The agony and ecstasy of creating inaugural gowns
By Robin Givhan,
Winning an inaugural gown commission is the fashion industry’s equivalent of hitting the lottery. Attracting global interest and awash in historical resonance, the first lady’s evening dress is patriotism and politics, hope and pride expressed in a few yards of silk and lace. The dress serves as a reflection of the times and a link to tradition — a symbol of both change and continuity. And for the rarefied designers who have had their work worn by a first lady — and then watched as their creation was installed in the National Museum of American History — the experience is both jolting and validating. For a single night, the eyes of the world bear witness to their talent. Oh the joy, the glory, the fame!
But again and again, in the months following that magical night of optimistic music and sweetly clumsy dancing, fashion’s highflying Icaruses have plummeted to earth, scorched by the white-hot light of celebrity and expectation. An overwhelmed business closes. Savings are lost. New collections go unseen. Fade to black. Curses!
“Designing the inaugural gown doesn’t guarantee anything but exposure,” says New York retail and brand consultant Robert Burke. “It doesn’t guarantee success.” At least not the household-name, big-brand, big-money kind.
For the past 20 years, the designers of the Smithsonian-destined inaugural gowns — only first-term dresses receive that honor — have been little-known men and one woman who had yet to be tested on the national stage. In the aftermath of the hoopla, they were dealt some bruising blows. Hillary Rodham Clinton turned to Sarah Phillips, a 37-year-old New York designer whose company was then only about three years old. After creating Clinton’s violet mousseline gown, Phillips went out of business. Laura Bush relied on her loyal Dallas-based dressmaker Michael Faircloth for her inaugural gown. Afterward, with the attention of the entire fashion industry on him, Faircloth crafted a ready-to-wear collection for the New York runway. But fate had different plans, and he never made it to the big city.
Designers who contributed one-of-a-kind day dresses and suits to the inaugural trousseau haven’t fared much better business-wise. Isabel Toledo, who created the lemongrass-yellow dress and coat Michelle Obama wore to her husband’s 2009 swearing-in, continues as an independent designer — but one still keeping close watch on how to make ends meet. Narciso Rodriguez is just now finding some financial footing after skidding close to bankruptcy even as his clothes were splashed on the front pages of newspapers around the globe. And Maria Pinto, who many fashion observers thought was a shoo-in for the inaugural gown because the Chicago-based designer had furnished Obama with a steady supply of boldly colored sheath dresses during the 2008 campaign, has since shuttered her business.
Wu: ‘I’m a dressmaker’
But then there is Jason Wu — the outlier. The one who beat the odds. He created Obama’s ethereal, ivory, silk gown with its dusting of Swarovski crystals.
Wu is a slight young man — born in Taiwan, raised in Vancouver and living in New York. With an oval face, peach-fuzz hair and a serious but genial mien, he was known among fashion editors and high-end retailers but had no profile outside that insular world. He wasn’t quite a fashion yearling, but close. He’d left Parsons TheNew School for Design in his senior year and had been in business for two years. He was 26 when Ikram Goldman, the owner of the eponymous Chicago boutique who was serving as the facilitator of the inaugural wardrobe, asked him to craft a special gown for a special client. Wu made the dress in his tiny New York workroom and flew with it to the Windy City.
He didn’t know Obama had chosen his gown until she stepped in front of the cameras at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball.
“I was being pulled every which way in a matter of seconds. The next morning I was sitting next to Meredith Vieira [on ‘Today’],” Wu recalls. “The toughest question I’d ever been asked was ‘What was your inspiration?’ I had no media training. Suddenly people expected me to have something to say. It was crazy.”
The experience was a lot like that for Phillips, and for Faircloth as well: the excitement, the interviews, the attention. But when it was all over, they didn’t have ready-to-wear, shoes and accessories being sold by Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. They were not expanding into new products, dressing celebrities and slowly solidifying a place in the popular consciousness. Only Wu has been able to make something out of the dizzy, fizzy froth of inauguration.
“Life hands you luck, but what you do with it is up to you,” Wu says. “At the end of the day, I’m a dressmaker. I never forgot that. That’s what kept me focused.”
But make no mistake; Wu is also a businessman.
“I always ran my company like a company. I wanted people to recognize my work and I wanted to sell clothes,” Wu says. “It’s such a silly and obvious thing, but so many designers with lots of press don’t sell clothes. My goal has always been to make exceptionally beautiful clothes that women want to own.”
Four years ago, Wu headed a five-person operation with about $1 million in sales. Now the privately held company has estimated sales of $15 million and a staff of 35, including a communications director who once served in a similar capacity for Chanel. Wu created a limited-edition collection for Target — and art-directed and starred in the advertisements for it. This month, he launched a secondary line, Miss Wu. (Obama wore a dress from the collection in October.) He even designs a line of high-end faucets for Brizio, which sponsors his runway shows as a way of connecting its brand to fashion’s contemporary aura of youth and glamour.
“Jason was a very quick study. He quickly realized there had to be a strategy to the growth of his business,” says Burke, a former Bergdorf Goodman executive, who informally advised Wu on such topics has how to price the collection. “He understood the dangers of over-promising and under-delivering. He understood the needs of retailers today.”
Wu has no outside investors; his company continues to be 100 percent self-financed. And although he has been tempted to take on partners whose cash injection would allow him to open his own stores, he has resisted, choosing slower growth and more control. “I’ve always grown based on whatever I can afford,” Wu says. “I know what I’m spending. It’s my money. It’s kept me quite realistic in what I can do.”
That philosophy will ultimately make his company more attractive to any future moneymen. “We advise a lot of investors, and the longer a young designer remains independent, the greater the value,” Burke says. “The longer they can last and be self-sustaining and continue to grow, the better.”
Wu also has an admirable aesthetic eye. If there is any distinguishing characteristic of Obama’s gown, it’s that it was the dress Wu wanted to make. Unlike his predecessors, he’d had no contact with his client. The idea had not been watered down, tweaked or compromised. It was a fanciful frock by a young man who had spent his adolescence enjoying a part-time career creating fancy clothes for collectible dolls. “Jason was well-represented by that dress,” Burke says. “Whether he had dressed Mrs. Obama or not, Jason would be successful.”
Phillips: ‘It can trip you up’
Sarah Phillips also studied at Parsons, and left before graduation to work at Ralph Lauren and Yves Saint Laurent before opening her own business. Clinton discovered her frocks at Barbara Jean Ltd., a small women’s boutique in Little Rock. The future first lady wore one of Phillips’s suits to the Democratic National Convention, and afterward a buyer from the store invited the designer to submit sketches for the inaugural gown. Phillips was a modernist with a sculptural sensibility. Her clothes tended to be free of fussy embellishments — austere in shape but aglow with lively colors. “I didn’t really do evening gowns,” Phillips recalls. “I was thinking of what she would like and I made some suggestions. Some of the cleaner designs I had, she didn’t want.” Ultimately, Phillips created a dress that was wholly outside her aesthetic vernacular.
But no matter, it was for the inauguration. And once Clinton stepped into the spotlight, Phillips was thrust there, too.
“All the press took me away from the business. It completely blindsided me,” she says. “It got in the way of my business. People were asking me, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to write a book?’ No, I just wanted to design.
“It was like I was mid-stride and this was thrown at me,” she says. “It can trip you up.”
Within months of the inauguration, Phillips’s business was in trouble. She had heightened interest in her work from retailers but no money to take advantage of the opportunities. Stores do not pay designers in advance for their wares; designers must bear the cost of producing a collection and wait to be paid.
Phillips searched for financing, but in the early 1990s, the fashion industry was mostly a collection of mom-and-pop companies. It had not evolved into an industry of publicly traded lifestyle brands that could reap riches for investors. There were no opportunities with mass merchants such as Target and H&M to create a one-time collection for a tidy paycheck. The Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue hadn’t gotten together to establish the Fashion Fund, which offers financial support and business mentoring to young designers. Phillips never found the influx of cash.
Her company closed not long after her famous gown was installed in the Smithsonian. She was there for the ceremony but has not been back since.
A cloud of disappointment, a son struggling in school and the death of her father took her away from the fashion industry. A garrulous, tawny-haired woman, Phillips lives in Connecticut with her husband, an artist. Two decades later, she’s relaunching her brand. She has a Web site and a publicist. And she’s planning to focus mostly on private clients. “It took me 20 years to figure it out,” Phillips says. Creating the inaugural gown “was bittersweet. It was wonderful in many respects. And it was really difficult.” And if she had it to do all over again, she is not quite sure that she would.
Faircloth: ‘I lost all the money’
There was little doubt about who would create Laura Bush’s first inaugural gown. She had long been a client of Dallas designer Faircloth, and when the messy 2000 election was finally settled, she told him to get to work. At the time, Faircloth was set up at the Lily Dodson boutique — known for its bold fashions and its cameo in the Richard Gere film “Dr. T and the Women.” In the days before the inauguration, Faircloth spoke easily about Bush’s personal style and how he would try to broker a compromise between her desires, the public’s expectations and his instincts as a designer. “I’m taking into consideration the likes and dislikes of the American people, because she represents the American people,” Faircloth said in 2001. “I have to compromise. It’s half my dress and half Mrs. Bush’s dress.” The result was a scoop-neck, floor-length dress in red Chantilly lace.
Faircloth, a dark-haired, square-jawed native Texan, expected that the inaugural commission would fuel a transformation of his local, private-client business into a national company. After all, he was attracting new customers from as far away as Switzerland and Germany. He separated from Lily Dodson and opened his own studio. He had a heightened swagger. Creating the inaugural gown “gives a little more confidence to a designer,” he says now. “It gave me a sense that what I did was good and is good.”
He decided to invest his money — thousands of dollars — in a ready-to-wear collection. He produced samples, loaded them into trunks and boarded a New York-bound plane for fashion week in Bryant Park. It was Sept. 11, 2001. “We landed in North Carolina,” he recalls. “We had to drive back to Dallas. I lost all the money.”
Faircloth has since made peace with New York’s catwalk. He had other opportunities to expand, he says, “but I had to trust my gut and make slow progress. I didn’t want to venture too far away from what I knew.”
After 29 years in business, he now designs for the daughters and granddaughters of his original clients. And he continues to work with Bush.
Was Wu a smarter businessman and a more dazzling designer than his predecessors? Perhaps. Was he lucky to have dressed a historic first lady whose fashion sense captured the public imagination? Absolutely. But the culture surrounding fashion has changed, too — particularly for young designers.
In 2000, Tim Gunn — now the “Project Runway” mentor — arrived at Parsons to run its fashion program. The curriculum had not been updated much since the 1950s, when Parsons was “educating designers to be assistants to great brands or work behind a titular designer head,” Gunn says. “But that wasn’t how the industry worked anymore.” Under his guidance, the program began to focus on educating “young, entrepreneurial-thinking designers.” Among the first of that lot were Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough, whose senior collection in 2002 was bought by Barneys New York, and their Proenza Schouler brand was launched.
“It was a turning point for the way the industry perceived young designers,” Gunn says.
Indeed, the fashion industry — and its attendant groupies — now sees young designers as lucrative investment opportunities. The higher their public profile, the faster they are propped up, supported and dubbed successful. And there are endless opportunities for raising their profile, from “Project Runway” to Twitter.
“I think it’s a good time to be a young designer. The difficult part is you have all that support, but people have expectations that are sometime unrealistic,” Wu says. “You’re expected to make an impact, open stores and do four collections a year. You’re expected to do what it took others before you 15 or 20 years to accomplish. In that way, it’s not good. It’s a double-edged sword.”
Audiences come to Wu’s shows expecting to see a fully formed designer. When he presented his fall 2012 collection in New York, his backstage had all the telltale signs of the establishment: a flock of the most sought-after, birdlike models with their hair slicked into impeccable ponytails, editors trolling for snippets of quotable fashion chatter, a CNN crew awaiting the designer’s attention.
Wu’s sensibility has moved away from the spun sugar of the inaugural gown. The fall collection was a deeply personal one. He’d gone back to Taiwan with his father for the first time in a decade and created a collection imbued with traditional Chinese imagery, Hollywood glamour and Wu’s own understanding of his multicultural heritage. “I feel like it’s my aesthetic but channeled through this personal biography,” he said after the presentation.
For spring, his aesthetic has taken yet another turn — going dark and aggressive. “As I’ve matured as a designer, the ladylike clothes have met with a little subversion. They’re a little sexier,” says Wu, 30. “Four years ago, my collection was inspired by fairy tales. For spring, it was inspired by Helmut Newton.” Which could serve as the starting point for an especially interesting second-term inaugural gown.