At the White House, a new shopper in chief

February 22, 2011

On Tuesday night last week, Ikram Goldman, the celebrated stylist of Michelle Obama, took her front-row seat at the Lincoln Center runway show of one of the first lady's preferred designers, Narciso Rodriguez.

Wearing black and a beaded headband, Goldman, 43, cheerily accepted double-cheek Fashion Week salutations, posed for a few pictures and gabbed with Linda Fargo, fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman. The music began to thump, and the acclaimed stylist went to work, eyeballing each geometric print that sailed down the catwalk.

Having Michelle Obama as a mega-client earned Goldman this spotlight, but according to several people with knowledge of her White House arrangement, she is no longer the shopper in chief.

That coveted role is now played by Goldman's former protegee and current White House employee, Meredith Koop. The ascent of the 29-year-old personal assistant has caught the imagination of Fashion Week gossips, East Wing obsessives and "All About Eve" fans for weeks. A former Vanderbilt University sorority sister, Koop learned fashion gospel at the altar of Ikram, Goldman's eponymous Chicago boutique. Two years ago, when Michelle Obama left for Washington, Goldman dispatched Koop as an emissary, attending to the first lady's dressing needs inside the family residence. Koop has taken full advantage of proximity to power. Her portfolio has expanded, at the expense of her mentor. This season Koop is in, and Goldman is out.

"Ms. Koop's responsibilities include advising the first lady on her wardrobe and acting on her behalf in arranging for purchases, including considering the best offered price and buying on discount if discounts are available," said Kristina Schake, a spokeswoman for Michelle Obama. She added that Koop's role inside the White House residence required that she "appropriately" decline to "give press interviews or otherwise interact with the media."

Goldman, who is widely seen as loyal to Obama and discreet about their relationship, also declined several requests for comment.

Koop has aggressively courted emerging designers and set up a system in which they send clothes on spec directly to the White House, a departure from the previous arrangement under Goldman, who handled sales through her store. And according to several people with knowledge of the dynamic between Goldman, a zaftig brunette originally from Israel, and Koop, a tall and lanky blonde born in Missouri, their distance is more than geographic.

"They were a team," said one intimate, who requested anonymity to discuss how the business partnership between Koop and Goldman fell apart. The rift and the resulting confusion about who watched over the wardrobe of a worldwide fashion icon was "unfortunate."

For months, the split remained confined to the private dressing rooms of the White House. Then a floor-length flame of a red dress entered the picture.

For the Jan. 19 state dinner in honor of Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama chose a boldly patterned gown made by the fashion house of late British designer Alexander McQueen. In the subsequent days, a drumbeat of sartorial jingoism mounted in Women's Wear Daily, the trade chronicle of the fashion universe. Oscar de la Renta, who had dressed Republican and Democratic first ladies alike before Obama, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, led by Diane von Furstenberg, rebuked the first lady for wearing a foreign label at the highest-profile Pennsylvania Avenue event of the year.

In the state dinner postmortems, Goldman, who'd enjoyed profiles and headlines for previous fashion triumphs with the first lady, appeared blameless.

On Jan. 28, Cathy Horyn of the New York Times dropped a parenthetical into a blog post about the McQueen dress that read, "(for what it's worth, I hear that Ikram Goldman, the Chicago retailer, is no longer directly involved with Mrs. Obama's wardrobe, since December)."

On Feb. 3, Robin Givhan reported in the Daily Beast that Goldman's priority had shifted to the expansion of her Chicago store, which would include more square footage and a cafe. Givhan reported that since the end of the summer, the role of cultivating "New York designers for a first lady whose wardrobe needs are relentless" had fallen to Koop. (Koop's previous visibility was limited to a mention in a short April 2010 Politico.com piece as Obama's "secret style weapon.")

A week after the Daily Beast post, Obama told a roundtable of reporters that "nothing has changed since I've been here," regarding her fashion advisers. "I've always bought clothes from Ikram. And to the extent that - I mean, it's really nothing has kind of changed. It's kind of interesting where these stories come from, that sort of thing. I didn't do anything different. I didn't."

The Feb. 20 Sunday Styles section of the New York Times referred to Goldman as "the gatekeeper between the fashion industry and Michelle Obama."

Salon support

The murkiness is a result of the first lady, Goldman and Koop all keeping mum about the personal aide's new powers. This may well be a textbook case of only her hairdresser knows for sure.

Vera Chamberlin, Koop's hair colorist and friend at the D.C. salon Immortal Beloved, was under the strong impression that Koop was in charge.

In a phone interview, Chamberlin said she had never heard of Goldman and recalled that Koop had recently sat in her chair and lamented about her inability to attend all the fashion show events she might have liked because she needed to "focus on what is right for the first lady."

Koop, she said, was "absolutely" always on the lookout for Obama outfits, was "incredibly busy" and once nearly jumped out of her salon seat to call a store about procuring a particular garment. She relayed how Koop talked excitedly about deciding which hats Obama and her daughters should wear to the Kentucky Derby, and which dresses they should don to meet Queen Elizabeth II. ("That's what blows my mind," Chamberlin said. "She has such a broad range of understanding fashion in different cultures.")

Chamberlin said she asked Koop how she gets the clothes for Obama. According to the hairdresser, Koop explained that she did a lot of comparison shopping for lower costs, but also acknowledged that "People do offer a lot of stuff."

The White House would not comment on the system by which the first lady received and paid for her designer clothes, or whether the administration's attorneys had signed off on the practice. Instead, Schake, the first lady's spokeswoman, offered this response by e-mail:

"From the beginning of the Administration, Ms. Koop has served Mrs. Obama as her personal aide, a well established staff position through which First Ladies are supported in managing the Residence and the needs of the First Family."

Closet information

According to several intimates and designers familiar with the procedure, Obama pays out of her own pocket for the clothes she wears. But little else is known. Does she receive discounts for the clothes she buys? And how often do the payments go directly to the designer or through a retailer?

History has shown that accepting free skirts and shirts, suits and gowns directly from designers is not the best idea for a first lady. Nancy Reagan, in the beginning of her husband's first term, came under severe criticism for accepting clothes without charge from fashion designers. She called them loans and countered that she was simply helping designers by acting as a human billboard.

Goldman's exclusive arrangement did not provide much in the way of transparency about each sale, but according to people familiar with the process, using a shopkeeper such as Goldman suggested that there'd be no freebies because a profit-minded entrepreneur was overseeing the sales.

According to people familiar with the process, Goldman would cultivate designers and commission custom-made clothes for the first lady, all of which would be delivered to the Gold Coast boutique. As a trusted and obviously valuable client to the retailer, who had frequented Ikram years before her husband became a presidential candidate, Obama would pay less than ticket price, which became standard operating procedure. People with knowledge of the arrangement said Obama did not receive free clothes or pay less than "cost," which is the amount of money required to make the clothes. She paid enough for both the retailer and the designer to make some profit.

As Obama has insisted, and as Goldman's attentiveness to the Rodriguez collection suggests, the Chicago fashion arbiter is not out of the equation. Goldman still has strong relationships with Obama's favorite designers, such as Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo. In an e-mail, Toledo wrote that "Ikram continues to buy my collections as she always has."

But it is also clear, either by Goldman's design or by Koop's hand, that the shopkeeper made famous for shaping the first lady's look has less of a role in the process. And Koop is seizing the moment.

Robert Beard, a painter and partner of the designer Bibhu Mohapatra, who showed his collection in New York last week, described Koop as a "lovely person" who has aggressively sought out new names. "Meredith has made a huge effort to be plugged in as possible to young designers so that she can be as helpful as possible," said Beard, adding that he considered Koop the primary gatekeeper to Obama for many designers, "because she is on-site. She travels with her."

Mohapatra, a ball gown designer who last year told the Telegraph in India that he'd rather dress Obama than Lady Gaga, is one of those talented young designers whom Koop has cultivated. According to Beard, the White House is in contact with Mohapatra and has received "a few pieces of his."

Asked what the system was by which Obama paid for the garments, Beard said, "If she wears something, she buys it," and added carefully that "we send things down on approval. If she doesn't wear it, it gets sent back."

Another of Obama's favorite designers, mindful of the boon the first lady represents for their businesses, shied away from discussing business transactions. Rachel Roy, a New York designer whose clothes Obama has worn multiple times, said that "the first time that she wore us, she was kind enough to choose us off the rack." The "generous gesture," she said, provided "a boost" to her small business. Roy said she had developed a relationship with the White House and had custom-made pieces for Obama.

Asked whether Goldman had arranged those deals, Roy noted that the boutique Ikram did not carry her line. Asked whether Koop had arranged the deals, Roy clammed up.

"I think that, out of privacy for the first lady and the family, I would prefer not to say who I deal with," she said, adding only that she worked closely with the White House. When told that the White House had identified Koop as the first lady's adviser in wardrobe matters, Roy still declined to comment. When asked how she received payment for the couture items prepared for the first lady, the designer said, "That's not something that I want to talk about" and deferred to her publicist on the line. "Elise?!" she said.

A quick study

As familiar a face as Koop may be to the first family, she is something of a mystery around the White House.

Obama administration officials listed as friends on her Facebook page either declined to comment or said they didn't know her very well. Cody Keenan, a presidential speechwriter who was on the Air Force One flight with Koop to Copenhagen and Tucson, compared her to an East Wing version of Reggie Love, President Obama's personal aide, and said she was "really sweet," appropriately well put together and easy to get along with. (After press inquiries about her role, Koop took down her Facebook page last week.)

According to Chamberlin, the hairstylist, Koop has a talent for understanding high fashion but also how it applies to the "common woman" and "how to dress for your shape." She is a down-to-earth workaholic, who currently sports a style that Chamberlin described as "New York edge but also Midwestern comfort." When not keeping long hours at the White House, Koop kicks back with friends, especially Johnny Wright, Michelle Obama's hairstylist, at U Street Music Hall or nearby restaurant Marvin.

Koop graduated from Vanderbilt in 2003 with a degree in psychology and was popular among her peers.

She was "a ton of fun" at parties and "never had the need to conform to the Vandy Southern girl persona," said Abby Doll, a footwear buyer and designer in Salt Lake City who was a Kappa Delta sorority sister of Koop at Vanderbilt. According to Doll, Koop was noticeable for her tall, thin build and her model-like good looks. "Pretty, but not conventionally pretty," Doll said. "Maybe not mainstream stylish - she had her own style."

After college, Koop's interest in fashion took her to Chicago. She eventually found work at Ikram, which opened in 2001 and soon overtook Ultimo, another high-end boutique run by Goldman's own mentor, the late Joan Weinstein, as the go-to destination for Chicago's stylish and powerful women, including Michelle Obama's intimates, Desiree Rogers and Valerie Jarrett.

Goldman acted as Obama's personal stylist throughout the presidential campaign, and after the election Goldman recommended Koop as the on-site wardrobe manager in the White House residence, according to several people with knowledge of the arrangement. Koop quickly won Obama's trust, and White House aides, seeking to offer a rudimentary political education for the first lady's dresser, instructed her to read press clippings to understand the media microscope under which her boss lived.

Apparently, Koop was a quick study.

Back in Lincoln Center at Fashion Week, Goldman, wearing red lipstick, sparkling headband, camouflage scarf and a necklace that seemed strung with the green eyes of "Jurassic Park" dinosaurs, participated in a brief Q & A from the American Express skybox.

When the moderator asked about her fashion philosophy, she said she was blessed to be a part of the industry and happy to be able to "bring it back to my city and give it back to a lot of people who can't be here, right?"

The words "Michelle Obama" did not once come up in the interview, and the moderator concluded by asking Goldman to share her one fashion secret:

"I believe you have to be comfortable in your own skin," she said.

Staff writer Sarah Kaufman in New York contributed to this article.

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