Three fashion icons and their special relationships
Michelle Obama's style choices can make or break a label. But she's not the only one. Harriet Walker on a visit that's frocking the world
Wednesday 25 May 2011
Not content with knowing the skeletons lurking in our politicians' closets, we're increasingly desperate to find out what's hanging in the armoires of their other halves too. President Obama's state visit to Britain has kicked off a veritable salon show of wives' wardrobes, with the American First Lady, her counterpart Samantha Cameron and the newly wed Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton all stepping out yesterday in their most fashionable finery.
None of these women are strangers to the scrutiny that comes with their jobs, of course: Michelle Obama is credited with the stratospheric rise in sales at US high street chain J. Crew after appearing in their clothes on television; Samantha Cameron meanwhile caused stampedes at Marks & Spencer two years ago when she wore a £65 polka dot dress to the Tory party conference."The likes of Sam Cam and Michelle Obama have modernised the idea of being a politician's wife," says Jo Hooper, womenswear buyer at John Lewis. "Where once it was all reserved two piece suits, the trend now is for down-to-earth and accessible – a microcosm of their husband's political attitudes." And Kate Middleton has captured the imagination of younger shoppers too. The white silk Whistles blouse (£125) that she wore in her official engagement portrait was re-issued and sold out in stores across the country. A pair of LK Bennett wedges (£165) that she wore the days before and after her nuptials will be made available to the public again, despite being technically obsolete as part of last year's summer collection.
The pin-tucked nude Reiss dress she wore to meet President Obama and his wife, Michelle, yesterday went the same way, selling out within an hour and crashing the store's website as hundreds of shoppers raced to part with £175.
"It's only right that Kate takes an interest in British brands," says blogger Sasha Wilkins, the founder of Libertylondongirl.com which publicised Kate's clothing choice yesterday within an hour of its appearing on TV. "This publicity is good for British fashion, which is one of our biggest industries – it's her duty to help out GB Ltd. overseas."
"First ladies can become one of the most well-known, influential and sometimes powerful women in their respective countries," says Robb Young, author of Power Dressing: First Ladies, Woman Politicians and Fashion. "And when a first lady has the charisma and stardust to add to that status, it means that her wardrobe has the potential to be doubly influential and meaningful to people, not only to those who are interested in fashion but sometimes even to those who couldn't care less about it."
Last year an analyst at the Stern School of Business in New York calculated "the Obama effect" as bringing in £1.7bn to brands worn by the First Lady. Her sartorial choices have caused admiration and outrage alike: pieces by J. Crew are immediately flagged on the brand's website, so that customers can buy them immediately. However, when she wore an Alexander McQueen gown for a State Banquet last year, designer Oscar de la Renta and the Council of Fashion Designers of America issued statements to say they were "disappointed" in a choice that they saw as un-patriotic.
"It's such an American phenomenon," adds Sasha Wilkins. "They're so much more engaged with these figures. It makes a commercial point – Americans will go straight out and buy these clothes."
Samantha Cameron proves the rule this side of the Atlantic: the very British Burberry Prorsum dress that she wore to the Royal Wedding last month sold out on Net-a-Porter within the hour. Cameron has made a point of wearing clothes by designers based in Britain, appearing in Emilia Wickstead shortly after her husband took power and in industry insiders' favourite Christopher Kane for a drinks reception at Downing Street during Fashion Week last February. Yesterday she wore a grey leopard print dress by young British label Peter Pilotto, befitting her role as an adviser on emerging talent to the British Fashion Council.
"It all comes down to celebrity," says Wilkins. "People take their style advice from celebrities these days, so endorsement from them really works. However, there is a theory that, the more often you see a celebrity in a certain label, the less interested you are. So if Kate Middleton continues to wear Reiss, there's a chance that the novelty will wear off."
This is one of the reasons that Michelle Obama has been so successful a brand ambassador for the labels she chooses to favour. Rather than returning to one specific shop, she mixes pieces in a way that the public finds endearing and the press goes crazy for. She captured the usually icy hearts of the fashion crowd when she wore an Azzedine Alaia belt during the campaign trail in 2008; she wowed them again by teaming a J. Crew skirt with a cardigan by niche Japanese designer Junya Watanabe in 2009.
To arrive in the country, Obama married politics with fashion by wearing a cobalt blue suit by Preen, a London-based design duo who show their biannual collections in New York. A perfect example of "the Obama effect" in action.
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