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Meet Michelle Obama’s maverick designers

by By Mike Celizic /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY contributor

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He went to bed Tuesday night a young fashion designer with no name recognition beyond the industry and his clients. He awoke Wednesday morning a household name.

“I’m a part of history, and that’s amazing,” Jason Wu, the 26-year-old who designed Michelle Obama’s inaugural ball gown, told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Wednesday in New York. “Words can’t describe how I felt. It was awesome.”

Wu was joined on the show by Isabel Toledo, who designed the striking ensemble the first lady wore to her husband’s swearing-in. The two designers were among several who had submitted designs to Obama for her Inauguration Day outfits. Neither knew that their clothes would be the ones the first lady wore until they saw her wearing them on TV.

A style of her own
Vieira asked Toledo how she reacted when she saw Obama wearing Toledo’s yellow-gold dress and capelike coat at the inauguration.

“I would probably say tears,” the 47-year-old Cuban immigrant said. “I was so happy. I was so impressed with her choice. I was so happy that she looked so beautiful and content.”

Wu’s gown was an ivory, fitted-bodice, one-shoulder design, covered in fabric petals, dotted with beads and featuring a short train.

The designer said he views Michelle Obama as a powerful and energetic woman and wanted that to come through. “Michelle is statuesque — she’s tall, she’s beautiful. I wanted to design a gown that would highlight her best feature,” he told Vieira.

Fashion critics have been near unanimous in praising the first lady’s sense of style and her choices of lesser-known designers, whose work she finds on her own. They also remarked on her willingness to mix and match, wearing olive gloves by J. Crew and forest-green heels by Jimmy Choo with Toledo’s dress, for example. For First Kids Malia and Sasha, she chose brightly colored coats by J. Crew.

Two immigrants
The designers she chose for her dress and gown are seen as representing the American Dream. Wu immigrated to the United States from Taiwan as a young man, while Toledo came from Cuba. Wu studied at Parsons School of Design in New York, while Toledo attended both Parsons and FIT, also in New York.

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 epa01607154 United States' President Barack Obama (L) and First Lady Michelle Obama walk in the Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C. 20 January 2009. Obama defeated Republican candidate John McCain on Election Day 04 November 2008 to become the next U.S. President. EPA/RON SACHS / POOL Ron Sachs / Pool / CONSOLIDATED NEWS PHOTOS POOL

Although virtually unknown to the general public, both were well-known and successful in the fashion industry. Both have small operations, sketching their own designs and personally supervising those cutting and sewing the garments. They became known to Michelle Obama through Ikram, a designer boutique in Chicago that carries their clothing.

“She’s going to a shop and she’s saying, ‘This is what I like. This is my taste,’ ” Toledo told Vieira. “She’s a consumer like you and I. We’re not making it just for her. She shops and she expresses herself just like we do.”

“Her support means so much to designers who can't afford to advertise,” commented Nicole Phelps, executive editor at Other critics have praised her for going with smaller labels instead of gravitating toward the big names in the industry.

American dreamers
The fact that Obama discovered Wu by herself and called him to design a ball gown made the moment special, he said.

“That’s so magical,” Wu told Vieira. “As an immigrant, that’s such an important thing to me. I’m living a dream that so many people have.”

 First lady Michelle Obama ackowleges applause as she arrives at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ballin Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) Alex Brandon / AP

“I'm just going to become a household name, which is a beautiful thing,” Toledo told TODAY in an off-camera interview. “I'm an example of [how] with hard work you can do anything. I am the American dream. Many of us start with nothing and achieve a lot.” 

Wu is now part of history. As is traditional, Michelle Obama’s design will join the Smithsonian’s permanent collection of first ladies’ inaugural ball gowns.

Toledo said she watched the inauguration at her studio. When the first lady appeared wearing her dress, the designer called all her employees together to watch and celebrate.

The designer also settled the debate about what color the inaugural dress was. Depending on the light, the lace-overlaid fabric ranged from green to yellow to gold. The actual color, Toledo said, is called lemongrass.

“I wanted a color that felt fresh,” she said. “I wanted a color that had optimism. I chose lace because it’s not a flat surface. I thought it had more light.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.


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