When Michelle Obama disembarks a jet, almost instantly, style watchers begin searching for the designer behind her kitten heels, her embellished belt buckle or the colorful print sheath she’s wearing that moment. Encyclopedic look books compiled by New York Magazine or blogs like Mrs. O. track the workings of the first lady’s closet as though it were the Department of Homeland Couturity.
When that jet lands on foreign soil though, Obama’s sartorial choices are carefully crafted, a mix of her favorite designers—Naeem Khan, Rachel Roy, Narciso Rodriguez—and those that represent the heritage of the country that she’s visiting. Such attention to national pride is a shift for Obama, a sort of style diplomacy that she didn’t practice in the early J. Crew days of her husband’s presidency. These discreet nods to up-and-coming international unknowns have become more apparent with each tour she takes.
In Africa, Obama has already showcased three pieces with ties to the continent. On Thursday, at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, Obama wore a geometric print top by Nigerian-born designer Duro Olowu. When she touched down in Pretoria, South Africa, she wore a black and orange print blazer by the same designer with black slacks. The outfit seemed dated and strayed from Obama’s typical silhouette, but it served its diplomatic purpose. In Johannesburg, she continued to don unfamiliar designers, wearing a sleeveless print top by ASOS Africa, a fair-trade company that donates some of its proceeds to underprivileged communities.
Her style diplomacy was also visible in London, where Obama supported the Anglo-American alliance by blending her favorite British names with American labels. She aptly chose American designer Tom Ford, who is based in London, for a state dinner at Buckingham Palace, acknowledging the symbolic (and literal) ties that bind British and American men alike.
During a visit to Latin America in March, Obama wore a chartreuse blouse and white slacks by Chilean-born designer Maria Cornejo during a visit to Santiago. Even Obama’s biggest style faux pas involved a silent signal to China when she wore a scarlet silk Alexander McQueen ball gown to a state dinner honoring President Hu Jintao. American designers criticized her choice, but the color was an obvious nod to the hue that symbolizes good fortune and national pride in Chinese culture.
Her newfound diplomatic dressing suggests that Obama’s sartorial tastes are, perhaps, becoming a small part of her broader work as a cultural ambassador. Is she now using fashion as a platform for a larger message? Is her changing wardrobe the work of a skilled sartorial adviser?
Obama’s taste has evolved since her husband entered office, and her wardrobe has become higher-end since the White House acknowledged Meredith Koop, 29, to be Obama’s style adviser. Obama is now wearing Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, Prabal Gurung and even Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s The Row, a label so exclusive and avant-garde it’s only sold at one boutique in Washington. The Post’s Jason Horowitz noted that Koop is broadening Obama’s style horizons to include up-and-comers, but it’s possible that Koop is also steering Obama towards fashions and designers that make silent diplomatic statements. It appears Obama’s closet is becoming more than just a symbol of taste.