For the state dinner in honor of Singapore’s prime minister, first lady Michelle Obama wore an ivory-colored strapless gown by the designer Brandon Maxwell. The sculptural dress had a rounded bodice that flowed into a split train that swept the ground as she walked.
Who is Brandon Maxwell?
A Texas native, he launched his collection in New York in 2015 after working as a fashion assistant and stylist for several years. He continues to work as Lady Gaga’s fashion director. Maxwell helped to transform her image from that of a meat-wearing, pop provocateur into a more elegant, multitalented entertainer. Of the many fledgling designer labels that Obama has patronized, Maxwell’s is not even out of its infancy.
As Obama enters the twilight of her time in the White House, during which she has used fashion as a form of communication, what more can she say with her clothes? What else can they symbolize? What more can they say about the fashion industry?
She has embraced the sleeveless sheath as the contemporary woman’s business uniform, encouraged the mixing of high-priced designs with mass-market merchandise, elevated the work of mom-and-pop small businesses and celebrated the enduring style of America’s mammoth legacy brands.
Obama has promoted the fashion designs of immigrants, minorities, women and even students. She preached globalism by incorporating Jean Paul Gaultier, Duro Olowu, Alexander McQueen, Moschino and other non-American labels into her wardrobe. She made fashion’s sheer beauty and luxury plain and with her actions — and every now and then, even her words — declared that there was nothing anti-feminist or irredeemably frivolous about an educated, serious woman indulging in frocks.
And on grand, formal occasions, she has given the best of the American fashion industry a place in the spotlight alongside a judiciously chosen selection of this country’s music, food and art. For state dinners, in particular, fashion has become nonpartisan politics and subtle diplomacy.
She even turned the once barely-known Jason Wu into a household name. And now, perhaps, Maxwell.
And so, on the evening of the Obamas’ 13th state dinner as the first couple appeared at the North Portico to welcome Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife, Ho Ching, to the White House, what further message is there left to be taken from her fashion?
Perhaps the simplest note of all: What a pretty dress.
In June, Maxwell won the Swarovski Award for new fashion talent from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for his womenswear. In an emotional acceptance speech, he recalled being a chubby kid from meat-and-potatoes America who was enamored with fashion and mesmerized by the stylish women he saw in his grandmother’s boutique.
While his work has been seen by a wide audience thanks to his association with Lady Gaga, who has worn his clothes on the red carpet, his clothes take on greater stature and resonance thanks to this singular gown worn by the first lady and photographed for the history books.
The prime minister and the president both wore traditional black tuxedos. And Ho Ching chose a scarlet and metallic gold floor-length ensemble that was accessorized with a gold evening bag and scarlet wrap.
In the afternoon, for the outdoor arrival ceremony, as well as a visit to the National Gallery of Art, Obama wore a sleeveless, sunflower yellow lace dress by designer Naeem Khan. (The White House noted during a preview of the dinner’s table settings that yellow symbolizes friendship.) Khan’s work has made multiple appearances at state dinners, from the first in 2009 — for India — to the one in honor of Nordic countries in May. Ho chose a black and pewter pantsuit in a lush floral pattern. The prime minister wore a two-button gray suit. The president’s suit was charcoal gray.
Singapore is known for its fashion consumption, with brands including Chanel, Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Michael Kors each boasting multiple stores there. And like many other countries, Singapore hosts a fashion week. But among designers who call the country home, most lack an international profile — something that boosters in both Singapore and on Seventh Avenue have been trying to change. In 2015, Singapore Fashion Week, in collaboration with the CFDA, launched a kind of study abroad program that brings Singapore-based designers to New York to visit showrooms, boutiques and factories. The second group of designers to participate in the program — Danielle Woo, Max Tan and Elyn Wong — recently arrived in New York.
Singapore Fashion Week has also attracted international designers such as Victoria Beckham and Diane von Furstenberg . Keen to take advantage of the region’s high median income and fashion enthusiasm, they have presented their runway collections there.
A fitted sheath from a former pop star, a classic wrap dress from a fashion veteran or a white architectural evening gown from a fresh-faced designer can evoke an endless list of connotations. And certainly Obama has expertly exploited fashion’s ability to speak in terms that are both broad and nuanced. A garment can symbolize things both universal and deeply personal. In its propriety — or daring — a dress can demolish stereotypes, challenge assumptions and provoke conversation.
But sometimes, it can simply be quietly lovely. And if we can appreciate a bit of man-made beauty on a warm summer evening — just look at it and smile — then fashion has fulfilled its most fundamental role.