Designer dishes on dressing Michelle Obama

Do you remember what anybody wore to the Oscars in February? Doubtful. But Sarah Palin’s rimless specs? A phenomenon. This year, politics shouldered aside pop culture for pride of place in the global imagination, and, like it or not, fashion came along for the ride.

Thakoon Panichgul, of course, likes it just fine: In August, Michelle Obama arrived for the final night of the Democratic National Convention in Denver wearing a signature-print floral shift from Thakoon’s Resort collection. The rest is history — literally. Photographs of the Obamas, taken that evening, number among the campaign’s most iconic tableaux. “A print dress? On TV?” Panichgul notes puckishly. “There’s change you can believe in.” Now the masses memorizing the name “Thakoon” can buy a bit of change for themselves — the designer’s new collection for Target debuted in late December.

Panichgul talks to about his new range, Thakoon Addition, his sunny take on gloomy times, and why, even though dressing the soon-to-be First Lady has been a dream come true, it’s not his fashion fantasy.Q: Your Target collection is suspiciously summery. Did they rush the clothes into stores in order to capitalize on the Obama connection?A: Not at all. The whole idea with Target was to design a sort of Resort collection. They’d never done anything like that, which I liked. The high-low collaboration has gotten pretty old hat, and the way I made it fun for myself was by trying something new.

Q: All the designers I’ve talked to about these Target collaborations report very positive experiences. I believe them, but I also wonder whether there are certain challenges inherent in the process that people don’t mention for the sake of diplomacy. Care to step into the breach?

A: My experience was positive too. Fundamentally, it’s just nice, when you come from a tiny operation, where you have to be hands-on with everything, to have a chance to deliver your designs and then let this army of helpers take over. What was challenging, for me, was getting the prints right. Most inexpensive fabrics don’t take color very well, and we had to go through a couple rounds of tests before I felt like I was satisfied. I’m a print-focused designer, and it was important that the Target prints meet a certain standard.

Q: You’re launching a secondary line, Thakoon Addition, for Spring. Was there anything you learned from working with Target that you brought to the development of that range?

A: First of all, I really want to clarify that Thakoon Addition is not a diffusion. A lot of people have been talking about it that way, but the range represents a lateral expansion of my brand, not a vertical one. I’d love to have a store where I could present a whole universe of Thakoon, and if the runway line is the center of that universe, Thakoon Addition is the first satellite I’m putting into orbit around it. The clothes will cost about the same as the runway clothes, and they’ll hang with them in stores, and we’re only offering the collections to retailers who already carry Thakoon.

Q: So how does Thakoon Addition differ from Thakoon?

A: Primarily, I see Thakoon Addition as a place to store ideas. In any given season, I’ve got ideas flying around that don’t fit what I’m planning for the runway, but belong somewhere. Now I don’t have to abandon that stuff. And Thakoon Addition can be a home for recurring pieces as well; looks my customers want from me, consistently. And no, to preempt the inevitable next question, I didn’t conceive Thakoon Addition as something sales-friendly for the sucky economy. I’ve been thinking about doing this for at least a year. And my runway collections tend to be pretty accessible anyway. Now, maybe I’ll have a chance to experiment more, but at heart I like to make wearable clothes.

Q: Surely the “sucky economy” is affecting you, though — at a business level, if not creatively.

Q: Or, to put it another way, “Yes, we can.”

A: [Laughs] Here we go.

Q: Are you sick of talking about Michelle Obama? Or can I ask…?

A: No, no — I’m not sick of talking about it at all! Or, at least, I’m happy to talk about it up to a point. There are certain questions I’m just not crazy about. But, please, that was a huge moment for me.

Q: Did you know she would be wearing that dress the final night of the convention?

A: I knew she’d bought a couple pieces, so I was on the lookout. But to see my print on her that last night, I mean...The next morning there was a photo of her and Barack on the cover of USA Today, and I think that’s when I was like, Oh my God. I couldn’t comprehend it. Or, maybe I was comprehending too much, all at once, to take it in. People know my work in the fashion community, but fashion’s a small world, in some ways, and to go from that to… you know. Suddenly, the whole world — the whole real world — is paying attention. And I do mean the whole world. One of the nicest things about Michelle wearing that dress is that I’ve gotten to see firsthand all the excitement about the election that’s happening outside of America. Like, the Europeans are obsessed.

Q: Is there anyone else you’d love to dress? Or has Michelle Obama capped your fashion fantasies for all time?

A: In my bones, I’m a fashion person, and I always come back to those days in Omaha and the images that first consumed me. So I’d love to see Christy Turlington in my clothes. If I could just dress Christy, I’d be set.