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Michelle Obama carries US designers into spotlight

MICHELLE Obama officially entered the world stage yesterday in outfits by US designers paired with off-the-rack accessories, mixing glamour with practicality.

The first lady chose a sparkling sheath dress and matching coat in yellow-gold by Cuban-born designer Isabel Toledo for the swearing-in ceremony but added olive green gloves from chain store J. Crew and Jimmy Choo shoes.

For the inaugural balls, she wore a white, one-shouldered chiffon gown with a full skirt by Taiwan-born US designer Jason Wu, 26, whose dresses cost up to US$6,000.

"How good looking is my wife?" President Barack Obama asked the crowd at the first of 10 inaugural balls attended by the couple.

Michelle Obama's clothing choices were expected to provide clues to the way she will undertake her role as first lady in a time of deep recession.

A former lawyer, Michelle Obama, 45, has won kudos for her chic, youthful style, mixing chain store garments with edgy designers like Chicago's Mario Pinto and Narciso Rodriguez.

Her daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, both wore J. Crew coats to the presidential swearing-in ceremony.

Obama won praise in June by wearing a US$148 black and white off-the-rack dress for appearing on the TV chat show "The View." It sold out nationwide overnight.

Her yellow swearing-in outfit was a departure from red, white or blue tones often adopted by U.S. female politicians and spouses. Yellow is seen in many parts of the world as a symbol of hope and optimism.

But Obama's choice did not get universal approval. An online poll on the Us Weekly celebrity magazine site showed 55 percent of readers hated the outfit and 44 percent loved it.

Bonnie Fuller, former editor in chief of Glamour magazine, called the outfit bold but wondered on "Is she walking around in inaugural upholstery?"

New York-based designer Toledo, 47, said the coat and dress were made of Swiss wool lace, backed with netting for warmth and lined in French silk.

"For me yellow represents hope," Toledo told Reuters. "It really feels like freshness to me. I wanted to capture optimism, I wanted it to feel happy, I wanted it to feel inclusive."

Her ball gown, which will go on show at the Smithsonian, received a mixed reaction with US fashion bible Women's Wear Daily saying it made the Obamas look like newlyweds.

"But Michelle Obama is rewriting the fashion rules and she looks every inch the style icon she is becoming," wrote the Los Angeles Times.

In hard times, fashion commentators expected Obama to avoid anything too glitzy or frivolous. But dressing down too much could have attracted as much criticism as extravagance.

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter was criticized during the 1970s oil crisis for wearing her previously worn, off-the-rack gown to the 1977 inaugural ball.

In 1981, Nancy Reagan was deemed "too Hollywood" with her white, one-shoulder, lace satin sheath with crystal beads.

Obama is already considered an ambassador for American fashion. She was listed in Vanity Fair's magazine's "10 of the World's Best Dressed People" in both 2007 and 2008 and has drawn numerous comparisons with Jacqueline Kennedy.


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