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First lady takes her signature style abroad

Michelle Obama packed a suitcase of her favorite designers for her first overseas trip as first lady, wearing many of the same labels she has put on the fashion map — including retailer J. Crew and designers Thakoon, Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Michelle Obama packed a suitcase of her favorite designers for her first overseas trip as first lady, wearing many of the same labels she has put on the fashion map — including the unstuffy retailer J. Crew.

As she toured London Wednesday ahead of the G-20 summit and met Queen Elizabeth II, Mrs. Obama stuck with many of the labels that she wore during inauguration festivities two months ago — Jason Wu, Thakoon and Isabel Toledo — reaffirming her role as champion of unsung American fashion.

She also wore items by the better-known Michael Kors, whom she also wore for her first official portrait, and J.Crew, the brand she once said she shopped for online at night.

"She's continuing her understated glamour," said Anamaria Wilson, fashion news/features director at Harper's Bazaar. "She puts her own individual twist on things. She'll mix a print, wear a nice vivid color. ... And she's still wearing American designers, fostering American fashion, something we need to be doing right now."

The two-tone Toledo dress she wore to meet the queen had an ivory camisole top, origami-style waistband and a full tea-length black skirt. British reporters had buzzed about whether Mrs. Obama would bare her arms with the queen; she did not, covering them with a black cardigan, but later shed the sweater for the G-20 working dinner.

The look had a retro vibe — almost like the late Princess Grace of Monaco.

Otherwise, Mrs. Obama's outfits were a little more fashion-forward and carried a message of measured cheerfulness.

She got on Air Force One wearing an ivory tulle tweed coat by Thakoon adorned with a jeweled floral brooch, a black sheath by Kors and strands of pearls. When she arrived hours later, she stepped off in a sunny chartreuse-colored silk dress with a shawl collar by Wu, wrapped in a long black Kors cardigan and a studded black belt she has worn many times before.

"When you think about the chartreuse color she wore to step off the plane, I think it was an optimistic color," said Marc Karimzadeh, designer sportswear editor at Women's Wear Daily. "The hopeful, optimistic color really signifies what a lot of people hope this trip will be."

She toured a cancer center with Sarah Brown in a J.Crew ensemble that included a mint-green pencil skirt and beaded cardigan in champagne, paired with embossed patent leather Jimmy Choo pumps. It was a sharp visual contrast to the dark navy Britt Lintner dress, dark pantyhose and black pumps that the British prime minister's wife was wearing.

The light color helped establish a casual-yet-elegant tone, Karimzadeh said, while successfully keeping her from looking too stiff, which often happens in a political setting. (The J.Crew pieces are available in stores — at least for now. The retailer reports that each time Mrs. Obama wears something it sells out.)

Jenna Lyons, J.Crew's creative director, said Mrs. Obama successfully matches separates and accessories that weren't laid out as a package by designers. And the dot pattern in her skirt and the constellation pattern of the beads in her sweater is an other example of the bold style that has become her "hallmark," Lyons said.

"She loves the cardigan," noted Bazaar's Wilson. "She keeps it classic, but she's not wearing a buttoned-up look either. She always keeps it modern in the confines of classic fashion."

She added, "Michelle Obama is not afraid to be individual and make a fashion statement, which is refreshing."

Not surprisingly, Lyons also thought the first lady sent the right message by wearing pieces from a mainstream source instead of all couture labels. "Considering everything that's happening in the economy and in the world, I think this is a smart and appropriate way to say to Europe, 'I shop at a place that you might shop at, a place where regular people shop.'"