Hoping to "Wu" Michelle

Dressing Michelle Obama in November was a game changer for designer Jason Wu. Now he has his sights set on the future first lady’s most high-profile event: Inauguration Day.

BY

January 07 2009 1:00 AM ET

  The quest
to design the inaugural gown for Michelle Obama, the
American fashion industry’s undisputed new muse, has
ignited a Project Runway–like challenge
of epic proportions for a diverse group of designers
whose lines have already benefited from the future first
lady’s patronage. Some, like Maria Pinto and
Thakoon Panichgul, are largely unknown, while others,
like gay Cuban-American Narciso Rodriguez, are
well-established in elite circles; the crimson-and-black
scoop-neck Rodriguez dress Michelle wore on Election
Night inspired spirited, deeply divided debate among
style bloggers.

“I’m not sure it’s a conscious
decision, but I believe her whole [message] is about
newness, about change,” designer Jason Wu says of
Obama’s style. “And what better way to
represent that than from a fashion standpoint?”

Obama’s
fashion standpoint delights Wu. At 26, he won national
attention when Obama appeared on a Barbara Walters TV
interview wearing an adaptation of a silk sheath dress
from his spring 2009 collection. Eminently feminine,
the hand-embroidered dress was a confident departure
from the relatively matronly skirt suits of Oscar de la
Renta and other tried-and-true design houses that have
epitomized first lady attire for years.
“There’s no muss, no fuss,” Wu explains
of the dress. “It worked because she’s
not ornate. She’s fresh. But beyond that, I think
she’s made an even bigger statement by wearing
brands that are more budget-conscious, like J.
Crew.”

While still in
his teens Wu created a series of high-fashion dolls, which
served as miniature blueprints for what he would later
design for the New York runways. A onetime intern for
Rodriguez, Wu launched his women’s label three
years ago. Since then a front-row seat at his runway shows
has become an imperative for the many editors and stylists
who are captivated by the Taiwan-born gay
designer’s effortlessly chic sensibility.

Ultimately, Wu
considers himself a “long shot” when it comes
to the big prize -- designing the first lady’s
inaugural gown. But in turbulent economic times,
Obama’s nod has already proven a godsend for a young
designer aiming for international relevance.
“It’s brought the profile of the brand
to a different level,” Wu says. “She’s
just the ultimate person to dress.”

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