Robin Givhan: With Obama Girls in Public Eye, the Designer Matters

When the Obamas arrived in Russia this week, Sasha, left, and Malia were sporting J. Crew's children's line, Crewcuts.
When the Obamas arrived in Russia this week, Sasha, left, and Malia were sporting J. Crew's children's line, Crewcuts. (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)
By Robin Givhan
Thursday, July 9, 2009

ROME, July 8 The media have managed to work themselves into a tizzy because the clothing company J. Crew issued a press release in which it noted that Malia and Sasha Obama were wearing clothes bearing its label and that of its children's line, Crewcuts, when the first family arrived in Moscow on Monday.

The press release, which was sent electronically, included photos of the Obama sisters as they walked down the steps from Air Force One with their parents. Their father was making the first stop on an official trip that would also include Italy and Ghana. Those photos are part of a historical record. It seems fitting that history gets the details straight.

The release, issued after inquiries about the clothes, included a description of them and their cost, which seemed to strike some observers as expensive. Malia's trench coat was $298. Sasha's ballet flats were $108.

No one has ever pretended that J. Crew is a bargain-hunter's store. But it is a less expensive alternative to high-end designers, for adults and kids alike. After all, it's no Bonpoint, the Paris-based emporium for posh toddlers. And frankly, it seems reasonable that parents with the means might want to indulge in something extra special for their children to wear when they are going to be zipping around the globe in a whirl of presidential attention, with the Kremlin among the first stops.

The hoopla began when Politico reacted to the press release as though no design house had ever stepped up and taken credit for something that a famous person was wearing. These might be children, but fashion houses have been quick to claim credit for everything from Suri Cruise's party dresses to the onesies that the Octo-babies wore home from the hospital.

It's always a bit icky when children are thrust into the spotlight, and often it's just downright unseemly. But J. Crew's announcement doesn't seem out of bounds. It's never popular to defend a company, but this time J. Crew seemed to have acted reasonably. It did not commit a grave assault on the Obama girls' privacy.

If photographs of its products are all over wire services, newspapers and television -- and these were -- then the company should be allowed to step up and say, "Yes, we made that." It seems only fair.

It is not as though the photographs were taken surreptitiously with a long lens through a schoolhouse window. The girls were getting off Air Force One with their parents. It was an occasion that was not only open to the press, but a cameras-and-notepads contingent had been shuttled to the airport for the sole purpose of documenting the event.

The girls' grandmother, Marian Robinson, was also on the flight, but she exited by the rear steps and mostly avoided having her picture taken by the phalanx of cameras. The girls could have been told to deplane with their grandmother. That, at least, would have indicated that there was a desire for privacy. An attempt to avoid the spotlight. But anyone walking down the front jetway from Air Force One is pretty much saying: Look at me.

And what folks saw was a lovely family portrait. The same kind of portrait that they saw during the inauguration. Back then, J. Crew also issued a press release describing the clothes the girls were wearing. In January, people found the details about their specially made coats charming. This was another historical moment. There's nothing wrong with asking: Who made the coats? And the company shouldn't get a lot of grief if it decides to fess up.

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