- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

Michelle Obama‘s fashion choices are poised to do more than just set trends, like past first ladies. Hers may catapult a new generation of lesser-known women and minority designers to prominence in a profession often dominated by white men.

Mrs. Obama already has brought attention to such female newcomers as Maria Pinto, a fellow Chicagoan, and Thai native Thakoon.

The Italian-American Miss Pinto was an obscure dressmaker two years ago, but now her design is rumored to be a leading contender for Mrs. Obama’s choice for her inaugural gown.

Mrs. Obama “doesn’t go for the typical,” said Nick Verreos, a Hispanic women’s designer and former “Project Runway” contestant. “She’s going to bring new designers like me with her over the next four years.”

Since the 1960s, the first ladies’ clothiers have been an exclusive club, made up mostly of white, male designers. They have included Oleg Cassini (Jacqueline Kennedy), Adolfo (Nancy Reagan), Arnold Scaasi (Barbara Bush), and Oscar de la Renta (Laura Bush). Hillary Rodham Clinton’s choice was the only woman: Donna Karan.

Fashion industry observers now see the club of first lady designers expanding and becoming more diverse, like the Obama family itself.

“Mrs. Obama is comfortable in her own skin and does not need the old guard of designers to complete her message of youth and energy,” said Treena Lombardo, fashion market director for the fashion industry’s W magazine.

Miss Lombardo sees Mrs. Obama raising the profile of minority designers like black B Michael and Indian-American Rachel Roy.

Mr. Michael designed the gown to be worn by inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander, and Miss Roy designed a piece for “Runway for Change,” a collection of handbags and T-shirts made by pro-Obama fashionistas.

“Michelle Obama will not only be a support to young designers but to people everywhere who are or have experienced hardship or great challenges,” Miss Roy said via e-mail.

Designer selections by famous and glamorous women send powerful messages, said Letitia Baldrige, social secretary to Mrs. Kennedy. “By choosing one designer to make her wardrobe, Michelle Obama will make that designer famous for the rest of his or her life.”

Mrs. Baldrige points out that Mrs. Kennedy selected Ann Lowe, a black woman, to make her wedding dress, and continued to patronize her during her tenure as first lady.

In 1996, Carolyn Bessette, the bride of John F. Kennedy Jr., selected a little-known Cuban designer named Narcisco Rodriguez to design her wedding gown, much to the consternation of Calvin Klein, the bride’s employer.

The gown catapulted Mr. Rodriguez to international fame.

On election night, Mrs. Obama stood victorious next to her husband in Chicago’s Grant Park in one of Mr. Rodriguez’s dresses.

“It’s just like a girlfriend or your sister taking you to a different store when you shop,” said Washington fashion consultant Lauren A. Rothman. “That is what Michelle will do for consumers by exposing them to new designers.”

Restaurateur and lifestyle guru B. Smith said Mrs. Obama’s choice of minority designers is not coincidental. “The Obamas have a social conscience about everything they do. They want to make a difference for these young designers,” said Miss Smith, a former model who is black.

“Like her husband, she will bring change,” Mr. Verreos said.

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