"Do you wanna talk about her boots?" Sarah Jessica Parker asked a packed Barclay's Center in Brooklyn last night. Though Parker is usually the one to make a splash with her shoes, she looked over to Michelle Obama, and asked again: "Do you want to take some time to talk about your boots?"
The audience squealed, making it very clear that, yes, she had to talk about the boots.
For the last stop of her international Becoming book tour before the new year, Obama turned one of her most fashion-forward looks yet: a head-to-toe Balenciaga getup from the French fashion house's spring 2019 ready-to-wear collection. The dress was yellow, the colour of much-needed freshness, happiness, and positivity, and the boots were every colour of the rainbow depending on how the light hit them. The two-piece number, assembled by Obama's longtime stylist Meredith Koop, captivated the crowd in a way a model walking down a runway simply wouldn't.
As SJP asked Obama to walk the audience through her fashion choices over the past decade, that includes names as luxurious as Gucci and Versace, as contemporary as Proenza Schouler, Thakoon, and Cushnie et Ochs (now Cushnie), and as affordable as J. Crew, Gap, and Target, it made sense, then, that for a talk with a well-known actress and fashion icon, a bright yellow getup paired with metallic, knife-sharp boots was the way to go. And one couldn't help but wonder how Obama came to select the look for a night in Brooklyn. Though Obama claims her approach to getting dressed while in the White House was "practical," as she could be seen delivering a speech on policy to a group of business leaders and shooting hoops with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the same day, these boots were anything but.
"A lot of what I had to think about was: I have to wear fashion, fashion can't wear me. I didn't have time to work with designers individually so [Koop] would do that work. We'd research and look at who's out there," she explained, knowing full-well that her every move was sized up by the media. "It was not just did I love what they designed, but it was also, what kind of people were they? And how do we send a message of diversity and supporting American designers? Because you get to a point where you're like, I can put on anything."
Obama explained that she used fashion as a platform to promote young American designers, detailing what went into her heavily vetted style choices: "We decided, why don't we use this platform to lift up some new, young designers who normally wouldn't get this kind of attention?" It's this very reason, she claimed, she chose Jason Wu to design her inaugural gown. "You can change their lives: He's young, his story was amazing, he didn't expect it, [and] he didn't feel entitled to it. Because you learn there are people in this scene who feel entitled to these things because they've done it for a while. And I sensed that feeling of, like, Oh, you think this is just yours? There are a lot of people out here trying to make it; young people, women, Black folks, and immigrants."
Unlike the average shopper, the energy of a designer is just as meaningful to Obama as their technical skills. It wasn't just that she liked their designs, she had to like them as a person, too. "I didn't want to wear the clothes of someone who didn't have a good spirit. You could hear these things: how they treated my staff or how they treated their workers. So, everyone I wore as far as I knew had a good spirit as well." Through her education initiatives, Obama held fashion in high regard: She hosted a Fashion Education workshop at the White House, including the time she invited students to watch Jason Wu donate the gown he made for her to the Smithsonian. Designers also frequently attended White House dinners and events.
Bringing it full circle, Parker probed Obama on her relationship to fashion today — specifically, if there was any subtext to her Balenciaga look. "We learned that fashion does have meaning," she said, noting that she knows how much people care about what she has to say but also what shoes she's wearing. "So, turning that awareness on its head so that it becomes strategic and impactful is definitely something that doesn't just happen — you have to actually be thinking about it or you waste the opportunity to have a broader impact. But now, I'm free to do whatever. There is no message. The boots are telling you no message. They were just really cute. I was like, Those some nice boots!"