- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008

At 5-feet-11 in her stocking feet, political wife Michelle Obama is supermodel tall and “the perfect mannequin” for fashion.

Since she hit the campaign trail in support of her husband last year, she has soared to the top of best-dressed lists and has been a much-in-demand cover model for women’s magazines, which have touted her graceful but accessible personal style, wearing everything from upscale designers to mass-marketed H&M; frocks.

For the first time perhaps, an American political figure, albeit a candidate’s wife, has stepped out in garments that real-life women can purchase at the mall, and they are responding to her get-real savvy for dressing.

“I think she proves that elegance doesn’t have to be expensive,” observes Palm Beach stylist Cathy Orrico, whose namesake boutique C.Orrico, filled with colorful Lilly Pulitzer designs and beach-inspired apparel, has been dressing the well-heeled for years.

“It’s thrilling to see her day in and day out at a realm of taste that is not a couture proposition,” she said.

Indeed, Mrs. Obama’s classy-but-common touch to clothing has sparked a discourse on making it work, whether high fashion or on a budget. There is even a Web site, www.mrs-o.org - dubbed “a regular look at what and who she’s wearing” - devoted to analyzing her every ensemble.

The site asks fashionista readers to identify her outfits through photos from each campaign stop and public appearance and to write in and identify the designer or label. It links to the stores’ Web sites, where her fashion admirers can see the prices she paid and pick up their own copycat looks.

On one level, Mrs. Obama’s ready-to-wear style is easy to imitate. On recent campaign swings through Florida, she wore floral circle skirts and matching solid-colored sweaters in bright tones, accessorized by metallic ballet flats, which worked in the humid, tropical climate.

But on another level, she has favored and earned plaudits for her fitted, sleeveless and often three-quarter sleeved shift dresses, many in rich jewel-toned colors like purple and teal, which she has worn at key campaign events, including the night her husband accepted the Democratic nomination. Many remember not only her spirited fist-bump with husband Barack Obama, but also her outfit. Those monochromatic power dresses - deftly accessorized with her famed tri-strand of pearls or often with a bold pin from her own jewelry box - call attention to not only her height, but her athletic build, which helps her to exude feminine strength as she stumps for her husband.

“She has that kind of sinewy body, strong shoulders, small waist - they hang beautifully on her,” Miss Orrico observes of her wardrobe’s chic wearability.

When Mrs. Obama appeared on “The Tonight Show” last week, host Jay Leno tweaked her for a response on criticism about Republican vice-presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin’s $150,000 campaign wardrobe, which Mrs. Palin argues is not her own property, but belongs to her party.

Mrs. Obama did not take the bait, diplomatically explaining that it was hard for a new candidate to quickly jump into the demands of a campaign and the need for a polished wardrobe fit for a national stage. She then fessed up to Mr. Leno about the yellow skirt and sweater set.

“I want to ask you about your wardrobe. I’m guessing about 60 grand? $60-$70,000 for that outfit?” Mr. Leno quipped.

“Actually, this is a J. Crew ensemble,” she revealed. “We ladies, we know with J. Crew, you can get some good stuff online.”

“Doesn’t that take the fun out of it?” Mr. Leno parried about using a mall-style retailer such as J. Crew.

“When you don’t have time, you’ve got to click,” she replied.

Quickly, the Mrs. O Web site linked to the J. Crew site, where it showed the specific items Mrs. Obama had worn on television.

Others are taking notice of her mass appeal and admiring her ability to adapt her fashion as seamlessly as she seems to juggle her roles as mom and supportive campaign spouse.

“I think that Michelle Obama is very comfortable with who she is and what she represents,” says Michigan clothier and personal style consultant Michelle Thelen. “She demands attention without even speaking. When she shows up, she looks smart, confident and comfortable. I believe she picks pieces that represent her role as a woman and yet someone that completely stands by her family. Her look is versatile, classy and yes, a bit Jackie O.”

With the election just days away and her husband leading in the polls, the buzz begins anew about a possible inaugural wardrobe.

For her first inaugural, first lady Laura Bush favored clothes by Dallas designer Michael Faircloth. Texas-born designer Leila Rose created some of the inaugural ensembles for Mrs. Bush’s twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna.

Mrs. Obama, during the current campaign, has consistently favored styles by her own hometown favorite, Chicago-born designer Maria Pinto, who has fans in Oprah Winfrey and pal Gayle King, and whose own profile has risen as her modern clothes in luxe fabrics have been featured on the national political stage. Over the past few months, media have come calling at her new store in Chicago, which opened in August.

Mrs. Pinto’s media representative last week declined to comment on what would be the fashion call of a lifetime - doing an inaugural ensemble or a wardrobe for a new first lady.

Mrs. Obama, a corporate marketing and public relations executive in Chicago who had worn Mrs. Pinto’s designs long before her husband decided to make a run for the presidency, will certainly have her pick of designers if her husband wins the presidency.

Miss Orrico speculated that Mrs. Obama, in keeping with her own middle-class success storyline and desire to remain close to her roots in inner-city Chicago, will choose an American designer whose styles fit her worldview.

“It makes a lot of sense that she would use American designers. It continues with the pride they are bringing back into America and getting down to our roots,” Miss Orrico said.

“That was one of the things that made Jackie Kennedy so compelling. Yes, she did Chanel, but ultimately, she was a distinctly American beauty who wore American designers, from Oleg Cassini to Lilly Pulitzer, with a style that made them every bit as powerful, and that is the essence of American beauty.”

She adds of Mrs. Obama’s appeal: “She is attainable elegance. I think she’s going to have many designers making themselves very available to her. She puts her style mark on everything she wears, but she still keeps her identity. With her inner strength and her beauty, she’s the perfect form and personality for their clothes.”

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