The American fashion industry held its breath on Inauguration Day for a series of Big Reveals.
Word came within minutes that the navy check coat and dress Michelle Obama wore to the morning prayer service at St. John's church was by American designer Thom Browne, to which she added a belt for the ceremonial swearing-in. Her shoes and accessories were J.Crew. Her necklace was by Cathy Waterman.
"It struck me beforehand that she could wear Democratic blue," said Simon Collins, fashion dean at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, whose alumni include Jason Wu, who designed Obama's inauguration ball gown four years ago. "Previously she might have wanted to be neutral, but now the way President Obama is asserting his Democratic values more than before, I thought perhaps blue would be a color she would wear."
The jacquard fabric of her inauguration morning dress and coat were based on a men's silk necktie, according to a White House aide. Browne is best known for the shrunken suit trend he started in menswear a few years ago. He was named the Council of Fashion Designers of America Menswear Designer of the Year in 2006.
With the Thom Browne ensemble, Obama wore a cardigan by Reed Krakoff.
Daughter Malia Obama, 14, picked out her magenta ensemble from J.Crew. Sasha, 11, wore a purple Kate Spade coat and dress.
Any fears that the fashion world's focus had jumped the pond to the Duchess of Cambridge were allayed on Inauguration Day.
"The novelty has worn off — we're used to the fact the first lady is cool and very stylish, but it doesn't make her any less so," Collins said. "As interest in her fashion has waned in the reactionary media, reaction from the fashion industry has grown because there is a visible effect on business. She certainly can have an effect, it's not necessarily a guarantee of success. It's a common misconception that one outfit can build a business."
Chicago-based designer Maria Pinto, who Obama wore often during the first presidential campaign, shut down her business in Chicago in 2010, citing the economic downturn and retailers' shrinking inventories.
Jason Wu, meanwhile, has expanded his business since Obama wore his gown.
"My signature collection has had a lot of success," Wu said during a recent visit to Chicago. He just launched a contemporary collection, called Miss Wu, exclusively at Nordstrom stores and nordstrom.com. Miss Wu pieces range from $190 to $850, which is where his signature collection picks up. Although Miss Wu is for a younger customer, it retains the figure-flattering tailoring of the signature pieces that Obama has worn.
"With anything I do, I'm really in the business of dressing women," Wu said. "I don't want to create things that people can't wear."
Obama has championed that ideal in fashion, overthrowing the tyranny of the size 2 in a way that Catherine Duchess of Middleton does not with her super-slim frame.
"Michelle Obama represents, ironically, sort of ordinary women," said Hazel Clark, a professor in Parsons fashion studies program.
Parsons has trained other designers Obama has worn, including Prabal Gurung, Peter Som, Alexander Wang, Derek Lam and Narciso Rodriguez, whose red and black dress captured the spotlight when Obama wore it the night her husband was first elected president.
"It's not so much that she influences certain items of clothing — maybe her preference for cardigans has been influential — but it's more that she is someone who dresses confidently and looks good without being seen as trivial," Clark said. "Often as we know, associations with fashion, particularly for women, have a trivializing effect. She has cared for her appearance without being seen as a coathanger, which is lovely."
Thom Browne also has designed the Black Fleece men's and women's collection for Brooks Brothers in addition to his signature line. He received the 2012 National Design Award in Fashion Design, celebrated with a White House luncheon that the first lady hosted. She wore a lace dress by Browne for the Democratic National Convention in September 2012, according to the mrs-o.com blog.
The first lady, who was sporting freshly cropped bangs and eyelash extensions, plans to give the Inauguration Day ensemble to the National Archives, the aide said.
Katherine Skiba contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun