The national spotlight shines brightly on the always polished and well-spoken First Lady. She can captivate a crowd with her wise words of her own childhood, the struggles she’s faced and the way she’s overcome the hardships she and her family were dealt. She is relatable and trustworthy, in both word and action. But politics aside, Michelle Obama’s eye for fashion and appreciation of design have launched more than a few designers’ careers into the fashion stratosphere since her husband took office and even when the two were on the campaign trail. Despite her admiration of fashion and design, Mrs. Obama has kept her distance from the designers whose clothes she’s donned during her husband’s presidency; but as the Obama administration enters its final two years, and reelection is no longer part of the conversation, the White House’s doors were recently opened to the fashion bigwigs that have shaped Obama’s own wardrobe.
On September 16 of this year, the White House extended an invitation to some of the nation’s most recognized names in fashion, prominent magazine editors and design students from schools all over the Northeast for a true “Celebration of Design” to be hosted on October 8. “The purpose of this event is to bring members of the fashion industry to the White House and enlighten, educate, and mentor the next generation of fashion leaders,” read the email from White House social secretary, Jeremy Bernard. This event was part of Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative–her campaign designed to encourage underprivileged kids to explore higher education–and was designed to present fashion design as a viable career option. Between the fashion workshops in the morning, and the celebratory cocktail reception in the evening, the day’s events managed to offer the students fashion career advice and a serious self-esteem boost, while still celebrating the accomplishments of the designers and fashion industry leaders in attendance for their dedication to the highly creative, yet extraordinarily competitive industry.
Narciso Rodriguez, Reed Krakoff, Prabal Gurung, Diane von Furstenberg, Thom Browne, Sandra Choi, Humberto Leon, Carol Lim, Jenna Lyons, Lela Rose and Zac Posen were among the designers responsible for advising the design students from Washington, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania during the workshopping portion of the event. For two full hours, students draped fabric around miniature mannequins, practiced their sketching skills and designed magazine covers. The essence of the workshops was to impress on the students that fashion is truly a multifaceted industry loaded with career opportunities. It was made very clear to the group that the glamorous work of the designers presented that afternoon is the result of years of hard work and dedication built upon a strong educational foundation.
To highlight the skills of some of the budding designers in attendance, fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez recommended that the dean of Parsons the New School for Design, Joel Towers, and the First Lady’s office connect before the event. Sixteen graduate and undergraduate students with specialties in architecture, lighting and interior design were recruited from the New York City school to design and create the decor for the October 8 events. The students repurposed old books from the nonprofit Made for the Arts they folded and creased to completely redecorate and reimagine the East Room. The students were responsible for designing the centerpieces, building a backdrop for the panelists and even creating a lectern that wouldn’t hide Mrs. Obama’s custom, Natalya Koval-designed dress. Four thousand recycled pieces of paper later and the student design team had constructed the perfect background, designed to mirror the pattern of the First Lady’s dress, for the hostess to address her guests.
Standing in front of the recycled backdrop to introduce Mrs. Obama was none other than Vogue’s editor-in-chief and mentor to many a fashion designer Anna Wintour. Continuing the educational theme of the afternoon, Wintour recalled the days when she was underestimated, even ignored, because she insisted that fashion mattered. Through persistence, patience and hard work she proved herself to everyone who doubted her and her industry. As Wintour concluded, the First Lady made her way through the crowd to the front of the room wearing a navy blue and black a-line dress designed by Natalya Koval, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and the newest name on the list of designers Obama has launched into infamy.
“Fashion is about so much more than just a pretty pair of pumps or the perfect hemline. For so many people across the country, it is a calling, it is a career, and it’s a way to feed their families,” said Mrs. Obama during the luncheon. She offered advice and some serious self-esteem boosts to the young crowd, many of whom will be the first in their families to attend college. The First Lady of the United States, or FLOTUS as she had the students refer to her throughout the day, encouraged them to work with what they’ve been given: “Take this opportunity and run with it. And if you don’t want it, give it to someone who does. We have to bring each other up!”
Patricia Reynoso, Editor of GLAM Belleza Latina, one of Conde Nast’s newer titles aimed at the Latina reader, was one of the magazine insiders with a golden ticket. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Reynoso was in the White House enjoying everything the First Lady’s team had planned for the day. “Hearing the First Lady speak to the students was incredibly moving. Mrs. Obama was so authentic, encouraging, personable, smart and empowering that you could feel everyone hanging onto her every word,” says Reynoso. Mrs. Obama was able to connect with the whole audience, not just the high schoolers of the crowd. She describes the First Lady’s address as “a little Oprah, a little motherly…in all just perfect.” There was so much positivity conveyed in her words, so much encouragement for the underprivileged students that made up a majority of the group–many of them on their way to being the first in their families to pursue a college education–it was hard not to be inspired. “Even though I’m way past my high school years,” Reynoso explains, “I still felt like I took away something from her presentation.”
Aya Dixon, a fashion forward 15 year old from the Baltimore area, attended the White House event. One day she dreams of having her own line of couture, but for now she just wants to learn. “I had a really fun time interviewing Zac Posen. He told me to ‘learn how to sew, get your hands dirty and build from your heart,'” Dixon said. “Listening to all of the designers speak was very, very inspirational.” She spent the day, along with her peers, learning the business and face-to-face with the top names in fashion. “I can now put names to fashion,” she said, “I’m building up my fashion vocabulary.”
Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher campaign is about encouraging Americans to complete their education, pursue a degree and secure their own futures. By 2020 the objective is for the U.S. to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world–a concrete, measurable goal for students to motivate themselves toward a higher degree. The connection between the “Celebration of Design” event and the Reach Higher initiative is that no matter what one’s interests–fashion design or otherwise–there is good reason to pursue higher education. As the designers explained to the students in attendance: there is no substitute for being punctual, passionate and informed. Obama added, “You can do anything and be anything.” It’s about the pursuit. Find what you love and do everything possible to make it happen.”