Robin Givhan on Michelle Obama's love for clothes from Italian brand Moschino

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

MILAN -- The design team at Moschino, led by Rossella Jardini, didn't even realize that Michelle Obama was wearing one of the company's ensembles the first few times it happened. She'd selected a chartreuse suit for a campaign rally in Iowa. But she'd cinched the belt, which had been sold with the collarless, hip-length jacket, in a pleasingly eccentric manner. It was tied in a bow and then adorned with an abstract brooch that looked vaguely Native American. Later, at the Democratic National Convention, she wore the jacket with black trousers. And without a belt. The result was to render the suit virtually unrecognizable to its own designer. Not that that was a bad thing.

Yet even more surprising than Obama's personalized styling of the suit was the choice itself. Moschino is an Italian brand -- based in Milan, manufactured in Italy and with 54 percent of its sales in Europe, compared with only 10 percent in the United States. (Dresses, for instance, are priced between $895 and upward of $2,000.) In fact, it was only last year that the company opened a New York flagship after several years without a U.S. presence. In a politically correct world -- one in which first ladies traditionally wear clothes created by American designers for their most public appearances -- Jardini simply didn't think that Obama would ever wear a high-priced Italian designer brand, with a history for outrageous humor, on such public occasions.

After all, in the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy was taken to task by American apparel unions because of her fondness for French designers. As a remedy, she chose Oleg Cassini as her go-to dressmaker, in part, because he was an American designer who could and would re-interpret the work that came down the Paris runways. (Kennedy still managed to continue wearing French designs.) Since then, it has always been assumed that the first lady's state wardrobe would be handled by Americans. When Laura Bush, for instance, made one of her earliest trips abroad as first lady in 2001, she enlisted old-guard New York designers Arnold Scaasi and Oscar de la Renta to create her most significant ensembles. And other recent first ladies -- from Nancy Reagan to Hillary Clinton -- have relied on Scaasi and de la Renta, as well as St. John, James Galanos, Carolina Herrera and the occasional Donna Karan.

The executives at Moschino understood that long-standing tradition. So while they have been happy to claim credit when the first lady has worn the brand, they have not aggressively touted it. Their public comments have been brief. Bragging? Almost nonexistent. "It's a bit difficult to handle the situation because you don't want to push it," Jardini says. "That would seem indelicate."

In addition to Moschino, Obama has worn Lanvin, Junya Watanabe, Sonia Rykiel and plenty of Azzedine Alaia, one of the French fashion industry's most elusive designers. She has had the most international wardrobe of any modern first lady, turning her closet into a virtual United Nations and using her aesthetic sensibility as a form of non-verbal diplomacy as well as a reflection of an increasingly inter-connected world.

Of all the non-American labels Obama has worn, Moschino appears to be the one most frequently in rotation. And the clothes -- some of them dramatic, insouciant and attention-grabbing -- have made repeat appearances, often on the most memorable occasions. Obama wore a white blouse with a Brobdingnagian bow in Prague on her first overseas trip as first lady. She chose a lime-colored sequined dress with cap sleeves for the Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House. A coral-colored jacket with a pleated swing back and a matching skirt made an appearance during the "You lie!" address to Congress in September. At other public events, she has worn a purple floral dress, a pink and gray printed skirt, a black blazer with scalloped edges and a circular jeweled brooch. And perhaps most notably, she was in a modest black Moschino ensemble -- veil included -- when she met the pope in July.

"I was in front of the television when she went to visit the pope in our black bow blouse," Jardini says. "It was an extremely emotional moment."

The decision to wear an Italian designer for an audience with the pope could be viewed in the same vein as Kennedy's choice of a white Givenchy evening gown on a state visit to France in 1961: a quiet way of acknowledging the host country or culture. But on other occasions, such as a "Take Your Child to Work Day" event in Washington, style trumped any sort of national symbolism.

Yet for all the public hyperventilation over Obama's favored young American brands, from Jason Wu and Thakoon to the modestly priced J. Crew, the first lady's affection for Moschino has gone, not unnoticed, but unremarked upon, which is remarkable in light of a recent history that has included such isolationist symbolism as "freedom fries." But as a sign of the times -- in this age of global corporate calamity -- "made in America" now engenders a more complicated, more nuanced response.

Moschino is a perfect example. "Most of the items [Obama] has worn were done by my first assistant designer, who is from Chicago. . . . Just the fact that Bill is from Chicago gives a kind of 'P.C.' justification that Mrs. Obama is wearing the clothing," Jardini says. Adding: "We have designers from all over the world, but often American designers design a certain kind of clear and modern silhouette."

Bill Shapiro, a boyish-looking 39-year-old with a medium build and short brown hair, has worked with Jardini for 20 years. He is summoned from the workrooms to the showroom by Jardini and Michelle Stein, the president of Aeffe USA, which owns Moschino and who has been serving as Jardini's translator. Arriving in Milan not long after studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Shapiro is fresh-faced, low-key and "over the moon" about the first lady's embrace of his work. But he is not keen on talking about it in specific terms.

With Moschino, Shapiro says only, "there's something that appeals to so many different women."

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