- Throughout the years, Michelle Obama has become a style icon.
- Her stylist, Meredith Koop, has helped Obama become the noted fashion icon she is today.
- Koop and Black professionals weighed in on the lasting impact of Obama’s style and what it says about power dressing.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Daniella Carter said if she’s learned one thing from Michelle Obama’s style, it’s what an unapologetic Black successful woman looks like “even when there are people in the world spewing hate.”
She grew up in foster care but said seeing Obama “suited-and-booted” made her always remember that though she may not have had a mother who looked like her, she would learn to carry herself so that she and her future daughter could both grow up to be unapologetic Black, successful women.
She’s not the only one who feels this way.
After Obama’s 2021 inauguration look that left the internet in a daze, Insider reached out to her stylist, Meredith Koop, as well as ten Black professionals to talk about how Obama’s style has influenced them. Koop helped craft the image of how a Black woman looks co-hosting a state dinner, visiting the Queen of England, going on a book tour, and, most recently, at President Biden’s inauguration.
“She’s incredible at what she says, what she does, how much she cares. We all know this, and most of us agree,” Koop told Insider about Obama. “The legacy is her. The clothing is that extra element that is transcendent in nonverbal communication.”
What a powerful Black woman looks like
“When I saw Mrs. Obama show up to the inauguration for President Biden, I was in awe – her hair was laid and her dress slayed – even in a mask,” DeShuna Spencer, founder and CEO of the Black media streaming service KweliTV, told Insider.
Spencer said Obama has come to exemplify what a “powerful Black woman looks like.”
Sandrine Charles, a consultant, and cofounder of the Black in Fashion Council, told Insider the inauguration look was also one of her all-time favorites. “She always has had a presence of royalty,” Charles said of Mrs. Obama.
Eric Darnell Pritchard, fashion historian and Brown Chair in English literacy at the University of Arkansas, told Insider that Obama’s style is inextricably linked with her accomplishments, and “many Black people appreciate that self-authorship.”
“The ‘Forever First Lady‘ designation people bestow upon her is more than a term of endearment,” Pritchard continued. “It is a testament to how valuable her representation has been to the Black community.”
Koop styled Obama with tactical precision
There was no blueprint for how a Black First Lady should look. There had never been one before.
Styling the former First Lady was – and still is – a tightrope walk across the Grand Canyon. A delicate balance between looking good, but not too good. Obama’s outfit can never overpower her voice, Koop said.
Even with Obama long out of the White House, Koop still anticipates what people will say – how a dress was too loose-fitting, or how a color scheme didn’t match. Koop figures she probably wouldn’t have to incorporate such styling precision if Obama was white.
“It’s just obvious,” Koop said. “The way that the press in particular, and the media and different individuals construed her appearance into something negative – that was happening right from the beginning.”
“In the public consciousness the First Lady is always either in a suit or something very conservative,” Reese said. “Mrs. Obama really broke the mold in terms of how she chose to dress.”
She wasn’t afraid to show her feminine side and wear beautiful dresses, Reese continued. There was softness, optimism, and color. “We hadn’t seen that in the White House, probably ever,” she said.
Koop’s precise execution of Obama’s style paid off. The model Shavone Charles, known as SHAVONE. and also director of communications and creative partnerships at image-sharing app VSCO, called Koop and Obama the last decade’s “most dynamic duo.”
“For me and many other Black women, we look at Mrs. Obama and we see ourselves,” she said and pointed to the white Tom Ford gown Mrs. Obama wore to the state banquet at Buckingham palace in 2011 as one of her favorites.
That inauguration look exuded power
Nearly everyone Insider spoke with had a favorite outfit. Koop loves the rose-colored Atelier Versace gown Obama wore to her last state dinner as First Lady in 2016, while Pritchard is a fan of the black Vera Wang mermaid gown she wore to the 2015 China state dinner.
Then, of course, there’s that inauguration look, designed by Sergio Hudson, a Black designer from New York. Haitian American photographer Geraldine Jeannot called the look a moment of style and grace.
Black people are always “placed in a box” and judged heavily on their appearances, Jeannot said. “That day, Mrs. Obama was power walking into the room.”
Koop broke down for Insider the wineberry plum outfit, which came from one of Hudson’s latest runway collections. Hudson did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Koop wanted dark colors, jewel tones. A monochrome look. She requested some changes to the original ensemble: pants instead of a skirt and a less-shiny coat lining. A matte lining deflected camera flashes and made the belt stand out. The sweater turned into a bodysuit with a zipper in the back, so Obama didn’t have to pull it over her head, the boots were Stuart Weitzman, the matching gloves and mask were by tailor Christy Rilling.
Producer and former stock trader Lauren Simmons knows what it’s like to occupy historically white spaces.
She was the second African American woman to become a full-time trader at the New York Stock Exchange and said the way Obama uses style to exude power inspires her and is something she seeks to emulate.
“There have been many women throughout history who have had impeccable style,” she said. “But to see a Black woman do it fearlessly, and graciously is power in itself.”
High-profile women using clothing to start conversations
Simmons and SHAVONE. said that Obama’s style helped usher in the era of powerful women wearing clothes to be both seen and heard. Simmons agreed with this sentiment and pointed to Meghan Markle as an example of a high-profile woman using clothing to start conversations.
Pritchard added that the latest generation of politicians has also adopted this. Women, now more than ever, are bracing authenticity.
Even during the White House years, Koop would work closely with designers to craft what a modern First Lady looks like. Some would already come with ideas in mind, but many of those ideas had to do with Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
“She was a white woman from a certain background, and Michelle is a Black woman from a different background,” Koop said. “I felt like the best thing would be to reflect the authenticity of Michelle in her own right.”
That meant Jason Wu gowns, lots of J. Crew, and, after the White House, custom Balenciaga glitter boots. In politics, there was a heavy blueprint in how women, especially, were supposed to look.
“Her influence is most pronounced as I prepare for the rare formal events that I’ve attended as a member of Congress. It’s so difficult to be modest and still stylish and Mrs. Obama always nailed it.”
Christopher Lacy, assistant professor of fashion management at Parsons, said Koop styled Obama in a way that celebrated the “female aesthetic” and felt she never sought to hide her height or athleticism, and instead, selected clothes that accentuated those attributes.
“What Meredith and Michelle have done together is show the world what millions of Black women and men have known for years,” Lacy continued. “That the Black silhouette is not confined to the borders of Eurocentric misconceptions”
Carter and Pritchard expressed similar sentiments. Carter added that before, the only Black bodies deemed to be powerful were those of entertainers, and that “it felt revolutionary to see someone not playing a character, sending a message to our communities and culture that Black chic, sexy, smart, and beautiful women are not just Hollywood roles.”
Underwood says Obama’s fashion legacy will manifest in a generation of powerful women freely expressing themselves using any colors, patterns, textures, designers, and hairstyles they want.
“No matter whether the clothing came off the clearance rack or if it’s a one-of-a-kind custom design,” she continued. “She shows us how to bring our full selves to the world stage, one incredibly accessible ensemble at a time.”