Tag Archives: America

{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



{Time Travel} Chronicles of Chic: Mighty milliner – a tale of perseverance

7 Mar

“Christian Lacroix once said, “a hat is the dot on the ‘i’; to me, this is exactly it; it finishes an outfit, it’s like an exclamation mark; it’s so small… It’s sculptural.’ Albertus Swanepoel’s stylish sculptures are often seen perched on the heads of Hollywood celebrities and dandling on the catwalks of New York Fashion Week; don’t be fooled, the road was long to make it in America. The milliner from Pretoria meets with EMILIE GAMBADE from Paris in midtown Manhattan.

Lafayette Street; Courtney Love walks by, swathed in a long brown shapeless coat, hair hanging loose, her shadow soon swallowed by the city. Albertus Swanepoel, a tall silhouette dressed head-to-toe in black, punctuated with an impassable smile, meets this reporter at a local coffee shop, down a steep staircase.

Seated at a round table in the darkness of a midtown Manhattan underground café, Swanepoel appears graceful despite his haute stature; it might be the softness of his voice or the light hopping in his eyes, but there is gentleness in his being, something that also shines through his creations. It could be two fuchsia and coral flowers on a straw hat, a piece of gold brocade, a cloche covered with tango-pink lace, a shweshwe ribbon crowning a wide-brimmed panama; there is grace and an undeniable distinctiveness in his elegant hats, a panache out of Africa.

Born in Pretoria, Swanepoel studied fashion design and worked for seven years in the country until he and his wife decided to leave South Africa for the US: “My big dream was to go to Paris; yet, I was so stunned by New York… it was in 1989; it was very glamorous.”

In 1991, the glamour dims as recession hits America and the aspiring fashion designer is forced to apply his creativity and talent to a more lucrative project. “I couldn’t get a job because I had to get sponsored and this wasn’t easy; I (was) more and more depressed; my wife and I bought gloves from Italy and started decorating them with rhinestones and other precious things; it was all done by hand… It (was) very chic.”

Fifth Avenue luxury goods store Bergdorf Goodman was suitably charmed: a $10,000 order followed, leading Swanepoel and his wife towards a growing fashion accessory commerce operating mainly in winter when temperatures drop and the demand for gloves blooms. “Because it was only a winter business, I had to do something for summer; I reluctantly went back to school and started to study millinery at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT); I interned for millinery for another seven years and was a hand-weaver over the weekend; at one point, I handled three jobs; things were really tough… It was miserable.”

The Swanepoel couple ran their small hat company until they separated in 2000; Albertus then stumbled into a series of what he calls “disasters”, from losing his job as style editor of Martha Stewart Wedding magazine to being evicted from his Manhattan flat. Yet, no matter the bumpy road, no matter the shared Brooklyn apartment with 11 other people and a storage room where all his belongings – hat blocks, books, clothes – were flooded and destroyed in one night, there is no bitterness in Swanepoel’s tone as he tells the story of his journey to New York; instead, he is a humble man who got used to constantly adjusting the helm and accepting hiccups as part of the ride.

It was only two years after separating from his wife, in 2002, that Swanepoel met his boyfriend who happens to know the head of design at Marc Jacobs. Jacobs’s team needed hats for the collection and soon Swanepoel designed a first range, quickly followed by another one for Proenza Schouler. “First, they (Proenza Schouler) ordered five cloches; then 10; the day before the show, they ordered 25 dark cloches. A hat is the last thing designers and stylists think about; it’s like ‘oh, okay, let’s put a hat on the model!’ I worked through the night for three days and, in the end, the show looked amazing.” So much so that Style.com featured Swanepoel in its digital magazine, 25 gallery-pages of his creations and the beginning of recognition; the wheel had turned.

“I didn’t have a collection at the time. I literally slammed a collection in a week, went to see Barney’s – they were the ultimate store to sell to – and they gave me an incredible order asking for exclusivity; that’s how my business really started.”

In 2008, Swanepoel entered the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)/Vogue Fashion Fund competition; founded to “support the next generation of American fashion designers”, it is to the world of fashion what the Academy Awards are to movies; doing well there it is to walk a Vogue walk of fame.

“They chose 10 finalists; I was one of them… you then become part of that very elite Vogue/CFDA clique. It helped my career unbelievably.” With a panel of judges including Anna Wintour, Diane von Furstenberg and Patrick Robinson, ex-Director of GAP, it sure helps connect with the select “who is who” of the fashion family and fast-forward the climb to recognition; and if this wasn’t glamorous enough, there is always the occasional party at Wintour’s house. “They have this incredible network of business people who can help you… and of course, every year, there is a fabulous party.”

As a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund runner up, Swanepoel soon received press attention and his hats were regularly featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE or the New York Times. He also collaborated with Kate Winslet on her book The Golden Hat: Talking Back to Autism in which 100 celebrities wear his hat with proceeds being used to “build innovative living campuses for people with autism.”

Another benefit of being part of the CFDA/Vogue elite is exposure; the milliner was recently in Paris, part of the CFDA/Vogue exhibition called “Americans in Paris”; 10 carefully handpicked winners of the Fashion Fund competition presenting their range rue Marbeuf. PR-ed by KCD, the public relations house for Cartier, Balmain, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs and Gap, to name but a few, the exhibition is for the 10 designers a marketing coup on RedBull; if all sales fail, they have been presented as Wintour’s protégés, her reputable eye and non-dismissible opinion like a stamp of hype embossed on the designers’ creations.

Swanepoel can boast about covering the heads of Julia Roberts, Aretha Franklin, the über-trendy Michelle Williams and Marion Cotillard; he can brag about designing hats to crown the collections of Thakoon, Caroline Herrera and Alexander Wang or drinking cocktails with Wintour, but he surprisingly doesn’t; he has a particularly sharp understanding of his place in a highly capricious world and a compassionate look at his struggling past.

“I was very upset the first few years… All I wanted was to be a fashion designer; it didn’t work… I always loved craft so it was easy to break into the fashion accessories world. I have a really small business, but I’m highly regarded and it’s a niche market; there are literally five of us in New York, who design hats for men and women.”

Would have it been the same in his home country? “I don’t think I would have had the same success story in South Africa; there is not the same hat culture, although one could think people should wear hats because of the sun; I feel in South Africa, it’s more  show business, it’s really ostentatious; people are trying to make a statement, which is not what I do. My hats are very much wearable.”

Swanepoel assessment of South Africa’s weak fashion sector that is handicapped by a lack of excellence in education, the decline of the manufacturing industry and a poor access to quality fabrics, is damning in its precision. “My teacher studied in London, there are brilliant pattern makers and tailors; they share their craftsmanship; there is no one in South Africa who can pass on that sort of legacy anymore. Do people travel? Get experience? In South Africa, ego seems to be bigger than talent… If you want to play on the bigger stage, then get real.”

Despite his obvious love for his birth country –, his constant use of African textures, fabrics, bits and pieces from the mother land – Swanepoel gives a piercing review of our local fashion design landscape: “I truly think that in South Africa there is amazing advertising, there are people doing incredible furniture design, industrial design, but fashion design stinks; there is nobody who gets it right; except maybe Marianne (Fassler), or Black Coffee; everybody else either copies Europe or it looks like a Broadway musical. I don’t understand it; I’m just fascinated.

Talent without knowledge, passion and perseverance often fades; but when it all comes together, it becomes like the dot on the “i”. Essential.

“I must say, I was a little bit the same when I started and I had never been overseas; I called myself a couture designer; I went to London, to New York and I walked into Barney’s; I saw what people can do; I was depressed out of my skull. I was like, what the hell have I been thinking?”  DM

This story was first published in the Daily Maverick