- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

How does a symbol of American chic hold her own next to a former supermodel while not alienating recession-bound Americans back home?

Global economic meltdown, a nuclearized Iran and an increasingly bloody conflict in Afghanistan can wait. As the American first couple head to Strasbourg, France, on Friday for the NATO summit, a besotted international press corps is breathlessly awaiting a clash of international style icons: the first meeting between the toned and sporty Mrs. Obama and the Dior-donning cabaret-style singer Carla Bruni Sarkozy, the slinky wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Both women are young and widely praised for their personal styles. Unlike Mrs. Sarkozy, however, Mrs. Obama’s highly scrutinized wardrobe has been a calculated mix of haute couture and - in deference to her cash-strapped constituents - off-the-rack accessibility: a Thakoon coat en route to London; a J. Crew cardigan and skirt for an outing with Sarah Brown, wife of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown; Isabel Toledo and Jason Wu paired with another J. Crew sweater for an audience with Queen Elizabeth II (during which the first lady casually wrapped a long arm around the sovereign’s waist).

Proving that she is not above being seen in the same thing twice, Mrs. Obama has been towering over her hosts in the same green Jimmy Choo pumps worn at the inaugural swearing-in ceremonies.

“I think Michelle Obama’s approach to fashion and style is perfectly appropriate for these times,” American fashion designer Tory Burch reflected in an e-mail to The Washington Times. “She wears designers at a range of price points and is showing the world that having great personal style is more about understated elegance than about how much money you spend.”

The world must be catching on: The $298 sparkly sweater from J. Crew worn by the first lady has already sold out.

At a school visit with Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Obama broke with tradition by wearing a sweater designed by a non-American. The argyle-style cardigan was by Junya Watanabe, a Japanese designer, who cut his teeth at fashion powerhouse Comme des Garcons.

Semonti Mustaphi, deputy press secretary to Mrs. Obama, tells The Times that her office cannot confirm that the first lady will stick with American designers for the remainder of her European trip. Ms. Mustaphi also said that Mrs. Obama’s wardrobe choices will not be revealed in advance of her meeting with Mrs. Sarkozy.

“I think it’s very important for Mrs. Obama to wear only American designers,” said Mandi Norwood, author of “Michelle Style: Celebrating the First Lady of Fashion.” “American designers need all the help they can get, and she is their very best ambassador. American designers have been given a bad rap over the years for not being as innovative or as creative as the Europeans. In fact, American design is wonderfully creative, but it’s also wearable, and that’s what counts, especially in this economy.”

“It’s great that Mrs. Obama is promoting American fashion, but she does not need to do it all the time,” countered Nanette Lepore, a New York-based fashion designer who operates a boutique in Chevy Chase. “She just wore the cardigan. The rest of her outfit was designed by an American.”

Observing that Mrs. Obama’s blending of fashions from the runways and the local mall creates “a polished look that is not too extravagant,” Ms. Lepore said: “Her formula of bold colors and beautiful cuts is working for her. Carla tends to be on the conservative side, and she does not do color that well.”

In her view, American fashion partisans have nothing to fear in this style duel for the ages between the Old World and the New.

“We won’t be embarrassed when [Mrs. Obama] is next to Carla,” she said. “She will hold her own.”

And now back to global economic meltdown.

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