16 American Designers Reflect On Michelle Obama's Incredible Fashion Legacy

This story was originally published in December 2016.

The First Lady of the United States unfailingly receives a lot of attention for her fashion choices. And in her tenure, Michelle Obama has been no exception, but throughout her eight years as FLOTUS, the conversation (and the praise) surrounding what she wore had a different tune to it. Yes, she always looked marvelous, glamorous, and sophisticated. But Michelle Obama's fashion moments were often relatable, thanks to her penchant for sensible basics from J.Crew, and always deeply entrenched with meaning, due to FLOTUS' ongoing commitment to elevating young, homegrown talent.

The story hardly ever ended in "The First Lady wore [insert designer name here]": Through her work with influential Chicago boutique owner Ikram Goldman and stylist Meredith Koop, Obama started careers, propelled trends, and supported the fashion industry with every look. It's almost a bonus that she looked so stunning in the process.

As the Obama administration draws to a close, there's a lot of reminiscing to be done, especially about the First Lady — about the work she's accomplished, the example she set for women across the country, the pop-culture savviness with which she approached her role. The myriad American designers who have dressed Michelle Obama over the past eight years are well acquainted with the impact of dressing the current First Lady, and the fashion legacy she's leaving behind. We spoke to 16 of these talents who helped shape the public image of FLOTUS (in turn, she gave them her respect and vote of confidence — and an unmatched bragging right). Ahead, learn how they'll remember Michelle Obama.


Photo: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images.
Maria Pinto
"When I was introduced to Michelle Obama, she needed outfits for Barack Obama's first presidential campaign. We wanted to give her pieces that flattered her gorgeous shape but were also comfortable and eye-catching, both in style and color. Like any woman, she had specific requirements for her wardrobe, like skirts that didn't ride up when she sat down for interviews. Among other pieces, she wore several of my sheath dresses, which fit the bill perfectly for what she needed.

"She was absolutely lovely [to work with]. When I first met her, she was not yet first lady, so I think it was a more relaxed atmosphere. She is very savvy about fashion, and she knows what works for her and what doesn't, so it was a pleasure to collaborate with her.

“It is a true honor to have dressed her, especially considering what a tremendous, elegant, and inspiring first lady she turned out to be. It helped people recognize my brand, for which I am very grateful, but now that she has established herself as a fashion and style icon, I feel very lucky to have been a small part of that.

"For Michelle Obama, fashion isn't frivolous — I think she has fun with it, which is refreshing, but she also uses fashion to portray what a strong, powerful, intelligent, and kind woman looks like. She knows how to employ fashion to make a statement, whether it's choosing a specific designer with ties to a country she might be visiting, or mixing high-end with high street; or, if you go back to the beginning of the term, when she showed off her arms in dresses like mine. How ridiculous does that sound? But it was a big deal at the time, because women in politics — and elsewhere — have had this pressure to appear conservative and to blend into the background. But when you see the President and First Lady standing together, they stand together as partners and equals, and she expresses that partly through her style. She embodies a sense of joy and confidence through what she wears."
Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.
Naeem Khan
"I designed my first gown for [Michelle Obama] for the Indian State Dinner [in 2009]. That set a good standard with her — I knew that she could handle glamour well with that dress. That gown particularly was one of my favorites because it was also a joy for me. It was the first dress I did for the First Lady of the United States, and she wore it. I had no idea that she was going to, because you submit a design and she might choose it or not — but you take your chances. I designed four dresses for her when I did the first [submission], just to be sure that she was going to pick something. And she picked the right one.

"There was so much history in it for me, from my time designing for Halston, to the country I grew up in. That dress was a very simple, classic, strapless shape. The embroidery I used on it comes from the history of my family: My grandfather used to make these 24-karat gold and sterling silver sequins and embroider with them. Indian fabrics are so, so precious — so I thought, How do I take some of those ideas and implement them on something from my life in America? This is how I started my relationship with the First Lady.

"Then, I've gone on to designing sweaters, to skirts, to gowns. Everything is done through her stylist. You get a briefing as to what she’s looking for, but you’re not told where she’s wearing it — you're told just barely enough. To me, that was a bit of a challenge, but after so many years, you get to understand what’s the next thing coming up and what she’s looking for. It's a lot of blanks — literally two words in a whole story, and you have to fill it out. But once you get to know her lifestyle, it becomes kind of easy. The first dress, interestingly, there was not much measurement and other details provided, so you had to actually work with photographs. To me, that was interesting: How do you create a dress for a person when you don’t even have all their measurements? So, we had to all of our garment making experience to make sure… That dress has lots of tricks in it.

"I always try to do something that she hasn't done before — either an embroidery technique or a shape, a color, or even some amazing prints. I’m so happy that she stuck with me for so many years. I just had such a great relationship with her that I could actually feel what would be right. Malia and Sasha asked me to design for them [for the State Dinner for Canada in March 2016]. They wanted it straight from the collection. They have given me great honor.

"Everything we create in this country comes from people all over the world. For her to have chosen me, it makes me super proud to be American and to be part of a country that gives you the opportunity to bring out your best. I come from a very rich culture and live in a modern country: How do I take from the heritage of where I come from and redefine it for my life in America? That’s what my collection is — the history of my country and of textiles, and how I’ve chosen to make it modern. Mrs. Obama recognizes that. It doesn’t say 'India,' it doesn’t say 'America' — it has its own vocabulary."
Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/ Getty Images.
Monique Lhuillier
"The First Lady has worn four of my designs: a midnight blue, guipure lace, textured jacquard A-line dress to a White House event with Pope Francis in 2015; a luminous, sunrise-printed scuba coat with a structured dress to a welcome ceremony for Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife in 2015; a sparkling blush, embroidered column dress to the 37th annual Kennedy Center Honors in 2014; and a black, fitted, draped chiffon goddess-like gown with a high neckline in delicate Chantilly lace to the 2013 White House Correspondents Dinner.

"She is known not only for her innate sense of style, but also for her diplomatic stance of wearing mostly American designers, both emerging and iconic. As an American designer, it has been a very proud and meaningful moment for me to have had one of the most graceful, powerful first ladies choose to wear my designs.

"I think that Michelle Obama has understood the power of fashion to communicate more than others in her position might have. I feel her [outfit] choices help speak to the initiatives she supports. Through continued support of American talent — in particular young designers just starting in business — she has served to foster optimism, relatability, and the sense that even the most seemingly unattainable goal is within reach, not only to those in the industry themselves, but for all young people. What greater legacy than that?"
Photo: TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images.
Stacey Bendet, Alice + Olivia
"[Michelle Obama] originally reached out to us via her stylist because she loved a primary-colored, graphic-print skirt and top we did, but she wanted it in mid-length. So we made it for her. After that, we just started working with her team more regularly on different items for her wardrobe. I think one of the proudest moments in my career was when [Obama] wore that set on her trip to Asia in 2015 — but what was even more incredible was that she wore the outfit two more times after that! The top and skirt were made from a beautiful printed cotton, and the print was very bright bold and strong, like she is.

"She's such an incredible icon, and whenever she wears things it helps sales — I mean, she’s FLOTUS! I did have the chance to meet her once, and she told me how much she and her daughters love wearing Alice + Olivia. Dressing the First Lady is one of the proudest moments you can have — especially one who is such an incredibly inspiring woman, inside and out. I think [Obama's] looks represent optimism, femininity, elegance, grace, and strength. Her style is truly who she is: an inspiration to all women!"
Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images.
Tadashi Shoji
"Our team was ecstatic to hear from the First Lady’s stylist. Michelle Obama had access to countless fashion brands, but ultimately she went with our design. We have created several beautiful pieces for her — from the purple, feather motif-embroidered tulle gown she wore to the State Dinner with the Prime Minister of Japan (pictured) to the classic black-and-white collared dress she wore on The Tonight Show. We have had so much interest in our brand [after she wore Tadashi Shoji] that it has allowed us to grow exponentially and expand into a wide range of categories.

"It’s been truly an honor to dress her. Not since Jacqueline Kennedy has the public paid as much attention to White House fashion. I'm humbled to have played a small part in this historical moment. As did Kennedy before her, Michelle Obama’s fashion legacy will forever be marked down in history. It was truly exciting to follow a First Lady that didn't pledge loyalty to just one designer. Instead, Michelle Obama introduced the public, worldwide, to the diverse talents of many designers. She cemented her role as a fashion icon by embracing what is new in fashion, while still being true to her style. First Lady Obama truly encapsulates the strength and elegance of our stylish customers. Tadashi Shoji will continue to be the go-to brand that celebrates special moments, whether it’s going out on the town or stepping out of the White House."
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
Tanya Taylor
"Mrs. Obama's stylist, Meredith Koop, reached out via email, but didn't disclose who the client was initially — she just said that she was interested in working on some custom options for a special client. After asking around and finding out who the client was, I dropped everything and prioritized the incredible opportunity.

"I worked quite closely with her stylist on all designs and fabrics. She communicates Mrs. Obama's vision at each step, and we work diligently to make her look and feel perfect. The process is very fast, and often we're developing multiple looks at once with different events in mind. They're very engaged in the process, so to have their trust means the world to me. I've been invited to the White House on two occasions, and being able to experience the genuine warmth of Mrs. Obama firsthand is inspiring.

"Obama has worn 11 [of my] looks to date. She has worn classic shift and shirt dresses in floral-printed textured silk, printed viscose and embroidered shirting, and formal looks featuring organza petal-embellished crepes, jacquards, and hand-embellished crepes. A particularly proud moment of mine was developing a custom jacquard for an emerald green dress I designed for her to wear during the official State Visit of Canada's Prime Minister and First Lady to the White House this past spring. It was one of those full-circle moments that just felt unreal.

"[FLOTUS] has embraced modern fashion — particularly of American ready-to-wear — dared to wear innovative prints and fabrics, and has celebrated color. Working with her is significant for not only me as a New York-based designer, but also for the partners in the Garment District with whom I collaborate. If you walk into our factories, they have photos of [Obama] in our dresses above their cutting tables! Her stamp of approval is priceless, and her championing of the industry is multifaceted, as seen with the White House's Celebration of Design which I was very honored to attend.

"I've seen women of all ages and sizes make positive associations between the brand and what Michelle Obama represents. I strive to empower and inspire women through my designs, and these are the moments where that vision feels larger than life. Specific prints and silhouettes she wears of ours continue to be our best-sellers among women of all ages, which is a testament to the timelessness of Michelle Obama's style. She has been an unparalleled class act, a champion of creativity and diversity, and a voice for American designers. She has inspired entrepreneurship and she has empowered women to express their truest selves in their work and in the way they dress, of which she has set an incredible standard."
Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images.
Maria Cornejo, Zero + Maria Cornejo
"I’m so heartbroken that she won’t be first lady [anymore]; to be honest, it sort of chokes me up. She’s just an amazing woman, and she was there for me from the beginning. She wore my clothes before [President Obama] was elected, while they were campaigning. I remember she wore this dress that was quite edgy, with a leather strap, and I remember thinking, Gosh, she’s cool! Ikram [Goldman] was dressing her at the time, and I made her a lot of things in the beginning when she first became first lady. I went to the White House three times to do workshops mentoring kids. Michelle is really inclusive, and she’s worked hard to elevate and empower kids.

"She's really embraced the freedom to wear what she wanted. It wasn’t about cookie cutter outfits that you’re used to with first ladies. It’s more about having fun with clothes, and at the same time, about bringing attention to ‘Made In America’ brands, like mine. She really made a point of that. She definitely helped get my name out there. We have a lot of businesswomen and lawyers that wear our clothes, and surgeons and artists, too — I think Michelle broadened the appeal of the brand. I always think that my clothes are living the most interesting lives because of the women wearing them.

"Michelle still has designs of mine she hasn’t worn yet, so we’ll see [if she wears them before the end of this presidency]. She’s always very correct; she always buys everything, it’s never gifted. I’m just gutted — I hope she’ll run for president! That’s always been my theory. Once the girls [Malia and Sasha] are grown up, and she’s an empty nester, she can do it. She is so aspirational and educated, and she makes everybody want to do better."
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
Carolina Herrera
"It is always an honor to dress the First Lady of the United States as she represents our country. Mrs. Obama exudes femininity while staying true to her personal style. She is the epitome of refined elegance and reflects the style codes of the House of Herrera."
Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images.
Zac Posen
"It has been an incredible honor to work with the spectacular Michelle Obama. I think the world of her. For almost a decade now, we've had our own Michelle Obama mannequin, which lives in our atelier in New York. We've had the pleasure of making her multiple outfits, from [the one she wore to host] the Prime Minister of Britain in one of my favorite looks I made for her, which was a tailored, sculpted suit, to the more casual and flirty jacquard knit dress for a haircut reveal [in 2015].

"Also a major 'wow' moment was the 2015 White House Correspondents' dinner: I literally came to the office one morning with the beaded fabric and draped it on a mannequin and knew it was for her, so I sent an email with my draping to her team."
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images.
Keren Craig & Georgina Chapman, Marchesa
Keren Craig: "We’ve been honored to have had the opportunity to dress Michelle Obama multiple times throughout her time as the First Lady of the United States. She is what we call a true Marchesa woman: She embodies a real sense of identity, and looks confident and poised whether she is wearing a gown, a blouse or a pair of jeans. She exudes a certain self-assurance and confidence, while radiating grace — to us, that’s what style is all about."

Georgina Chapman:
"A midnight-blue Marchesa gown was worn by the First Lady to a State Dinner at the White House with the British Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron [in March 2012]. As British-born designers with a New York-based label, we were honored to have the First Lady choose Marchesa for the occasion. Mrs. Obama also wore a white and silver one-shoulder gown while attending the White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, D.C. in May 2014. It was a fashion-forward choice, and she wore it beautifully — the dress fit her perfectly. We always feel honored when any woman chooses to wear Marchesa, but, of course, it was an awe-inspiring moment when the First Lady of the United States chose to wear our designs — not once, but multiple times! We put so much work into every dress we create, and we truly appreciate all the support we've had. We feel incredibly lucky."
Photo: Margaret Norton/NBC/Getty Images.
Bibhu Mohapatra
"A few years back, my friend Fern Mallis called to tell me to expect an email from the First Lady’s office. Soon after, I received a note from Michelle Obama's staff, asking to visit the studio to see the collection. The first time Michelle Obama wore one of my designs was when she appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in 2012, after she returned from the U.K. Olympics: a hand-painted, silk crêpe dress from one of my resort collections. That was one of the most exciting times for me: She was on the television for over two hours — and the dress was sold out everywhere. She also wore one of my custom gowns to the 2015 Black Caucus Dinner in Washington with President Obama.

"One of the most memorable times for me, and for many, was when [FLOTUS] was on her second state visit to India with the President, and when they landed in Delhi, she decided to come out wearing one of my designs to greet Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi. Obama has a lot of wattage in her endorsements: Everyone pays attention to her and to her style. Every time she has worn one my designs, it has positively affected my brand, my business, and its image. It has also directly affected my sales tremendously: When she wore my dress in Delhi, my phone literally didn't stop ringing for weeks. Every TV channel was mentioning our collaboration, and every newspaper mentioned it — including The New York Times, which gave me a lovely shoutout. It's the ultimate endorsement you can dream of, especially when it's First Lady Obama, who I admire tremendously as a person. I'm always inspired by her.

"I've been fortunate enough to have been able to interact with our First Lady, and the experience was simply amazing and inspiring. She's one of the kindest and most gracious people I've ever met in my life. Her fashion legacy is one of the most important ones, ever; it's about an incredible sense of style, of sensibility, and of the smart choices she makes. It's a lot more that just beautiful clothes."
Photo: Brendan Smialowski-Pool/Getty Images.
Vera Wang
"It’s always an honor to dress the First Lady. There’s such gravitas to the position of being the President of the United States, so dressing someone in that world [like Michelle Obama] takes on an extra significance."
Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images.
Prabal Gurung
"She first wore a spring '10 dress in Michigan in March 2010. Then, in May 2010, we created an Atelier gown for her to wear to the White House Correspondents' Dinner. When I first saw the First Lady in our dress, I was so thrilled. I vividly recall dressing our first celebrity on the red carpet and calling my mother with excitement — and she told me to call her back when I dressed the First Lady. It was a true privilege and such a proud moment to make that call. As an American designer of Nepalese descent, it was the moment of achieving my American Dream. I became more than just a designer. I was given a platform and a voice, which is a great responsibility that I don't take lightly.

"I'm so grateful that I've been given the opportunity to dress her over the past eight years. She has continued to wear a number of pieces from our collections, as well as Atelier Prabal Gurung pieces. The First Lady is an incredible woman with an admirable platform, and her faith in a young designer like myself absolutely brought increased awareness to our brand. She is such an incredible woman and a true muse.

"While I will never get over the feeling of gratitude [I had] that she took a chance on me, and the feeling of honor that comes from seeing her in one of my creations, the reason I have such high respect and admiration for her is because she so elegantly uses her platform to give a voice to issues such as community health and women's rights. Her legacy as an advocate, an activist, an empowered woman, and a graceful leader will only continue to prosper. I'm excited to see what else she will accomplish."
Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images.
Thom Browne
"It’s an honor to have had the First Lady wear my designs, especially someone as confident and intelligent as Michelle Obama."
Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images.
Chris Benz
"The very wonderful thing about the pieces Mrs. O. wore from my collection was that they were actual styles from the collection; as a ready-to-wear designer, it was such an honor to complete the circle of design by having such an incredible customer wear the clothes how they were imagined and created. I have never really been about red carpet dressing, so this was a refreshing relationship to have with a first lady, because it was so much about wearing casual, cool looks every day. It always seemed to me like gowns was the brass ring to catch with first ladies, but gowns to me always felt tricky and forced. They sort of still do.

"I worked primarily through her team, all of whom were so enthusiastic and organized. It was an easy process, and Mrs. O. and her team knew exactly what shapes would look good, how to adjust them in the most flattering ways, and were not afraid of color nor pushing the envelope a bit style-wise. It’s really a dream. Not so many years ago, while I was at Parsons, I could have only fantasized about anyone wearing clothes [I made] that weren’t just a school project. It definitely iced the cake for our small design studio. I hope her enduring legacy will be one reflected upon as graceful, extremely elegant, and very confident."
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images.
Tracy Reese
"It’s been an incredible honor to have Mrs. Obama wear our pieces. She's worn some of our pieces at some truly historic events, like the 2012 DNC [and] diplomatic visits to Cuba, Mexico, and England, and the anniversary of the March on Washington. That dress is actually now in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. She’s brought our brand to the attention of a much wider audience. Because she is such an inspirational woman, women that admire her and want to dress like her and seek out styles she’s worn to public events.

"Mrs. Obama has a fantastic team that we work closely with to get her whatever she needs. Sometimes they make selections straight from the collection, sometimes we work out a custom design, but regardless, it's always a seamless and enjoyable experience. It’s an honor to have the First Lady in our designs, but especially this first lady. It can’t be said enough: Mrs. Obama is an inspiration; she's smart, ambitious, open, warm, and strong. Even without being in the White House, this is the exact woman I love to wear my clothes.

"Mrs. Obama has also been such a champion for the American fashion industry. I attended an event at the White House in 2014 with what felt like the whole fashion industry, and it was amazing to hear her encourage and challenge us as an industry to keep creating, producing, and educating. I don’t think there has ever been a first lady that has championed the fashion industry like she has."