Tag Archives: Alexander Wang

{Time Travel} Chronicles of Chic: And America found its Michelle O.

7 Mar
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There is a general agreement inside the global political arena that politics somehow must be unadventurous fashion-wise; think Angela Merkel and Julia Gillard and fashion isn’t, indeed, the first word that comes to mind. So when Michelle Obama started to wear fashion designers Prabal Gurung, Cushnie et Ochs or Alexander McQueen, and even added some bangs to her look, she very much shook the US political stage from its sleepy state-of-style. By EMILIE GAMBADE.

January 21, 2013. Newly re-elected US President Obama is talking to the American troops from Kandahar; alone on stage, naturally casual in a nonetheless formal white tie and black Hart Schaffner Marx tuxedo, Barack Obama knows how to charm and entertain the élite crowd gathered at the Washington Convention Centre for the Commander-in-Chief Inaugural Ball. Still, despite his charisma and distinctive elegance, what fashion observers from around the globe are really waiting for is the First Lady’s appearance and the unveiling of her inaugural gown.

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Photo: A combination photo shows U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (L) wearing a Jason Wu gown at the Commander in Chief’s Ball l in Washington Janaury 21, 2013 and attending the Home States Ball also wearing Jason Wu January 20, 2009. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/Jim Young

That, in the middle of this show of democracy’s power, all eyes are on the First Lady is not surprising. Since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Michelle’s outfits have been broadly analysed, praised or criticised, including the recent diatribe by Women’s Wear Daily Executive Editor Bridget Foley: “Mrs. Obama isn’t an indulged starlet primping for the Oscars, nor should she behave like one” and, as the New Yorker noted, CNN’s Alina Cho’s euphoric tweets “Michelle #Obama wearing #ThomBrowne today for inauguration, wonderful choice;” there is not one of her outfits that doesn’t spark applause or discontent, not one of her pair of Jimmy Choo’s, coats or cardigans that is not dissected to its very thread, not one of her hairdos, those infamous bangs included, that doesn’t lead to copycats or wows of horror.

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Photo: Coat by Thom Browne and belt by J.Crew – Michelle Obama arrives at the Senate carriage entrance for the presidential inauguration ceremonies at the U.S Capitol in Washington, January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, known for his caustic honesty, compared Michelle Obama’s inaugural fringe to one of a news anchor – think heavy hairspray and Barbara Walters. Joan Rivers publicly hoped that the hairdo wouldn’t last the four years of Obama’s stay in the White House, and Jon Stewart’s inauguration coverage was interrupted by the new “ba-ba-ba-bangs” of his bewigged correspondents, clearly inspired by the latest Michelle bob-effect.

The impact of her style and the study of its evolution were not always so immediate and global. In the early years of Barack Obama’s political burst, Michelle Obama preferred more conservative looks that didn’t spark much attention; sure, she was not yet the athletic model shot by photographer Annie Leibovitz for the cover of Vogue in March 2009, her confident gaze looking straight at the camera, shoulders firmly carrying a headline filled with hope and expectations – “Michelle Obama: The First Lady the World’s Been Waiting For.” But she already carried a quiet confidence that often made her look just right.

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Photo: Magenta silk sheath dress by Jason Wu for Vogue Cover, March 2009.

Thanks to some outside expertise, she was propelled from ‘just right’ to being a symbol of daring fashion choices, the new bearer of the American way-of-style, where elegance and energy go in pair. Before Barack Obama hit the campaign trail on 10 February 2007, Michelle turned to Chicago-fashion retailer and style authority, Ikram Goldman, for wardrobe advice, and later to the young Meredith Koop, Goldman’s protégée. Although the White House vetoes interviews with the unofficial stylists, simply stating that their “responsibilities include advising the First Lady on her wardrobe and acting on her behalf in arranging for purchases,” Goldman’s influence was obvious; from Chicaco-based designer Maria Pinto’s purple dress to garments by up-and-coming, avant-garde designers like Jason Wu, Michelle Obama was soon taking more risks, embracing daring looks.

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Photo: Corporate power look – U.S. President Barack Obama talks to Michelle Obama as they walk on the South Lawn of the White House upon their return to Washington from Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, December 14, 2011. REUTERS/Yuri Gripa

As years went by and her style got increasingly celebrated, one couldn’t, and still can’t, but compare her natural fashion individuality to Jackie Kennedy Onassis; both turned to fashion connoisseurs for advice, Kennedy having consulted with Vogue Editor-in-Chief and “fashion oracle” Diana Vreeland (probably best described as Anna Wintour before Anna Wintour). Both Michelle and Jackie O. share a keen fashion sense of their own, a personality that takes possession of what they wear, as no garment, be it stitched with gold, should ever eclipse their own charisma.

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Photo: Jackie O and John F Kennedy. (Reuters)

Jackie O’s clothing choices were commented on all around the globe: she was adulated, creating trends and fashion clones that are still visible today; her style was impeccable, fit as much to her dignified character as to her lithe frame. The media had a love affair with her, watching every step she made in her low heels: American style observers were desperately waiting for her next style incarnation, their adoration turned her into a walking myth that no other First Lady could have ever hoped to match.

Until now.

Michelle O’s approach to fashion is filled with gusto and originality and understanding of what suits her athletic figure. She is playful with her clothes and loyal to the designers; when it became clear she decided to wear Jason Wu again at the Inaugural Ball, the same designer twice in a row, fashion critics found it either brilliant or shocking, endearing her loyalty or dismissing her lack of originality, battling to decide if the red was ‘ruby’ or ‘persimmon’, bursting with ingenuity to describe the chiffon and velvet gown, halter-neck, V-back, flowing skirt, waist belted; the “Michelle-O-mania” matched the politics for the night.

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Photo: Ivory georgette gown by Tom Ford – Michelle Obama poses for a photograph before a State Dinner at Buckingham Palace in London May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Jackson/Pool

And with every outfit, the myth grows and America finds its new Jackie O. In 2007, Michelle was listed in Vanity Fair’s International Best-Dressed List, in 2009, the CFDA awarded her with a Board of Directors Special Tribute for her support to local designers. In 2010, she was included in the Vogue list of the Decade’s Best-Dressed Women.

She makes daily fashion statements while preaching for simplicity and individuality. In an interview with Vogue, she declares, “[F]irst and foremost, I wear what I love. That’s what women have to focus on: what makes them happy and what makes them comfortable and beautiful.”

Michelle O. looks, indeed, comfortable in her own clothes; she has access to some of the most beautiful garments available on the velvet hangers of international couture houses. Yet her picks speak not only crafted garments and designer gowns, but also intelligent and playful combinations – pieces from American retailer J.Crew and designer Thom Browne. In 2011, she dared to wear a red petal silk organza dress by the very British Alexander McQueen (designed by Sarah Burton) to a state dinner for China, facing a wave of protestations at her patronage fleeing America.

Ironically, in the early 1960’s, then-young Jackie Kennedy, fan of Parisian couture, with a wardrobe greatly composed of Balenciaga and Chanel, was given the subtle instruction to “cut the Paris cord.” Times change, and while Kennedy opted for Oleg Cassini, a sophisticated French-born American fashion designer, as her official designer, Michelle O. responded to the press with a smile and a clear “I wear what I like.”

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Photo: 3/4 sleeve coat and dress by Naeem Khan – U.S. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama walk into the National Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, January 22, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Because Michelle O. can’t only be defined by her outfits or the designers she wears, but her daring choices and an unmistakable twist to the protocol. The message: no-one owns her personal brand but her.

Over the last six years, she successfully and effortlessly brought back a theatrical glow to the political stage. And as rumours go, she will probably be the March cover of Vogue – once again featuring Michelle O; this time an icon. DM

Main photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama dance at the Inaugural Ball in Washington, January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Story first published in the Daily Maverick



Chronicles of Chic: Some call it fashion, some call it the epic fight between good and evil

6 Mar
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South Africa has been engaged in some hefty gender debates lately, and with good reason. But on a more subtle level, the lens through which women are viewed is being bent in a hundred creative ways on the world at large’s catwalks. From powerful women in tailored outfits to models in sexualised positions, from a celebration of the female body to its abuse, fashion itself wobbles between the best and the worst. By EMILIE GAMBADE.

On the morning of Valentine’s Day, one could have been forgiven for wishing that one (South African) part of the split-screen would disappear in the ether of bad, bad horror fantasy. From the bottom of Africa and in the eyes of a fashion reporter, the news was divided between flashes of the New York Fashion Week and the horrible death of Reeva Steenkamp. While some were celebrating women modelling in a creative frenzy of the latest designs by Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs, braving the blizzard left by the snowstorm Nemo, others were still stunned by the brutal deaths of Anene Booysen and Reeva Steenkamp.

In many ways, the paradox between women being abused, their rights being scorned all over the world, and pictures of models walking down the runway in luxury outfits, heels hammering the floor, projections of powerful and confident women, is rather ironic.

But it is not unsurprising: fashion battles with its own schizophrenia, partly iconic and inspiring, partly domineering. Fashion is pulled between feminism, a plea to empower and beautify women through their clothes and, on the opposite, an ultra-sexualisation of the woman’s body with a tendency to present models as objects instead of human beings. As feminist writer Meg Clark said, fashion is “An instrument of gender oppression and a means to feminist liberation.”

It is, without a doubt, dichotomous; on the good side, it is a symbol of women’s playful self-expression, a tool that can help shape someone’s public persona. Pulitzer Prize winner Robin Givhan explains that “fashion is the way we choose to present ourselves in the public square. It captures whether or not we choose to be on trend, but also addresses those people who have a belligerence towards fashion and are very stern in the announcing of their lack of interest in the subject.”

Fashion could also be a liberation: French designers Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet freed women from corsets and stiff structures in the 1920s, liberating their natural curves; years of social caging suddenly disappeared. Coco Chanel inspired many to think for themselves, “aloud”, offering sportive masculine silhouettes, short haircuts, wide pants that made ruffles and long skirts look very passé. Yves Saint Laurent dressed women in ‘le smoking’ (a tuxedo for women) showing off what the New York Times called a “lavishly moneyed kind” of woman, comfortable in her own pants.

Economically, the fashion industry, mainly the Haute Couture houses, kept shining a bright light on craftsmanship, showing the importance of technical skills and hand-made works. Parisian atelier François Lesage is one example of prestige given to craft. The incredible embroideries added finesse and sophistication to clothes and brought local workmanship back to the front stage, a deep contrast with the today’s controversial trio of fast-fashion, cheap labour and poor quality.

On the darker side, fashion rhymes with gender oppression. Fashion imagery is often scandalous, offering women’s ti(r)ed, battered and strapped bodies to the public eye as a socially acceptable and even desirable norm. Photographer Helmut Newton, the master of ‘porn chic,’ who transformed fashion photography with his breathtaking black and white portraits, depicted a woman that was either a femme fatale or afemme objet. Although men were often seen servile in the background, it didn’t go without some heavy controversy, the idea that a woman cannot be anything else but a sexual object.


Photo: The work of Helmut Newton

Last year, Bulgarian magazine 12 made the fashion headlines for choosing disturbing images of battered women for its editorial “Victim of Beauty” in an attempt to present the art and ‘magic’ of make-up. The result was shocking, as the series depicted abused women as possible fashion icons. At its best, it did show how effective special-effects make-up could be. At its worst, it was an outrageous shoot by Vasil Germanov, using violence on women as a possible trend-setting fashion editorial.

Fashion is also the driving force behind a long-lasting stereotype that defines a ‘beautiful’ woman as eternally young and skinny. The ghosts of anorexia still haunt the backstage of fashion weeks, and magazines, although they sometimes welcome front covers with curves and voluptuousness, mainly feature androgynous girls.

Naomi Wolf noted in The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” Thinness persists, and millions of women still bend under the weight of their scales, echoing the silent scream of an all-too obedient woman, who wants to please and appeal, prisoner of her own image.

Also on the list of controversies is the use of animal fur, which is a recurrent drama on the catwalks, PETA on the starting blocks of every fashion weeks, buckets of fresh blood in hand. Not to mention the race debates: white firmly remains the new white as seasons go by and racial diversity seems forever forgotten on international ramps; the fashion industry often sparks some heavy controversies about under-age labour in Asian countries.

What about fashion weeks? Apart from being a barometer of international trends, a marketplace for buyers from around the globe, and a recurrent live show for fashion controversies, it sometimes is and should be an epitome of femininity mixed with feminism, a tribute to women’s persona, as they are, ultimately, the clients. Madeleine Vionnet used to say, “The final aim of our métier is to create dresses that make a harmonious body and a pleasing silhouette. It is about making beauty. That’s what it’s all about.” Yves Saint Laurent claimed that what was “important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.”

This is a concept that shone brightly at some of the collections presented this season in New York and London; the art of empowering women seemed to find its way between feminine and masculine combinations, ample and restrained volumes, round edges and sharp cuts, heavy fabrics and sheer layers. For Autumn/ Winter 2013-2014, designers who managed to dress the woman’s body with attention, engaged in a look that embraced genders’ union.

Timo Weiland in New York showed a ‘strictly comes Manhattan’ look that was extremely flattering. It was boyish without lacking femininity, the yin and the yang combined in blue marine checked pattern, red chiffon and above-the-knee long leather and sheep shearling coats; they added a touch of elegant fun with inverted-bowl-shaped caps by South African Albertus Swanepoel.

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Photos: Timo Weiland

Tommy Hilfiger also played with the feminine-meets-masculine, wide coats floating over the body, empowering women with classic elegance. Victoria Beckham’s voluminous silhouettes and tailored cuts, in herringbone, tweed and tartan were definitely modern, while Max Mara went for wide shapes, men’s coats, pyjama’s style in shades of bronze and deep black.

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Photo: Max Mara

A similar trend was seen at Alexander Wang, the new fashion ‘chéri’ at the helm of Balenciaga, with elongated silhouettes punctuated with bombers, hooded pullovers in cashmere and long gloves in black fur. At Pierre Balmain and Rag & Bone, the woman rocks, simply, an air of decisive confidence on her shoulders, black leather pants, tailored jackets and pointy boots.

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Photos: Alexander Wang

In London, Paul Smith painted his manly women’s collection in bright colours, pleated pants, men’s shirts and reefer jackets. It was impeccable and casually chic.

Not all shows presented collections with a masculine twist, and the ones that didn’t were still remarkable. But pictures of an urban woman, showing that confidence, spirit and strictness are not mutually exclusive and that fashion and feminism can work, were refreshing and soul-soothing.

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Photo: Paul Smith

And then there were the barbarians.

The few designers who thought that caging woman’s body in some impossible outfits or leaving them naked, maybe under the idea that fashion is art, was somehow appealing.

Thom Browne, a relatively low-key designer until Michelle Obama graced the world in one of his coats for last January inaugural day, produced an interesting collection, borderline between the witch from Snow White and a woman jumping out of a geometry book. Shoulders were wide; patterns were straight and in line and roses were red. All in all, his woman looked stiff and stuck in some motionless era. This said, once deconstructed and pieces taken individually, it could work.

Veteran British designer Pam Hogg went for bold outfits, as in loud and extravagant, and uncontrolled hats; imagine an infatuated Chapka in white fur toping up a full body transparent jumpsuit, with bits of bunny hair hiding the chest and the pelvic area. She also was inspired enough or lazy enough to present models in total nudity, pushing the ‘less is more’ to the new depths of meaninglessness. She should have listened to Robin Givhan’s comment: “What’s troubling is when you come across a rogue expression of sexuality or one that is disrespectful or dismissive of women’s power. If you express sexuality without a sense of power and control, fashion enters very troubling waters.”

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Photo: Pam Hogg

Also in London, Ekaterina Kukhareva’s knitwear collection was interesting, but the Desperate Housewives impossible hairstyle and higher-than-high platform shoes seemed fitter to Lady Gaga’s shows than to real life. Women do want to have fun, but not at the price of a broken leg.

After Paris, Johannesburg will host the AFI Fashion Week, from the 7 to the 9 March, and the South African Fashion Week, from 10 to 13 April. In the end, it will be a month and a half of fashion weeks.

“It pains me physically to see a woman victimised, rendered pathetic, by fashion,” said Yves Saint Laurent. In the light of the recent murders and the rise of violence on women, it is more than necessary that fashion stops trivialising women’s bodies, featuring restrained limbs, battered figures as something desirable or even trendy. Our troubled culture doesn’t need fashion to be a bitch; it needs inspiration and respect. Urgently. DM

 This article was first published in the Daily Maverick