Obama seems to have settled comfortably into her pop-culture status as a fashion icon, having boldly indulged in such who-the-heck-are-they designers as Thom Browne and Bibhu Mohapatra. With the aid of celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz and a village of stylists led by Vogue fashion editor Tonne Goodman, there was a near guarantee of a flattering image for the historical record. Vogue magazine boasts a circulation of some 1.2 million readers. It is not the political press.
And Anna Wintour, the magazine’s influential editor, was one of President Obama’s most tireless fundraisers during the last campaign.
The White House says Michelle Obama was merely following in the footsteps of other first ladies who interviewed with the magazine and continuing her own tradition of speaking to media outlets, whether it’s the AARP magazine or “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”
Vogue “is such a fascinating institution,” says Jonathan Van Meter, who wrote the accompanying story, for which he interviewed both the first lady and the president. “It’s always had this strain of politics in it. But Vogue likes to like people. And I like to like people when I write about them. There’s a certain comfort level with the environment. And there’s something very ceremonious about Vogue and a Vogue shoot.”
Van Meter, who says he began angling for the interview more than three years ago, sat down with the first couple for 40 minutes in January, during which they discussed parenting, staying grounded, constituent impatience, political urgency and, of course, style: his lack of it, the attention paid to hers.
“If you’re comfortable in your clothes it’s easy to connect with people and make them feel comfortable as well,” the first lady told Van Meter.
Michelle Obama’s debut appearance on the Vogue cover in March 2009 was indeed an East Wing rite of passage going back at least to Mamie Eisenhower. Being photographed for the magazine is one of the few remaining bipartisan gestures. For that portrait, she sat curled on a sofa with her long, toned arms lightly wrapped one over the other in a protective gesture.
The April 2013 cover shows her in a more open, more assertive stance. She leans against a table and looks directly into the camera’s lens with her bare arms — still lean, perhaps a bit more toned — resting at her side. She’s wardrobed from her own closet in a Reed Krakoff sheath in cerulean blue with a flourish of purple at the neckline. She wears the same look in the photograph inside with the president, who’s dressed in a pinstriped shirt and a blue — but not matchy-matchy — tie.
Finally, another photograph captures her in a traditional, pensive White House pose, in profile wearing a black slim-fitting Michael Kors sweater and ball skirt. It’s a look that harks back to the sporty elegance favored by Vogue favorites such as socialites C.Z. Guest and Babe Paley. It firmly places Obama in the world of “classic” beauties — a place that had once been off-limits to women of color.