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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.

History has shown that accepting free skirts and shirts, suits and gowns directly from designers is not the best idea for a first lady. Nancy Reagan, in the beginning of her husband's first term, came under severe criticism for accepting clothes without charge from fashion designers. She called them loans and countered that she was simply helping designers by acting as a human billboard.

Goldman's exclusive arrangement did not provide much in the way of transparency about each sale, but according to people familiar with the process, using a shopkeeper such as Goldman suggested that there'd be no freebies because a profit-minded entrepreneur was overseeing the sales.

According to people familiar with the process, Goldman would cultivate designers and commission custom-made clothes for the first lady, all of which would be delivered to the Gold Coast boutique. As a trusted and obviously valuable client to the retailer, who had frequented Ikram years before her husband became a presidential candidate, Obama would pay less than ticket price, which became standard operating procedure. People with knowledge of the arrangement said Obama did not receive free clothes or pay less than "cost," which is the amount of money required to make the clothes. She paid enough for both the retailer and the designer to make some profit.

As Obama has insisted, and as Goldman's attentiveness to the Rodriguez collection suggests, the Chicago fashion arbiter is not out of the equation. Goldman still has strong relationships with Obama's favorite designers, such as Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo. In an e-mail, Toledo wrote that "Ikram continues to buy my collections as she always has."

But it is also clear, either by Goldman's design or by Koop's hand, that the shopkeeper made famous for shaping the first lady's look has less of a role in the process. And Koop is seizing the moment.

Robert Beard, a painter and partner of the designer Bibhu Mohapatra, who showed his collection in New York last week, described Koop as a "lovely person" who has aggressively sought out new names. "Meredith has made a huge effort to be plugged in as possible to young designers so that she can be as helpful as possible," said Beard, adding that he considered Koop the primary gatekeeper to Obama for many designers, "because she is on-site. She travels with her."

Mohapatra, a ball gown designer who last year told the Telegraph in India that he'd rather dress Obama than Lady Gaga, is one of those talented young designers whom Koop has cultivated. According to Beard, the White House is in contact with Mohapatra and has received "a few pieces of his."

Asked what the system was by which Obama paid for the garments, Beard said, "If she wears something, she buys it," and added carefully that "we send things down on approval. If she doesn't wear it, it gets sent back."

Another of Obama's favorite designers, mindful of the boon the first lady represents for their businesses, shied away from discussing business transactions. Rachel Roy, a New York designer whose clothes Obama has worn multiple times, said that "the first time that she wore us, she was kind enough to choose us off the rack." The "generous gesture," she said, provided "a boost" to her small business. Roy said she had developed a relationship with the White House and had custom-made pieces for Obama.

Asked whether Goldman had arranged those deals, Roy noted that the boutique Ikram did not carry her line. Asked whether Koop had arranged the deals, Roy clammed up.

"I think that, out of privacy for the first lady and the family, I would prefer not to say who I deal with," she said, adding only that she worked closely with the White House. When told that the White House had identified Koop as the first lady's adviser in wardrobe matters, Roy still declined to comment. When asked how she received payment for the couture items prepared for the first lady, the designer said, "That's not something that I want to talk about" and deferred to her publicist on the line. "Elise?!" she said.

A quick study

As familiar a face as Koop may be to the first family, she is something of a mystery around the White House.

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