8 Designers Tell Us What It’s Like to Dress First Lady Michelle Obama
No matter where your political views fall, one thing's undeniable: Michelle Obama has certainly had a fashionable run during the past eight years.
"Women of great style always have a true understanding of who they are,” says J. Mendel creative director Gilles Mendel, who outfitted Mrs. Obama most notably for the 2013 BET Honors awards show. “She knows what works for her and what doesn’t. And she is confident and smart, which has always shined through in her clothing choices.”
Yet from official state dinners to photo ops with royalty, a First Lady can’t get by on fashion instinct alone. Over the past two terms, Mrs. Obama has had the best designers in the world creating custom looks for her at every turn. Everyone from Mendel to Jason Wu to Brandon Maxwell (also Lady Gaga’s stylist, natch) has contributed to the fashion legacy that she has left. And it’s not one that will be easily forgotten once the Obamas officially move out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
As we prepare to bid adieu to the ultimate FLOTUS fashion plate, we asked the designers of some of her most memorable looks to share what it was really like to dress her. Keep scrolling to hear from eight of them.
“Designing for the First Lady was a dream,” says Khan of the beaded gown that Mrs. Obama chose for a White House State Dinner in 2011. "Briefings are kept very short and much is left up to you, so you have the full liberty to carry out your vision. For this look, it was important to me that the style leaned towards classic with a modern twist. Clear, geometric beading added subtle shine without being overpowering. And the shape was made to flatter her figure, yet still be easy to wear. Mrs. Obama is a symbol of style for our country. Her values as a wife and mother are inspiring and so is everything she has done for the underprivileged. It meant the world to me to design for her."
J. Mendel’s Gilles Mendel
"Dressing Mrs. Obama was truly one of the highlights of my career,” say Mendel. "We had met once before when I received the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award and attended a function at the White House. She was exactly the type of woman I love to dress—smart, elegant, charming and making a difference in our world. Since this look was for the BET Honors awards show [in 2013] and not a state dinner, I wanted her to look contemporary and cool. The silhouette was classic, but the one-shoulder neckline with layered detailing gave the gown an edge.”
At a White House Dinner in 2016, the FLOTUS stunned in this sponge crepe dress custom made for her by Brandon Maxwell. "It was an incredible honor for me and my team to create this dress for the First Lady,” says Maxwell. "Strong and elegant, she is the embodiment of the woman who inspires me to create and a role model for women all over the world.”
For the inaugural balls in 2009 and 2013 (above), Obama turned to designer Jason Wu. “I feel very honored to have dressed her for both inaugurations,” says Wu. "The ruby red gown was a powerful statement for this truly remarkable First Lady. I think that she has brought such a unique voice and point of view to Washington. Her influence has truly inspired many women in politics to embrace their femininity.”
“It’s fun to design for Mrs. Obama,” says Soronen, who made the sequined silk chiffon dress for her first formal White House dinner in 2009. "The inspiration was to do something different for her and the White House. And her choices are never boring. I was able to do my favorite fitted silhouette, which looked great on her. Making her dress is by far the best feather in my cap."
"It’s always an honor when someone who is constantly in the public eye chooses our designs,” says Kors. "Mrs. Obama has worn Michael Kors on numerous occasions, for both major events [like the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in 2011 (above)] and for simply living her life. She trusts us to make her feel confident and comfortable, and that means I’m doing my job right. I especially love when she chooses something unexpected, like this black paillette fishtail skirt, and makes it look effortlessly chic."
Marchesa’s Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig
“We admire the First Lady for always dressing appropriately while maintaining a fashion-forward edge,” says Chapman of Obama in a custom emerald silk chiffon Marchesa creation at the Kennedy Center Honors event in 2013. Adds Craig: "We felt incredibly honored to dress her. She is a strong, beautiful woman that radiates grace and elegance—that is always the ultimate goal for us as designers.”
At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the FLOTUS opted for Tracy Reese’s fit and flare silk jacquard dress. "Dressing our nation’s First Lady, whom I respect and admire profoundly, has definitely been the high point of my career,” says Reese. "I always love playing with scalloping and bordering. The deep contrast border on this dress added dimension and interest. It was not a textbook or cliché choice. It spoke to her own unique sense of style: feminine yet strong!"