The following interview appears in the current print issue of The Advocate and was conducted prior to the inauguration.
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."