Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards Michelle Obama's Style

The first lady's mix of high-end and affordable fashions has won fans.
The first lady's mix of high-end and affordable fashions has won fans. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

NEW YORK, June 15 -- On the annual evening when the fashion industry celebrates its own -- and when Hollywood stars are forced to play only a supporting role -- the Council of Fashion Designers of America gave first lady Michelle Obama its Board of Directors award. The council honored her not merely for wearing clothes by American designers but also for selecting pieces by lesser-known talents, for discussing fashion in the same breath as the fine arts, for publicly expressing her delight in looking "pretty" -- and for doing it all on the international stage with accessible gusto.

For the American fashion industry, there has been no one quite like Obama. Given her unabashed enthusiasm for style at all price points, she has been Seventh Avenue's most prestigious patron. And even though the first lady did not attend Monday night's ceremony in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, that did not dull the enthusiasm of the designers who were celebrating her.

CFDA President Diane von Furstenberg presented the award, as well as accepted it in Obama's honor, after the first lady's designated representative, White House social secretary Desirée Rogers, had to cancel. (Rogers was unable to get to New York because of an afternoon White House jazz event for students.)

Von Furstenberg noted that the first lady "is beautiful. She is smart. She is a wife, a companion, an adviser, an ex-boss and a mother to her two girls. She is a role model."

The first lady sent a video in which she acknowledged the importance and influence of the fashion industry, as well as the educational and philanthropic work by the CFDA. Obama, whose wardrobe in the video was fashion neutral -- seen only from the waist up, she wore a plain white shirt and a double strand of pearls -- thanked the industry "for making fashion liberating, inspiring and, most of all, fun."

The last sitting first lady honored by the CFDA was Nancy Reagan, in 1988. But though the petite Reagan might have been known for her signature shade of red and her fondness for buying -- and borrowing -- high-end designs such as those by California-based James Galanos, she (unlike Obama) did not regularly dabble in mid-priced brands such as J. Crew, or mass-market ones such as the Gap.

Obama also represents a shift in the kind of woman who has the fashion industry breathless. She is a 45-year-old professional black woman who has an athletic physique. Despite the reality that it is women 40 and older who generally have the disposable income to spend on high-end fashion, designers have always been more enamored of teenagers and 20-something women as its icons, regularly lionizing starlets who are barely out of their prom-going years.

Designers also have had a well-publicized troubled history in terms of depicting diversity on their runways and in fashion advertising. Brown-skinned women have rarely been held up as fashion leaders whose style is worth emulating -- certainly not those who don't have a hit CD or film on their résumé. Indeed, it is still an event when a black woman appears on the cover of a major fashion glossy. Contradicting that long history, Obama's cover appearances have ranged from More to Essence and, finally, to Vogue.

And no small number of professional women -- those who can't wear miniskirts, harem pants or daytime sequins to their office -- have lamented being ignored. Few topics bore most designers faster than a conversation about making clothes for working women, at least for women who do not run Fortune 500 companies and travel by private jet.

One of the most recent women honored as a style icon by the CFDA was Sarah Jessica Parker. Although the actress has celebrated her 40th birthday and probably takes her share of meetings, the sinewy star isn't breaking any new ground when it comes to body types romanticized by the fashion industry.

Obama has given designers an opportunity to broaden their reach in a way that is both safe and familiar. The first lady evokes the kind of style philosophy that designers have long espoused. In her clothing choices, she speaks in the vernacular of Seventh Avenue. The first lady mixes high style with low. She personalizes frocks with accessories. She experiments with color and print. And dresses -- rather than the traditional skirt suit -- are her go-to power uniform.

For all the cajoling and haranguing that the fashion industry has engaged in over the past decade -- in trying to change the thinking of American women about what is modern and sophisticated and workable in their day-to-day reality -- there has never been a high-profile example of, or advocate for, how a sleeveless dress and no pantyhose might play in the boardroom.

Monday night's Board of Directors award in some ways served as vindication for the industry itself, as it has tried so hard to redefine the look of feminine power. The first lady looks as though she heard what fashion folks have been trying to say.

The 27 members of the CFDA's board present special awards at their discretion. Past recipients have included New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as such influential designers as Norma Kamali and Stephen Burrows, who have worked most of their careers outside of the spotlight.

The board includes Obama favorites such as designers Michael Kors and Narciso Rodriguez, as well as more veteran designers such as Oscar de la Renta. De la Renta was publicly bullied into a mea culpa TV appearance by the first lady's protective fans after he criticized her decision to wear a cardigan during a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II. The decision to honor Obama was "unanimous and immediate," says Steven Kolb, CFDA executive director.

Other award winners Monday night included the brands Calvin Klein and Band of Outsiders, which tied for best menswear design. Winners for rising talent were Alexander Wang, Tim Hamilton and Justin Giunta, and the design team of Proenza Schouler won for best accessories.

Womenswear designer of the year was Rodarte. Other special awards went to Edward Nardoza of Women's Wear Daily, GQ's Jim Moore and designers Marc Jacobs, Anna Sui and Ralph Lauren.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company