Fashion critic

It could have been a teaching moment but instead it was simply a lovely one.

Eschewing a dress by a designer with Nordic roots, first lady Michelle Obama wore a blush colored gown with a full skirt and asymmetrical shoulder by New York-based designer Naeem Khan. The dress, for Friday evening’s Nordic state dinner, was romantic in tone and with only a hint of color.

The gown harked back to the Obamas’ first state dinner, in 2009, which honored India. Khan, an Indian American designer, created the glamorous champagne and silver dress for that historic occasion — one that will be remembered more for its gate-crashers than the beauty of the night. Khan is among Obama’s favorites for grand occasions. (She recently wore one of his dresses when she and President Obama visited Cuba.) The mood of this dress artfully reflected the friendly relationship among the nations being welcomed to the White House, the less ornate atmosphere of the table settings and the evening’s hint of springtime.

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama host a state dinner for the president of Finland and the prime ministers of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. (The Washington Post)

President Obama, it appeared, was wearing his usual one-button tuxedo and a tidy pocket square.

It would have been daring to select a designer from Denmark or Sweden or one of the other Nordic countries being celebrated. Not that they have no designers up to the task, but because most do not have an international reputation. For an American, they are not known quantities. But perhaps, that might have been just the reason to take a risk.

On the global fashion stage, most of the attention is claimed by Paris and Milan, London and New York and even Tokyo. Most Americans would be hard-pressed to conjure up any hallmark of Nordic fashion. If pushed they might be able to call to mind the distinctive yoke of an Icelandic sweater, the pop-art flower prints of Finland-born Marimekko or the infamous swan party dress worn by Icelandic singer Bjork to the Academy Awards in 2001.


President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama pose with Nordic leaders and their spouses. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

What a dress — both odd and melancholy. As Bjork walked the red carpet, the performer looked as though a snowy swan had gracefully wrapped itself around her body.

It counts as a Nordic style moment, even though the dress’s designer, Marjan Pejoski, was actually born in Macedonia and works in London.

But the Nordic countries have a significant fashion footprint thanks to the presence of the Swedish fast-fashion label H&M, which has some 3,400 stores around the world. The brand has been honored for its focus on fair wages and sustainability — as well as criticized for encouraging waste with its disposable fashion.

Much of what characterizes contemporary Nordic style — if there really is such a thing — is clean lines, restraint and, in some cases, an almost minimalist sensibility.

Fans of designer denim would be familiar with Acne Studios, the Swedish sportswear company that presents its eclectic separates on the runway in Paris. And those who long for a dark palette and simple shapes — luxurious elegance on a middle-class budget — have turned to Cos, which is part of the H&M group. Cos ignores trends, avoids extraneous embellishments and aims at sophistication. It has been a staple in Europe and a cult fashion favorite since launching nearly a decade ago, but has only recently opened shop in the United States.

Denmark offers up the menswear and womenswear brand Bruuns Bazaar, as well as the rising star Anne Sofie Madsen, who shows her artful collection in Paris. And Copenhagen hosts its own fashion week, which has had a particular focus on sustainability.

While Seventh Avenue has welcomed a broad swath of designers from as far away as Australia, there has not been a Nordic designer in recent memory who captured the American imagination. Although for a short time, the Swedish-born designer Lars Nilssson held the creative reins at Bill Blass — a brand that typified a sort of jaunty American elegance.


President Barack Obama, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, second from right, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, second from left, Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, left, Iceland's Prime Minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson, and Denmark's Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Spouses of Nordic leaders, from left, first lady Michelle Obama, wife of Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, Jenni Haukio; husband of Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Sindre Finnes; wife of Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, Ulla Lofven; wife of Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Solrun Lokke Rasmussen; and wife of Iceland Prime Minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson, Ingibjorg Elsa Ingjaldsdottir. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

For this state dinner, the most notable aspect may well have been a chance to inspect the attire of a female head of state, Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway, with her husband Sindre Finnes. During a U.S. presidential campaign when the possibility of electing the first female president looms, Solberg’s presence was particularly instructive. She was dressed in all black for the afternoon’s arrival ceremony, including opaque black hosiery, and sartorially was virtually indistinguishable from her male colleagues. And her husband’s ensemble coordinated beautifully with the other spouses’. His royal blue suit and pale blue tie fit in nicely with the blue patterned dress worn by Finland’s Jenni Haukio and cobalt blue suit of Sweden’s Ulla Lofven.

Solberg’s evening ensemble was a floor-sweeping gown in emerald green. It was accessorized with a magnificent jewel necklace, and she was accompanied by her husband — dapper in an elegant tuxedo. The definition of power — at least for one couple — was not sharp tailoring and peak lapels, but a flowing cloud of chiffon.