When this blog began in 2008, the process of identifying Mrs. Obama's designers was much different than it is now. Now, there are press releases, media blasts and a slew of fashion savvy readers to fill in the gaps. Then, there was the more laborious task of scouring style.com, fueled by the key bit of information that Mrs. Obama shopped loyally at Maria Pinto and Ikram, both in Chicago. As Mrs. Obama turned less to Maria Pinto, Ikram's list of designers became a reliable short list for what Mrs. Obama might wear. The list includes designers like Thakoon, Narciso Rodriguez, Isabel Toledo and Jason Wu –names heard often in the last months of the presidential campaign and Mrs. Obama's first year in the White House.
The relationship between Mrs. Obama and Ikram Goldman has been largely shrouded in secrecy. We do know that it is almost certainly more involved than that of a typical boutique owner and patron. Ms. Goldman has been respectfully quiet on the matter, as has the White House, except to offer: "Mrs. Obama has shopped at Ikram’s store for years and appreciates her shared interest in working with a broad spectrum of designers, including many young and up-and-coming designers."
That quote came from a splashy New York Times piece by Cathy Horyn and Eric Wilson, which did its best to “out” the relationship between Mrs. Obama and Ikram Goldman, and stir up something of a controversy surrounding the style partnership. "Behind the First Lady, a Shadow Stylist," was published in February 2009.
Where some saw tension, others saw a perfect union. Women who have shopped at Ikram will tell you that Ikram Goldman is a master at what she does. They speak of her discerning eye, her ability to mix the unexpected, to know her customers thoroughly. She is said to think of fashion from every angle, imbuing choices with intelligence and message.
Mrs. Obama's style in the White House has often put these characteristics on full display. For the inauguration, an Isabel Toledo ensemble in lemongrass yellow cued sunny optimism in the midst of a dark recession. When the First Lady met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in July 2009, head to toe Moschino was worn, an indication that fashion would be used to honor the culture and heritage of others. Then, in November 2009, Mrs. Obama welcomed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur to the White House dressed in a handcrafted, sequin gown by Indian-American designer Naeem Khan.
There was a pattern forming. Mrs. Obama’s choices were smart and communicative. The forethought and utmost attention to detail was undeniable. The styling read of Ikram Goldman, even if no formal credit was sought or given. Mrs. Obama's creative use of accessories even signaled the boutique owner’s hallmark touch. Eclectic Tom Binns necklaces were paired with corseted Peter Soronen gowns. Pins were worn, not in a traditional way, but clustered at the collar of dresses.
What follows is not meant to be a criticism, not in the very least, but rather, an observation. From watching the First Lady's style over the past year, it appears that something has changed – and that something, may be Ikram.
Mrs. Obama’s repertoire of designers has expanded drastically in recent months, to include new names such Dries Van Noten, Marc Jacobs, Roksanda Ilincic, and even vintage Norman Norell. A diverse wardrobe is growing more diverse, and fast. Ikram Goldman has been known to source clothing for the First Lady from designers not always carried in her boutique, but Chicago is a fashion market of "exclusives," and it's unlikely that Ms. Goldman would secure pieces from designers carried by her competitors. For example, Blake, another high-end store in Chicago, carries Dries Van Noten and Roksanda Ilincic. These designers are not stocked at Ikram. Which raises the question: if not Ikram, who secured pieces from these designers for the First Lady?
One answer might be Meredith Koop. In April 2010, Politico.com ran a short, unnoticed piece on Mrs. Obama's "secret style weapon." Koop is a 28-year-old White House aide rumored to play a "pivotal role" in the First Lady's style. At this point, little else is known about her position. But why the move away from Ikram? Logistics and location are one possibility. It may simply be more convenient to have someone Washington-based at the helm of Mrs. Obama’s complex wardrobe. Robin Givhan offered another possible hint with this November 2009 tweet: "Ikram in DC 'selling Michelle dresses she can't afford.' so sayeth a source."
This topic may feel irrelevant to some, but in the context of Mrs. Obama’s broader style influence, and her impact on our sartorial social history, it feels worth asking – who's influencing Mrs. O?
The First Lady’s Alexander McQueen gown for the state dinner, designed by McQueen's successor, Sarah Burton, was gorgeous. It offered the high-wattage glamour we've come to know and love in Mrs. Obama's wardrobe, balancing tradition with modernity, strength with femininity. While critics offered praise, one contrarian view came to light. Oscar de la Renta wondered aloud, why, on an occasion meant to foster Chinese-American trade, Mrs. Obama chose to wear "European clothes.”
Mr. de la Renta's track record of commentary aside, it's not an entirely unfair question – not because the choice was right or wrong, but because it broke with Mrs. Obama's precedent. "Unexpected" has been the ubiquitous word used to describe the choice. Perhaps it's merely that, another twist in the First Lady’s ever-evolving, public style – but might it signal something more? Is there new influence on Mrs. Obama's style? Are we seeing less of Ikram’s magic? This blogger would love to know.