Laura Bush finds her fashion footing

First lady confidently steps into couture events


February 05, 2005|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - True to her slow-but-sure style evolution, Laura Bush took in a runway show at fashion week here yesterday, a first for the wife of a sitting president (even if her view did lack the typical fashion week fare of visible thongs and brazen bralessness).

The first lady sat in the front row of the Red Dress Collection, a benefit intended to raise awareness about heart disease among women, and applauded steadily as a roster of tastefully clad celebrity models teetered before her. Next to Bush sat Carolina Herrera, who created the red velvet jacket and slim skirt the first lady wore yesterday, and near Oscar de la Renta, who created her ballgown for last month's inauguration.

True, during the 20-minute show, Bush was far from a style maven - the shoe she tapped to the technopop was taupe and librarian-like - but she still stepped further into the fashion world this year than last. In 2004, she visited the fashion week tents in Bryant Park for a press event with de la Renta, again to promote women's heart health, but never set foot inside an actual show.

Perhaps she stayed away then for a reason: Yesterday's meeting of the fashionistas and the feds didn't always go so well. As the lights went down, photographers barked at the Secret Service agents for blocking their shots.

"Down! Down!" a bunch of them yelled at one agent. "Sir," a more polite runway shooter said, "you just ruined the shot." The agent tried to ignore them, and did for a few seconds, but by the first model had backed discreetly out of the frame.

When the spotlights came up, actress Phylicia Rashad started the show, the former Cosby star marching down the catwalk with a diamond bindi on her forehead, swathed in a bright red spangled sheath by South Asian designer Alia Khan.

Big cheers went up for American Idol judge Paula Abdul, (ditching her worst-dressed-list outfits for a tasteful Esteban Cortazar), Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson in Ralph Lauren (who earlier admitted to feeling "terrified" by the catwalk) and singer Sheryl Crow in Narcisco Rodriguez (her arm muscles almost rivaling those of beau Lance Armstrong's).

The breezy event lacked the scowling austerity of some fashion shows - Crow tripped a bit over her dress, recovered and then laughed - and several celebrities waved and smiled or mouthed "hello" in the first lady's direction. One exception: Lauren Bush, a Tommy Hilfiger model who played it professional and did not look toward her aunt, the first lady.

The 26 celebrity models were promoting "National Wear Red Day" sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, an arm of the federal government's National Institutes of Health. For the show, top-flight designers donated frocks that were all unified by color, a red palette ranging from deep and dark to bright and ... arterial?

Earlier yesterday, the first lady furthered a campaign to educate women about heart disease, the No. 1 killer of American women, at a news conference sponsored by the fashion show's organizers. She noted that this year nearly a half million women will die of cardiovascular disease - about 60,000 more women than men - and urged women not to smoke and to exercise and eat healthy foods.

"I used to resolve to lose weight every New Year's, but now my resolution is to get and stay healthy," Bush said. "And it's not as simple as it seems, especially when you have a pastry chef whose idea of a light dessert is four layers of chocolate instead of six."

Just as former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton drew praise for a greater fashion sense during her second term, Laura Bush is turning more fashion-forward. Over the last couple years, the first lady has lost about 20 pounds. The self-described former smoker works out with a trainer and lifts weights three days a week. Her short hair is less stolid than when she arrived in the White House, with a sleeker cut and lighter highlights in front, and she has ditched boxy dresses for slightly more form-fitting suits and frocks.

The look won praise from the Duchess of York, who before the fashion show called Bush a "real first lady" and a "great mum." Ferguson said the Bush twins - whose past bar-hopping has made the tabloids - have fans in her princess daughters, now 16 and 14. "They're looking up to Mrs. Bush's children as role models," she said, "and I think that's quite sweet."

As the show ended, the hundreds of runway gawkers sweated under the tent, smashing into each other. But the first lady was already back in her waiting car, whisked from the main exhibition space, where next season's handbags were framed in display cases. In a crowded fashion tent, it seems, the Secret Service made an even better accessory.

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