February 13, 2009 / 11:00 PM / 11 years ago

In New York, some designers bask in political light

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Designing a dress for the world political stage can bring embarrassing ridicule or instant fame, but that risk is paying off for some designers showing at New York’s fashion week that began Friday.

For some designers of fashions worn by First Lady Michelle Obama and the vice president’s wife Jill Biden — both hailed as fashion icons — sales have increased and recognition skyrocketed.

Among those enjoying the spotlight are Jason Wu, who designed the first lady’s inaugural gown, and Michelle Smith, the founder of Milly, and Reem Acra, whose clothes were worn by the vice president’s wife during January’s inaugural celebrations.

Getting much of the attention is young designer Wu, 26, who made Michelle Obama’s one-shouldered white chiffon gown. Before then he was largely known only in fashion circles.

“It has been tremendous, so much. The recognition alone is something designers work 10 or 15 years for,” Wu said in an interview. “It is global recognition. This will put the brand to the next level.”

Wu’s name has become indelibly linked to the first lady, whom he said has made fashion exciting at a crucial economic time. She appears in a fuchsia dress by Wu on the cover of Vogue’s March edition.

But it’s not just about recognition. Wu, who grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, started his label in 2006 and put on his sixth New York fashion show on Friday, said half of his spring collection shipped to the stores is already sold out.

“It is about the stores picking up on that and getting more behind the brand than ever. It is about taking that message to the consumers,” he said.

After the attention of the inauguration, his show became one of the most coveted invitations in town.

Michelle Smith, who was praised for her smart 1960’s-influenced dress that Jill Biden wore on inauguration day and said, “The additional awareness and buzz often contributes to increased sales, as many shoppers are inspired to emulate the styles of these prestigious women.”

In years past, designer Oleg Cassini enjoyed fame from the clothes he styled for Jacqueline Kennedy. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan helped win recognition for such designers as Adolfo, Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass.

The mix of fashion and politics does not always pay off. Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was admired for her fashion style but then heavily criticized for spending $150,000 on a new wardrobe.

The red dress worn by Michelle Obama on election night by Narcisco Rodriguez generated a mixed reaction. Rodriguez, who made the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s wedding dress, declined to be interviewed.

Designers and commentators have pointed out the challenges designing for someone in the political eye, where people may have conservative expectations on how they should dress.

Reem Acra, who won praise for Jill Biden’s radiant red inaugural gown, has designed for various celebrities and said designing for political figures brings different challenges.

“A politician has to be always proper,” she said. “There is a different message that a politician has to portray on stage and in the limelight.”

But while Acra, Wu and Smith said they were happy to be part of America’s political change, they were reluctant to describe themselves as political and indicated they would open to designing for a different political party.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to do with politics. It has to do with the personality and aura around a person,” said Acra.

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