No critic could find fault with how first lady Michelle Obama looked in her ruby-colored Jason Wu gown and freshly cropped bangs at the inauguration balls. She radiated warmth and sophistication, and the red velvet and chiffon halter-top design complemented her figure (including those toned arms) even more than the white one-shoulder Jason Wu gown of four years ago.
But some fashion watchers rued that by wearing the same designer as she did to the 2009 balls, the first lady missed a chance to send another rising star, such as Prabal Gurung, Naeem Khan or Wes Gordon, into the stratosphere. In a 2010 study of the first lady's impact on stock prices, David Yermack, a finance professor at New York University, estimated that the value to a company of her appearing once in its clothing or accessories averaged $14 million.
“For the designer, it's a moment of advertising that's very significant,” said Simon Collins, dean of fashion at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, of which Wu is an alumnus. Jason Wu, Thom Browne and Reed Krakoff, especially, stand to gain momentum from her fashion choices Monday.
It's a common misconception that one piece of clothing lands a designer on easy street, however, Collins said.
“You make a beautiful dress, that's just one dress, and for the inauguration, that's not even one sale,” Collins said. “If you don't have the talent and the business to back that up, then people are going to move on. Jason Wu, she hasn't made his career. His career is still on him being a good designer and businessman.”
Wu's business has grown since 2009. He created a capsule collection for Target last year, and his luxury-priced signature collection sold well enough at Nordstrom that its fashion team invited him to create a contemporary collection.
Called Miss Wu, it debuted this month exclusively at Nordstrom stores and Nordstrom.com. Miss Wu “is by no means inexpensive,” Wu acknowledged earlier this month. But it broadens access to his work just as he's getting a surge of attention.
“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” said Wu.
Thom Browne is perhaps the most under-the-radar designer who Obama chose to wear Inauguration Day. Obama has worn his work previously — a gray dress with a black lace overlay to one of the presidential debates last fall — and she honored him last summer at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards.
But nothing compares to the hours she spent in the spotlight Inauguration Day in his navy check coat and dress, whose Jacquard fabric reflects Browne's roots in menswear. His edgy, shrunken men's suits nudged menswear toward narrower silhouettes in general and earned him a Council of Fashion Designers of America Menswear Designer of the Year award in 2006.
His menswear is carried at Barneys New York, but his women's wear, launched in 2011, is not yet widely available. Browne also designs Black Fleece, the more fashion-forward men's and women's collections at Brooks Brothers.
Also basking in the Obama boost is Reed Krakoff. The first lady wore his cashmere cardigan and custom navy boots Inauguration Day. She wore a silk print dress of his to the official swearing-in the day before.
Krakoff said the first lady's embrace of his namesake brand validates its core values — “confidence, strength, femininity, modernity and a strong sense of personal style,” he said. “I'm thrilled and honored.”
As she did four years ago, the first lady mixed luxurious and more accessible pieces. For the ceremonial swearing-in Inauguration Day, Obama added a sparkling J.Crew belt over the coat and J.Crew leather gloves.
In 2009, J.Crew enjoyed a 10.6 percent bump in its stock price Jan. 21 after the Obama daughters wore its coats, the first lady wore its gloves and the president wore its bow tie on Inauguration Day.