It’s a familiar tale in presidential politics: a chance meeting on the campaign trail that leads to an enduring partnership. Such is the story of Tracy Reese, the womenswear designer who met Michelle Obama at a campaign fundraiser for President Obama in 2008. In her four years as first lady, Obama has worn Reese’s flouncy print dresses for numerous public engagements, culminating with the custom-made, rose-hued dress she chose for her speech at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.
The silk dress conformed to Obama’s penchant for feminine, sleeveless garments, accenting her toned arms and 5-foot-11 frame. It also cemented her patronage of the Detroit-born African American designer. Obama has worn nearly a dozen Tracy Reese dresses — repeating them occasionally — since 2008, according to Mrs-O.com, a fashion blog that tracks the first lady’s wardrobe.
A supporter of the president, Reese had attended a campaign fundraiser a few months before the 2008 election. There, she met Michelle Obama.
“She gave me a big hug and said, ‘I’d love to be wearing your things,’ ” Reese told The Washington Post in a June interview. The designer would go on to see the first lady wear her mauve lace dress on the cover of People in February 2009.
In 2008, Reese was considered an up-and-coming American designer, having just opened her flagship New York store in 2006. Obama’s patronage has helped Reese’s brand recognition and sales soar domestically and internationally. In 2011, the designer opened her first international boutique, in Tokyo.
Reese acknowledges that she often envisions Michelle Obama when designing.
“There’s a certain type of silhouette that is really flattering with [Obama’s] figure,” Reese said. “She’s tall and lean and curvy through the hips, so I’m always thinking about that.”
Obama’s convention ensemble was a savvy political statement as well. The first lady reaffirmed her love of J. Crew, the mid-tier label sold in malls across America, by matching her silk dress with bright-pink suede J. Crew pumps, which retail for $245. She had notably worn J. Crew on the 2008 campaign trail and had donned lime-green J. Crew gloves at her husband’s inauguration in 2009. It was then that fashion critics deemed her style — mixing mid-tier retail brands with custom and designer pieces — approachable.
Obama’s choice of color, too, separates her from previous first ladies and political wives. Obama has eschewed the red-and-blue palette often worn by speakers at political conventions. In 2008, she wore a long-sleeve turquoise Maria Pinto sheath dress, indicating her preference for bright colors that don’t carry political symbolism. This year, Ann Romney, wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, chose a silk Oscar de la Renta gown in Nancy Reagan red (retailing at $1,990) for her address at the Republican National Convention, but Obama wore pink, a politically neutral, feminine shade.
Additionally, her convention attire avoided any controversy concerning the high price of fashion. Ann Romney and Michelle Obama have both been criticized for wearing pricey designer clothes that retail in the thousands. Reese’s off-the-rack dresses typically start at about $350; by buying a custom-made dress, Obama ensures that only confidants know the price.
Update, Sept. 6: Reese said on the Today show that the dress is being rushed into production and will cost less than $500.