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First lady shines fashion spotlight on Chicago

In Michelle Obama's hometown, working women hustle back and forth from home to the office in stylish shoes they can walk fast and far in. It's that Midwestern pragmatism with a cosmopolitan edge, personified by Obama, that is shining a spotlight on Chicago's scene.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In Michelle Obama's hometown, working women hustle back and forth from home to the office in stylish shoes they can walk fast and far in. They wear chic but commonsense coats that keep them warm in the winters — and those famous sleeveless tops favored by the first lady in the summer.

It's that Midwestern pragmatism with a cosmopolitan edge, personified by Mrs. Obama, that is shining a runway spotlight on Chicago's fashion scene, say style watchers, retail experts and fashion designers.

"It shows you can fashionably be from Chicago," fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger said this month at a Chicago event where he was introduced as mentor for emerging young designers from the city. "You don't have to be from New York, Paris or Milan."

Earlier this year, The Washington Post dubbed Chicago's fashion industry, home to Obama stylist and tony boutique owner Ikram Goldman and Maria Pinto, a favorite designer of the first lady, "The Milan of the Midwest."

"Her (Obama's) fashion instincts and how she puts herself together are a direct reflection on fashion in Chicago," said Terry Lundgren, the chairman, president and chief executive of the national department store chain Macy's Inc.

‘Chicago isn’t showing off’Obama's style is pure Chicago: She favors comfortable but hardworking off-the-rack separates that reflect the city's down-to-earth roots and livable style.

"She dresses like an urban working woman as opposed to dressing like a first lady," InStyle fashion director Hal Rubenstein said. "Chicago isn't showing off. Chicago is going through the day. She comes out there well-dressed but accessible."

Her everywoman appeal is clear — note the spikes in sales of the Obama family's J.Crew outfits, for example — but Mrs. Obama is also drawing attention to new, under-the-radar talent. She's already been named a fashion icon by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Obama largely puts her confidence in Chicago's designers to guide her White House style, Rubenstein said. Goldman's boutique ikram in the city's Gold Coast district is a favorite of the first lady.

"Her hotline is not going through New York," Rubenstein said. "Her hotline goes through a place where she feels comfortable. She trusts this voice from her hometown. It's not about, 'I have to get a Washington D.C. coordinator to find out what to wear to a state dinner."'

And the source of Obama's fashion inspiration is enjoying a newfound respect for its designers and boutiques. The style-conscious sets in California, New York and Europe now pay attention to Chicago, said Barbara Glass, a Chicago fashion commentator and image consultant.

Seeking Windy City designers
The city had been viewed as having conservative taste. Its previous run as a fashion capital came and went in the early 20th century when it was home to many menswear manufacturers.

At one time, "people weren't necessarily impressed if it was a Chicago designer," Glass observed. "It didn't have a good ring to it. She's changed that."

Now, shoppers are seeking out the designers behind the first lady's signature style.

"They'll ask me, 'Is this something Michelle Obama would wear?"' said Melissa Serpico Kamhout, 32, describing the clientele at her boutique, Serpico, in the Wicker Park neighborhood. A particular pale blush-colored dress caught a lot of customer eyes, she said.

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"A lot of people have mentioned they think it would be a beautiful color for her," Kamhout said. "You can tell how influential she is. It's on their minds what designers she wears."

Although a major one, Obama is just a single factor in the growth of Chicago's fashion scene, said Beth Wilson, Chicago correspondent for Women's Wear Daily.

In 2006, Mayor Richard Daley convened the Mayor's Fashion Council to put support behind the city's designers. Two years later, the city partnered with Macy's to form the Chicago Fashion Incubator to give young designers space and training for their work.

"That started creating momentum and awareness," Wilson said.

Both Chicago and Obama set fashion standards for themselves that are acceptable to most of the world, Glass added.

"The Midwest is all about no nonsense," she said. "She maintains that philosophy. We are not about glitz. We are not fluff, but we do enjoy looking glamorous and pretty."