INAUGURAL BALL GOWNS—Michelle Obama in inaugural ball gowns by Asian-American designer Jason Wu in 2009, left, and 2013.
When Michelle Obama appeared for the inaugural ball dance with her husband Barack Obama earlier last month, the president wasn’t the only one giddy with delight.
As the first lady walked out in an elegant red gown, Jason Wu almost went into a state of shock. It was a historic repeat for the popular Asian-American fashion designer, because the first lady wore one of his gowns at the president’s first-term inaugural ball four years ago.
Insiders in the U.S. fashion industry say Mrs. O has raised the profile of American designers with her bold and confident wardrobe choices over the last five years. While she has been photographed in Alexander McQueen, Azzedine Alaia, Moschino and other big-name foreign designers, she also has been a visual platform for prominent and lesser-known U.S. fashion brands such as J. Crew, Michael Kors, Oscar de la Renta, Maria Pinto and Thakoon. In affirming the talent and worth of American designers, she has indirectly motivated more Americans to buy American.
For some Black designers, the good fortune and high profile afforded by association with such an influential public figure has been a boon. In a television interview with Barbara Walters in May 2012, Mrs. Obama wore an A-line skirt by Ghanaian-American designer Mimi Plange. And at last fall’s Democratic National Convention, she was striking in a dress by Tracy Reese—a mainstay at the biannual Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City—and in two frocks at separate events by seasoned but less-visible designer Laura Smalls.
But no event, not even the president’s swearing-in ceremony, is as plum as the inaugural ball for designers hoping to hitch their wagon to the first lady’s star. This made Mrs. Obama’s choice to go with Wu again an interesting one.
There are many other designers who could have created a stunning gown for her. The names of a few accomplished Black designers quickly come to mind: B. Michael, Stephen Burrows, Kevan Hall, Henry Jackson, Patrick Robinson, and Lafayette 148 designer Edward Wilkerson. Unfortunately, Black designers historically have less access and fewer opportunities to get the attention of the most prominent and powerful figures, particularly in government.
This matters in an industry in which just one opportunity can quickly translate into cash. For Black designers, who lag behind other ethnic designer groups in terms of number and visibility, such golden opportunities are rare. Penetrating the layers of human insulation that stand between a designer and a high-profile prospective client usually takes an inside connection, which Black designers are less likely to have. That’s why it’s important to them for the first Black first lady to go out of her way to seek them out.
Interestingly, Black designers are probably the most likely to understand how to design for the curvier body of a Black woman. While the sleeveless, empire-waist inaugural gowns by Wu were lovely, they made Mrs. Obama’s legs and torso seem disproportionately long and hid rather than celebrated her curves. An experienced Black designer would have known better than the 30-year-old Taiwanese Wu how to flatter the first lady’s fit figure in a way that was still tastefully appropriate.
There will be no more inaugural balls for Michelle Obama, unless she wins the presidency herself. Perhaps at some major formal event over the next four years, it will be a Black designer’s turn to grin from ear to ear as the history-making first lady dazzles the nation with an unforgettable fashion declaration.