Robin Givhan Names Winner in Inaugural-Gown Design Challenge

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2009

A significant number of readers who participated in our online design-an-inaugural-gown challenge appeared to be under the impression that the 44-year-old, physically fit lawyer who will soon be first lady would like to look like a 70-something mother-of-the-bride on Jan. 20. They showed little interest in sketching something that might appeal to Michelle Obama's youthful personal aesthetics, characterized by body-skimming silhouettes, bare arms, strong colors and lively prints. An awful lot of people expressed a fierce determination to shroud her in a caftan. "Modest" and "appropriate" were confused with dowdy and frumpy.

Last month, readers were invited to upload their vision for the gown that has fashion connoisseurs hyperventilating with anticipation. There were almost 200 suggestions ranging from the staid to the va-va-voom. And the selection of the winning design was wholly up to me. Such absolute power was both daunting and, yes, strangely invigorating.

Some people seemed consumed by the belief that the first lady should be a bravura expression of patriotism and propriety. So they decked out Obama in so much red, white and blue that she might as well have been Wonder Woman. And while I was amused by one dress that seemed to have clouds silk-screened onto its blue background, I cannot condone it.

The most dramatic designs came from folks who let their excitement over a younger, more fashion-conscious and statuesque first lady overwhelm their better judgment. Feathers, people? Come on, now. Many of the illustrations in this category seemed meant for Diana Ross circa the "Mahogany" era. Admittedly it's hard not to have a soft spot for a movie filled with '70s fashion fabulousness and pop culture bons mots such as "Show me fear!" And Billy Dee Williams was a community organizer . . . sort of. And the film does take place in Chicago. But I digress.

Mrs. Obama is not Miss Ross. She does not need a dress that calls to mind a showgirl.

What she needs is a dress that speaks to her personality, that exemplifies the magnitude of the occasion and that in some magical way exudes optimism, democracy and elegance. And most of all, it should be pretty.

The winner of the design-an-inaugural-gown competition was a sleeveless, forest green dress with a criss-crossing bodice and flowing skirt. It was accompanied by a dove gray, floor-length cape. The silhouette flatters a curvy figure, and the style is both youthful and grand. (The pointy-hips are just an artist's flourish, by the way, and not some strange architectural peplum.) But mostly, it was the color that made me applaud. The deep green resonated in the sea of red, blue and white dresses. It's a rich, sophisticated tone that photographs well, stands out from a distance and speaks to what is publicly known about the future first lady's taste.

The dress was created by Katie Ermilio, who grew up just outside of Philadelphia where her family owns a tailored clothing business founded in 1904. Ermilio, 23, majored in journalism at New York University and planned to become a fashion editor. Designing, she said, "was a hobby." She interned at Women's Wear Daily and Vogue and until recently worked at Teen Vogue. But then she had a red carpet moment. A Los Angeles stylist put Julianne Hough of "Dancing With the Stars" fame in one of Ermilio's dresses for last year's Academy of Country Music Awards. The fledging designer quit her job at Teen Vogue in September to launch her own clothing line with the help of her family.

Several other gowns stood out and so I offer three honorable mentions. Of all of the goddess gowns in patriotic hues, Leah Benjamin's lapis blue one that kept things simple was a favorite. A spare ivory dress with a sweet vine pattern in a cheerful shade of yellow also caught my eye. The naive dress by Rachel Joyner was one of the few with a print that was feminine and dainty.

And finally, I could not resist the graphic boldness of a black-and-white cap-sleeve dress from Kathy Justice. The woodblock-style print is reminiscent of a Spirograph pattern. It is a daring look with a lot of personality -- the sort of dress that people either love or hate. But Jan. 20 is a day for coming together. No one wants to spend time arguing about a dress.

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