For the final state dinner hosted by President Obama, this one in honor of Italy’s prime minister, first lady Michelle Obama wore a custom rose-gold chain-mail gown from Atelier Versace. It was a slinky gown with an asymmetrical neckline that slithered like liquid metal down her torso and around her hips. It was pure Hollywood glamour.
The gown hailed from the most rarefied corner of the Versace brand — the collection that is shown on the runway as part of the Paris haute couture season, the treasure trove that stars wear down the red carpet on their way to collect their Oscars. Designer Donatella Versace is also a fan of the Obamas, having once used President Obama as a source of inspiration for a menswear collection.
“I am humbled and honored to have the opportunity to dress the First Lady,” Versace said in a statement. “Thank you Michelle for all of the things you have done for America and the rest of the world, for the women in the United States and the rest of the world.”
The choice, of course, pays homage to Italy, one of the world capitals of fashion. The country is known for its exquisite tailoring, luxurious fabrics and its ability to transform a sexy frock into a form of high art.
This is also a moment when Italian fashion is ascendant, thanks to the powerful influence of Gucci, with its gender-blurring sensibility, the continuing impact of Prada with its intellectual eccentricity and a crop of younger brands that are beginning to gain traction on the international stage.
And Obama has always been an internationalist when it comes to fashion, wearing the work of a diverse group of designers and brands — Azzedine Alaia, Duro Olowu, Jean Paul Gaultier, Preen — that come from all over the world.
Yet she has traditionally chosen to highlight American designers on major occasions. The last time she wore a gown by a non-American designer for a state dinner was in 2011, when the White House welcomed China’s then-president Hu Jintao. Obama chose a dress from Alexander McQueen, which had been created by British designer Sarah Burton. It was a vivid red dress with a stunning abstract print, but it also left many American designers feeling snubbed. The late Oscar de la Renta was particularly vocal in his disappointment, calling it a lost opportunity to turn the spotlight on American talent.
One can argue that fashion is a global business, of course. And what better way for Obama to welcome Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife Agnese Lindini than by showcasing her admiration for their country’s creativity and style. By using fashion to break down borders. By giving a nod to the bella figura.
Still, it’s disappointing that an American designer was absent from this historic moment. From this finale. They have been so instrumental in helping Obama shape her public identity, her brand. Surely, they would have liked to see her through to the end.
For eight years, all the attention at state dinners has been on the women — on the first lady mostly, and occasionally on the wife of the visiting dignitary. In a welcome break from trade agreements, security concerns and environmental policy, all eyes turn to the women to see what they are wearing. It is old-fashioned and cliched, but of course, it makes sense because, frankly, there typically isn’t all that much to consider when it comes to the men.
But this time, the prime minister made a statement. He wore a tuxedo by Italian designer Giorgio Armani.
For all of the splendid Italian craftsmen whose names have been embedded in the global popular culture, the impact has been greater on men’s fashion than on women’s. And if there is a singular Italian designer whose name resonates beyond the frock trade and far beyond Italy itself, it’s Armani, who also attended Tuesday evening’s dinner as a guest of the prime minister.
That Armani was part of the Italian delegation speaks to the importance of fashion as an industry and the prominence of Armani himself. He rose to fame on his menswear, for the way in which he deflated, loosened and sexed-up the business suit. He did all of that without detracting from the suit’s message of power and authority. He made menswear glamorous, thanks to his work’s starring role in the 1980 film “American Gigolo.” Armani also brought his discerning eye to the red carpet, helping to redefine our understanding of what it means to dazzle — not with high slits and revealing decolletage, but tastefully.
But history will remember what his Italian style did for men.
There are also, thanks to Obama, numerous American designers whose work is recorded in the history books. Tuesday night, however, belonged to Versace — and to Italy.