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Stylish First Lady has no fascination with fashion

WHILE it's Barack Obama who took the oath of office as President of the United States, the broad-stroke Obama style is clearly a partnership in which Michelle Obama plays a mega role.

She's the one whose high-low fashion mixes and savvy updates of time-honored, safe classics have telegraphed the family ethos to the world: This is a modern, busy woman whose stylistic choices, both in fashion and, one presumes, in decorating, will continue to be driven more by practicality than whimsy.

Since her arrival into the national limelight, Obama has displayed a fondness for several labels, including Narciso Rodriguez, whose clothes she wore on January 18; Maria Pinto, Isabel Toledo, Thakoon and Zero + Maria Cornejo, whose purple coat she chose for Amtraking from Philadelphia to Washington.

More economical labels, such as J. Crew and Donna Riccot, show off Obama's high-low bravado while fostering not only a pragmatic image but sensitivity, too, Obama not wanting to appear frivolous in a dour economy.

Still, Obama's choices indicate that she clearly understands and enjoys working high-end designer duds, as evidenced by her two-part celebration of Rodriguez the weekend before the inauguration, when she donned a purple coat and dress for a morning ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and a shapely camel coat for the afternoon "We Are One" concert at the Lincoln Memorial, looking fabulous in both.

The mere fact that she changed at all, from one day look to another, offered her tacit acknowledgement of the power of the photo op. In addition, Obama's familiarity with the likes of non-majors Thakoon, Toledo and Cornejo, not to mention her choice of an Azzedine Alaia belt, suggests that she possesses a considerable fashion IQ.

Certainly Obama is the No. 1 dream client of American fashion designers. "I think Michelle has a great attitude about style," observed Tommy Hilfiger.

"I like the fact that she has a mind of her own. I like the fact that she puts her children, her husband and her country ahead of her own personal style. I don't think that she's obsessed with her looks." What's this? A hint of "room for improvement" between the lines?

"As the female representative of the United States," Hilfiger says, "she will need to evolve into a more solid position as it relates to fashion and style."

Not so, says Donna Karan. "She and (Barack Obama) are not being dressed from the outside," said Karan, getting to the essence of the matter. "They are being dressed from the inside." Nevertheless, whatever it is that keeps Michelle Obama clothed on the outside, Karan longs to do her part. "Who wouldn't?" she muses. "She's a woman of stature, a woman of grace."

Ditto fashion's most notorious aisle-crosser. Oscar de la Renta has learned that Obama has bought pieces of his clothing at Ikram, in Chicago, and would love to see her wear them. But he doesn't buy into the Jackie comparisons. "Mrs Obama is not the new Jackie Kennedy," he maintains. "Mrs Obama is Mrs Obama. She is a woman of the 21st century. Not only does she have great looks, she has great brains."

Letitia Baldrige, Kennedy's White House social secretary and chief of staff, concurs. "Jackie was born to be a hostess and a figure in society," she observes. "Michelle was born and raised to be an intellectual, a good lawyer, (to) strike out on her own. Jackie was absolutely fascinated with anything to do with fashion. It was first and foremost in her mind. Michelle doesn't have that same mad fascination."

One thing that hasn't changed since Jackie's day: The expectation that the First Lady wear all American, all the time (a mandate that Jackie learned to circumvent cleverly). Especially in this horrid economy, designers here see Obama as a fabulous ambassador with the power to telegraph the best of American fashion in all its cross-price point, functional-chic glory.

"I believe that she is representing the United States of America, and she has to represent the United States of America in every way," says Hilfiger, a sentiment echoed by his colleagues.

Of course, it all depends on perspective. "If I were Michelle Obama, I would probably stick to the American brands for now. But," Stella McCartney deadpanned, "I would open up to the half-American brands."


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