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Michelle Obama shines in Isabel Toledo

Tue., Jan. 20, 2009, 9:40 a.m.

WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama wore a sparkling yellow sheath dress with matching coat by Cuban-born American designer Isabel Toledo for the inauguration of her husband, a choice many applauded as a cheerful message of hope and a vote for the American fashion industry.

In some light, the embellished ensemble took on a pale greenish cast, coordinating nicely with green gloves from J. Crew and Jimmy Choo green patent pumps.

President Barack Obama wore a red tie and white shirt with his suit, topped with an overcoat adorned with an American flag pin.

Their daughters were style icons in their own right, with 10-year-old Malia in a double-breasted periwinkle-blue coat with a blue-ribbon bow at the waist, and Sasha, 7, in a pink coat with orange scarf and satin belt, a coral-colored dress peeking out at the hem. Their coats were from Crewcuts by J. Crew.

The fashion industry has anxiously looked to the election of Obama for months, embracing his wife as an emblem and ambassador of modern style, who wears clothes from young designers as well as mainstream American retailers.

Toledo, who had a short stint at Anne Klein but is considered relatively avante garde, is exactly the kind of designer Obama gravitates toward.

“There is nothing that comes close to this moment,” Toledo said, speaking in New York. “It’s not just my moment and hers, but it’s the world’s…It’s not only what she’s wearing. It’s what the moment represents.”

Toledo designed the outfit with hopes Obama would choose it for the ceremony, though Toledo did not know for certain until Tuesday morning. Toledo said the coat is made of wool lace in a silk net, with a silk radzimir underneath and a layer of pashmina for warmth. Obama also wore a cardigan with the matching dress, and a jewel-like embellishment at her neckline.

Toledo said she chose the “lemongrass” color for the optimism it represents.

“I didn’t want a traditional blue or red,” she said. “That color has sunshine in it. I fell in love with it. So did she.”

That unusual shade of yellow “really popped” on Michelle Obama’s complexion, said fashion designer Kai Milla, wife of Stevie Wonder and an invited guest to the swearing-in ceremony.

“What I recognized more than anything from our new first lady and Hillary (Clinton) and everyone else is that everyone was fresh,” she said.

The overall look was largely a hit.

“She’s off to an auspicious start,” said Hamish Bowles, Vogue magazine’s European editor at large who curated the Metropolitan Museum Costume Insitute exhibit on Jackie Kennedy in 2001.

“Mrs. Obama’s choice today was appropriate, dignified and elegant but it also had a considerable element of fashion panache,” he added. “She’s finding great American talent.”

She also connects with American women.

“What’s so powerful about Michelle Obama is we all see ourselves in her. She’s a modern woman who is fashionable and even flamboyant in her style and she is still taken seriously,” said red-carpet and magazine stylist Mary Alice Stephenson. “She’s wearing that dress today for all of us.”

The Obamas’ look Tuesday contrasted with that of the outgoing Bushes, with Laura Bush in a dove-gray skirt suit and matching coat.

On the podium with the Obamas, Vice President Joe Biden wore a navy Hickey Freeman suit he bought at the Nordstrom’s in King of Prussia, Pa., paired with a blue tie, while his wife, Jill Biden, had on a bright red coat over a houndstooth dress by Milly and high black leather boots.

Also catching style-watchers’ eyes: Aretha Franklin singing to the immense crowd gathered at the Capitol in an over-the-top hat with an oversized bow and beading.

“Aretha is a larger than life personality, why shouldn’t she wear a larger than life hat?” said Nicole Phelps, executive editor of Style.com.

Yet, she added, the gray color of Franklin’s hat was an attempt to yield the spotlight. “The fact that it was gray to match her outfit can be seen as an acknowledgment that it’s the Obamas’ day, not Aretha’s, i.e., she’s a star but she wasn’t THE star today.”



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