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At the White House, a new shopper in chief

Meredith Koop, a 29-year-old personal assistant to the first lady, received plenty of attention at Fashion Week for her role in crafting Michelle Obama's style.

On Jan. 28, Cathy Horyn of the New York Times dropped a parenthetical into a blog post about the McQueen dress that read, "(for what it's worth, I hear that Ikram Goldman, the Chicago retailer, is no longer directly involved with Mrs. Obama's wardrobe, since December)."

On Feb. 3, Robin Givhan reported in the Daily Beast that Goldman's priority had shifted to the expansion of her Chicago store, which would include more square footage and a cafe. Givhan reported that since the end of the summer, the role of cultivating "New York designers for a first lady whose wardrobe needs are relentless" had fallen to Koop. (Koop's previous visibility was limited to a mention in a short April 2010 piece as Obama's "secret style weapon.")

A week after the Daily Beast post, Obama told a roundtable of reporters that "nothing has changed since I've been here," regarding her fashion advisers. "I've always bought clothes from Ikram. And to the extent that - I mean, it's really nothing has kind of changed. It's kind of interesting where these stories come from, that sort of thing. I didn't do anything different. I didn't."

The Feb. 20 Sunday Styles section of the New York Times referred to Goldman as "the gatekeeper between the fashion industry and Michelle Obama."

Salon support

The murkiness is a result of the first lady, Goldman and Koop all keeping mum about the personal aide's new powers. This may well be a textbook case of only her hairdresser knows for sure.

Vera Chamberlin, Koop's hair colorist and friend at the D.C. salon Immortal Beloved, was under the strong impression that Koop was in charge.

In a phone interview, Chamberlin said she had never heard of Goldman and recalled that Koop had recently sat in her chair and lamented about her inability to attend all the fashion show events she might have liked because she needed to "focus on what is right for the first lady."

Koop, she said, was "absolutely" always on the lookout for Obama outfits, was "incredibly busy" and once nearly jumped out of her salon seat to call a store about procuring a particular garment. She relayed how Koop talked excitedly about deciding which hats Obama and her daughters should wear to the Kentucky Derby, and which dresses they should don to meet Queen Elizabeth II. ("That's what blows my mind," Chamberlin said. "She has such a broad range of understanding fashion in different cultures.")

Chamberlin said she asked Koop how she gets the clothes for Obama. According to the hairdresser, Koop explained that she did a lot of comparison shopping for lower costs, but also acknowledged that "People do offer a lot of stuff."

The White House would not comment on the system by which the first lady received and paid for her designer clothes, or whether the administration's attorneys had signed off on the practice. Instead, Schake, the first lady's spokeswoman, offered this response by e-mail:

"From the beginning of the Administration, Ms. Koop has served Mrs. Obama as her personal aide, a well established staff position through which First Ladies are supported in managing the Residence and the needs of the First Family."

Closet information

According to several intimates and designers familiar with the procedure, Obama pays out of her own pocket for the clothes she wears. But little else is known. Does she receive discounts for the clothes she buys? And how often do the payments go directly to the designer or through a retailer?

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