer Isaac Mizrahi has referred to the first lady as the new Carrie Bradshaw. After Obama wore a purple dress from his runway collection to a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in May, he sold 30 dresses like it.
Impressive, sure. But retail sales still have a long way to go. The tangerine cotton dress Obama chose for her star turn on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America" this month was designed by Mizrahi in his other role, as creative director for mid-market label Liz Claiborne New York. In October, as part of a restructuring plan after seven consecutive quarterly losses, the Liz Claiborne New York line was turned over to home shopping network QVC, where it will be sold exclusively beginning this fall.
Mizrahi doesn't yet know if the first lady's tangerine dress will ever be produced.
Still, he says, "Right now, her stamp of approval is better than anybody's."