For the first lady, tradition gets side of Italian dressing

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."

History of rebellion

As a European brand, Moschino is rooted in a culture that takes fashion quite seriously and that hails designers such as Giorgio Armani and the late Gianfranco Ferre as national icons. But here, it is an anomaly. Moschino doesn't have the rock-star sex appeal of Gucci, the extravagant luxury of Bottega Veneta or the plain-Jane intellectual pretense of Prada.

"I've always tried to, and I think I always will try to, make clothes for real women above all, whether a fashion model or a size 46 or a 38. Perhaps it's because of my background. I worked for Bottega Veneta. I spent time in the States, in New York. American women are very formal and elegant. They aren't excessive in their mode of dress," Jardini says. "I've tried to be faithful to that. I can't ever betray my own code of elegance when designing for other women."

Jardini is a slender woman who combs her light brown hair into a loose, low chignon. Sitting on a sofa in her Milan headquarters a couple days after presenting her spring 2010 collection on the runway, she wears a pair of heavy-rimmed cat-eye glasses, several glamorous rings and a staggeringly impressive jeweled necklace. Her khaki trousers and her loose-fitting navy blouse practically fade into the background. When asked about women and their attire and her search for inspiration, she says, "I think about myself and my authority."

And she adds, with just a hint of a chuckle: "I'm the most elegant woman I know." Confidence, Jardini, would say, is essential to great style. Although revealing one's age, when asked, is not.

She has been in the industry for more than 25 years and the lead designer at Moschino for 15. And she imbues the collections with a teasing sense of humor in homage to the brand's founder, Franco Moschino, who died in September 1994. When he established the line in 1983, it was meant as a not-so-gentle rebuke to a fashion system keen on undercutting the confidence of women even as it sought to attract them. He presented his first collection by sending the model Pat Cleveland down the runway dressed in a silk evening gown and sneakers and carrying a grocery bag.

Moschino once stopped his fashion show while the models were mid-stride, declaring, "Basta!" or Enough! He then shooed them off-stage. He made frocks embroidered with the phrase "Waist of Money." He dressed in Marilyn Monroe drag for his advertisements. And he was ultimately flummoxed by how successful he became in the fashion industry by making fun of it.

Bloomingdale's opened one of the first Moschino shops in the United States early in the designer's career. "I was a mere fashion coordinator and he was not happy with the appearance of his shop," recalls Stephanie Solomon, who is now fashion director of women's ready-to-wear at Bloomingdale's. "He threatened to take off all his clothes and lie naked on the floor until it was fixed."

When he died, Jardini, who had worked with him from the beginning, took over. If he was the wild-eyed provocateur, she was the practical technician. "To be perfectly frank, everything I know I learned from Franco. After he passed away, I asked myself during the design process, 'What would Franco have done?' And I went forward from there," she says. "I would say he had more talent. I think I have more savoir faire, more business acumen. Franco was very intuitive. He wasn't that interested in fabric and colors."

The brand has evolved into something that's "not cutting edge," Solomon says, "but it's cute."

"There's a sense of irreverence. These are just clothes and they're fun," Solomon says. "I like that Mrs. Obama wears them -- because of those reasons."

Jardini is also sensitive to the hurdles women face in crafting their public persona. "Everybody makes their own movie," she says.

The designer laments that so often women in politics -- in Italy as well as in the United States -- tend to lose their aesthetic personality as their stature increases. "When women are elected to a certain level, women who've dressed in an exciting manner have a tendency to fall into the category of wearing little suits without detail and without personality," Jardini says. "How we create an image is undervalued. If you take for instance Queen Elizabeth, she's followed a strict code through life. When you see her, when you think of her, you see the little hats, the colors she chooses. When you think of political figures and how they choose to dress, it should be part of how they create their image."

"For Mrs. Obama, it really is enough to put on two pins," Jardini says, referring to the first lady's choice of accessories. "With these brooches, from Moschino and others, she's created a character for herself. They're part of her code."

The spring Moschino collection, the part of it that Jardini put on the runway, was an updating of signature Moschino styles from the founder's heyday. The line, however, is vast. And there are many more commercially palatable pieces in the showroom. The brand, after all, has a recession to survive. Jardini says she designs with the idea that all women want to be beautiful and at least a little bit sexy -- but not vulgar. While she and her staff refer to chartreuse as "Obama green," she does not design with the first lady in mind. "But I'd be lying if I didn't say, every once in a while, 'It would be nice if she found two or three things that she likes.' "

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