- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

Washington, D.C., might not be ready to overtake New York, Paris or Milan as a fashion mecca, but with a stylish first couple as its best ambassadors since the Kennedy era, the sartorially challenged seat of power in sensible pinstripes is finally getting a little respect.

Fashion observers credit the change to new Vogue cover girl Michelle Obama, a steady influx of high-end retailers (on March 6, luxury retailer Neiman Marcus will open its specialty store Last Call in Potomac Mills), and a bevy of fashion-oriented events such as this week’s DC Fashion Week and Northern Virginia Fashion Week, which starts Monday.

“All eyes are on D.C. - people are looking to it as the telltale of not just policy, but of style and taste,” says Maria Cuomo Cole, who has a foot in both the fashion and political worlds as the daughter of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and the wife of designer Kenneth Cole. “The ultimate tastemakers are in the White House.”

As an example of Mrs. Obama’s growing influence as a trendsetter, Jason Wu, the 20-something designer who created Mrs. Obama’s inaugural gown and the fuchsia sheath she sports on the March cover of Vogue, has been the toast of New York this week during the city’s annual Fashion Week, where top designers debut their fall designs while photographers click and style editors gawk. Even fashion’s ultimate arbiter, Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour, was spotted jostling for a seat at the Wu collection show.

Calling Mrs. Obama “a breath of fresh air here,” style consultant and Washington Life editor Lana Orloff said, “I’ve never seen so much media attention on what she is wearing. I have noticed more fashion shows and fashion-oriented events around town since the inauguration.”

“The Obamas are infusing this town with an energy and fashionable reputation that is definitely needed,” said Mary Amons, co-founder of the District Sample Sale, a popular event among Washington’s fashion-forward.

“We are not a town full of blue suits,” she said, a little hopefully.

Ms. Amons also gives credit to the other Michelle, the first lady of the District, Michelle Fenty, for adding a touch of glamour to the city.

“We have two beautiful women who are empowering our city with their sense of style,” she said.

Of course, there are skeptics who scoff at the notion of Washington’s stylish rebirth.

“It’s going to be a long time coming,” said Isabel Hagbrink, a longtime Washingtonian who now lives in Miami. “When you dress for a meeting with a politician or at the White House, you dress very conservatively. A city that wants to push the edge on fashion cannot be so conservative. I have things that I would wear in Miami that I would not dare wear in Washington.”

Paul Wharton, a fashion and lifestyle guru and owner of Evolution Look Online, agrees that Washington and New York are, in fashion terms, incommensurable.

“As a Washingtonian and former New Yorker, I honestly feel that no city in the world will ever rival New York in fashion,” he said.

Still, “Washington, D.C., has become a lot more fashion-forward recently,” he said. “One area where D.C. may surpass New York is in its ability to fuse fashion and philanthropy.”

In particular, Mr. Wharton cites March’s highly anticipated Fashion for Paws fundraiser, which benefits the Washington Humane Society. Tara de Nicolas, director of marketing and communication for the Washington Humane Society and a creator of the event, said the District’s fashion profile has been rising rapidly since she arrived here five years ago.

“Since then there has been an evolution of fashion in this city now intertwining with President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama’s ability to illuminate all that is chic,” said Ms. de Nicolas, a mainstay of D.C.’s fashion and social landscapes.

Mrs. Cole, a New Yorker, comes to Washington frequently to promote MentoringUSA, a nonprofit that provides mentors for children. She is partnering with Bloomingdale’s stores nationwide for a “Fashionable Fundraiser” for her cause Wednesday, on the heels of New York Fashion Week, which started Feb. 13. An annual highlight of the fashionista calendar, it now has counterparts in Washington and, for the first time ever, in Northern Virginia.

“It makes total sense to have a fashion week, because Tyson’s Corner Center is the fifth-largest fashion district in the U.S., making billions of dollars off of fashion trends,” said Andrew Roby, executive director of Northern Virginia Fashion Week.

Now in its 10th year, D.C. Fashion Week also is gaining steam.

Ean Williams, executive director of D.C. Fashion Week, said the purpose of the eight-day event is to promote Washington as a global leader in fashion and to advocate issues important to the clothing industry.

“Fair trade, protection of the environment, visas for models - it’s only natural that designers come to D.C. to lobby their causes,” he said.

Ashley Taylor, a granddaughter of Washington jeweler Ann Hand, said the influx of stores such as Juicy Couture in Georgetown and Christian Dior in Chevy Chase has made a difference.

“You can see people changing,” she said. “Every year, I have noticed the style register going up. This year, especially, everyone is dressing with more personality.”

Indeed, when asked whether her fellow New Yorkers poke fun at their less chic Washington friends, Mrs. Cole replied, “Not anymore.”

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