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.