Michelle Obama is fashion icon with an affordable, accessible style

The first lady of fashion mixes designer pieces with ready-to-wear, buys American and puts emphasis on color, form and fun

  • Michelle Obama's signature style includes embracing colors and the right to bare arms.
Michelle Obama's signature style includes embracing… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
January 17, 2013|By John-John Williams IV, The Baltimore Sun

Her affinity for sleeveless frocks has caused a buying frenzy and inspired people to turn to workouts for toning their arms. She has become a highly coveted canvas for fashion designers and retailers. She steals the scene in pointed-toe flats, colored cardigans, brooches, and fit and flared dresses. First lady Michelle Obama's sense of style has captured fashion followers, and in the process made ensemble-gazing a national pastime.

A regular fixture on best-dressed lists from Vogue magazine and observers such as Tim Gunn, Obama continues to make her mark. Her consciousness of the country's economic woes has made her sense of style easy for the masses to mimic. Getting her look is affordable and accessible — even her hairstylist, Johnny Wright, takes appointments from those lacking celebrity status.

"Michelle Obama's style is approachable and appropriate for every occasion, time and time again," said Alexis Bryan Morgan, executive fashion director for Lucky magazine. "Her style is completely ladylike — reminiscent of Jackie O's. Often seen wearing classic cardigans and pearls, Mrs. Obama's style reflects an updated, modern approach to how a first lady dresses. She wears feminine floral prints in bright colors and in updated silhouettes and fabrics. You won't find her wearing stuffy tweeds or unflattering boxy cuts. She is a style pioneer and clearly has fun with fashion."

Obama was even the focus of a 2011 book by fashion guru Mikki Taylor: "Commander In Chic: Every Woman's Guide to Managing Her Style Like a First Lady."

This past year, Obama's fashion influence was particularly strong, perhaps nowhere more so than here in Maryland, a pebble's throw away from her Washington stamping grounds.

She repeatedly wore eye-catching brooches in 2012, which led women to dig out heirloom pieces from their jewelry boxes.

Her crowning touch was the dress she wore for her speech in September at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. The fit and flared floral jacquard print dress — sleeveless, of course — was custom-made by American designer Tracy Reese. The unveiling of the frock, which she paired with pink J. Crew pumps and a shade of gray nail polish that instantly became a trend, occurred days before Reese's spring collection debuted at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York. A ticket to Reese's show was one of the most sought-after during the event. Many attribute that to Obama.

"I would love to dress her," said Christian Siriano, the "Project Runway" wunderkind, days after Obama's DNC speech. "She has such great style."

And Siriano knows what an Obama endorsement can do for a designer.

Because of its widespread appeal, a version of the dress Obama wore in Charlotte was made by Reese for stores. Jones & Jones, a women's boutique in Cross Keys, now sells the dress for $435.

"We picked the dress because it is a flattering style on most body shapes," said Karen Ciurca-Weiner, the manager and buyer for Jones & Jones. "The dress is fitted at the top and A-line at the bottom. It is sleeveless, but you can wear a cardigan with it in a variety of colors."

Ciurca-Weiner thinks the dress is a winner because it is "colorful" and "age-appropriate for a wide range of women."

She added: "You can dress it up or down, which always increases the value of a garment. After Michelle wore the dress, we received lots of phone calls looking for the dress. Mrs. Obama has a look that most women can relate to — classic with an updated twist. She wears clothes that can take her many places, which gives her the opportunity to wear it a lot, and mix and match. We will make sure we carry the pieces she wears when possible because she is a trend-setter in our area for sure."

Up-and-coming designer Jason Wu became a household name after Obama wore his designs at several events — most memorably a one-shoulder white chiffon gown at the 2009 inaugural balls. Wu followed up his work with the first lady with a successful collection at Target.

Latease T. Lashley, founder of Creatively Speaking, a Baltimore-based public speaking company specializing in fashion commentary, believes that no other first lady — including Jacqueline Kennedy — has had the impact on fashion that Obama has.

"Some of their style choices are similar, but Michelle pushes the envelope a little more with more bold color mixtures, accessories and price points," Lashley said. "Granted, Jacqueline Kennedy wore sleeveless dresses often, but she never got the press that Michelle has gotten for her buffed and bare arms."

Lashley believes that Obama helps to "boost the economy" as a trend-setter.

"When [she] wears a J. Crew cardigan or White House Black Market dress, it literally sells out the next day," she said. "No other first lady has had this effect on fashion, ever."

Lashley also thinks that Obama has helped change perceptions that society has had about women — black women, in particular.

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