Designing Inaugural Dresses, Not All Roses

For fashion designers, catching the eye of a first lady can be the opportunity of a lifetime. But sometimes the attention isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Host Michel Martin speaks with fashion critic Robin Givhan about the agony and ecstasy of creating inaugural gowns.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, let's head back to events in this country. Thousands of Americans will be in Washington to watch history being made at the presidential inauguration, to hear President Obama's vision for the next four years.

Today, though, we want to talk about what really matters. Who are we kidding? The clothes. Many of us remember the floor-length white gown Michelle Obama wore to the inaugural balls in 2009. The dress and its designer, Jason Wu, were featured in fashion magazines for weeks afterward, but that kind of exposure does not, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robin Givhan found out, necessarily guarantee future success for a designer.

She wrote about this in a piece for the Washington Post called "The Agony and Ecstasy of Creating Inaugural Gowns," and she's with us now.

Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

ROBIN GIVHAN: My pleasure.

MARTIN: I'm thinking it has to be nerve-wracking to receive that commission. I mean, it must be like the best day of your life as a designer.

GIVHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: But as you pointed out in your piece...

GIVHAN: And the most horrifying.

MARTIN: And the most horrifying. Talk a little bit about the challenge of creating that dress.

GIVHAN: Well, it's really - it's that first dress that is freighted with so much meaning because it's the one that's going to go into the Smithsonian, and what I thought was really striking was that two out of the last three really worked closely with the first lady that they were designing for, but Jason Wu did not. And what that does with the designer is it means that no longer is the dress solely their creation. It's really a collaboration.

MARTIN: One of the things that I learned from your piece that I found fascinating is that a number of recent designers have actually gone out of business after getting that commission.

GIVHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is it that something about the attention or the media attention or the scrutiny puts too much pressure on the business or something? What do you think?

GIVHAN: Well, I think the media attention certainly is a lot to handle because you really are thrust into the spotlight in a way that nothing else really will, but some of it, I think, was just sort of bad luck, you know, bad timing. And I think about someone like Michael Faircloth, who designed Laura Bush's first gown, and he had visions of really expanding his business and taking it from this sort of small Dallas-based dressmaking business to a New York runway business. And he had the really terrible bad luck of putting his money into a collection, boarding a plane for New York City on September 11, 2001, and you know, he ended up in North Carolina.

So I think that was, in part, just terrible luck, but at the same time I think often what happens is there is an expectation from both the designer and the public that their business will do tremendous things and nothing kills a business faster than biting off more than you can chew.

MARTIN: That leads me to maybe the obvious question, which is just how is an inaugural gown chosen? How is a designer chosen for this honor?

GIVHAN: Well, with Michael Faircloth, he had a relationship with Laura Bush and so there was really no question of who was going to do her gown. With Sarah Phillips, it was a little bit serendipitous. Hillary Clinton had discovered her work in a boutique in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was encouraged by the buyer, who had found her collection and brought it to Little Rock, to submit a sketch for the inaugural gown. She had a chance to, you know, sort of collaborate a little bit with Mrs. Clinton at the time and that's how that gown came to be.

With Jason Wu, it was a much more distanced relationship with the first lady. He had never met her before and, in fact, did not meet her until the dress was actually installed in the Smithsonian.

MARTIN: Is that strange? Is that odd?

GIVHAN: That he had never met her?

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

GIVHAN: It is unusual, and you know, that whole inaugural gown for the 2009 galas was really brokered by a third party, so the dress was created by Jason, delivered to Chicago, and then delivered to the first lady. He never fit the dress on her, he never met her, he never had a conversation with her about what she might like to wear.

MARTIN: Are there specific requirements for a dress like this that just don't exist for other big commissions?

GIVHAN: Yeah. But I think they're all unwritten requirements. I mean there is an expectation that, you know, the eyes of the world essentially are going to be on this dress and it should in some way represent an American-ness, a certain kind of patriotism and pride and optimism and hope. Now, how you manage to construct that out of lace and sequins is anyone's guess, and I think some designers have been more successful than others.

MARTIN: On the whole, though, when you look at the gowns, which can be seen in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History - it's one of the most popular exhibits.

GIVHAN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Always is, always lines. Many of the gowns - how can I put this? Critics don't like them that much as a - I mean, the fashion people don't like them. The public tends to like them, but fashion people tend not to. Why is that?

GIVHAN: Well, I think there's a difference between a gown that is pretty and a gown that is fashionable with a capital F. Sometimes I think what happens with those inaugural gowns is, first of all, there is a great deal of attention that's paid to what does this mean in terms of the state of the country and the aspirations of this administration. People hated poor Rosalynn Carter's gown because it was a gown she had worn before, but she chose it as a statement about frugality and about the kind of administration, a more humble administration, that the people could look forward to.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that Jason Wu seems to have escaped the inaugural gown curse? His business seems to be thriving.

GIVHAN: Well, I think a few things played into his favor. I think one was just sort of culturally. We wanted to see something that was glamorous and our idea of glamour has overwhelmingly been shaped by Hollywood, and he was lucky enough that he was able to design a dress for a first lady who was interested in fashion, but who also defined glamour through the lens of popular culture, so it seemed very contemporary. It seemed very connected to who we are.

I also think that he benefited from his own training, from the way in which young designers have been trained in the last decade, compared to the way that they were trained 20 years ago. And 20 years ago the thinking was that as a young designer you learn the craft and then you graduate and you go and you work for a major brand or another designer and you apprentice and maybe someday you start your own business.

MARTIN: When you're old enough to be president.

GIVHAN: When you're old enough to be president. Exactly.

MARTIN: But no more of that.

GIVHAN: And today young designers are trained to be very much entrepreneurs.

MARTIN: Finally, so unfair to ask you this, but if you were advising the first lady - as you mentioned, it's the first gown that gets all the attention. The second term gowns don't go into the Smithsonian, generally, but we're still interested.

GIVHAN: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: What would you advise Mrs. Obama to wear the second time around?

GIVHAN: I think it'd be interesting, considering that it's a second inaugural, that the numbers of parties have been severely cut back, that we're all thinking, you know, be frugal. Be smart about this. I think it would be really interesting if she wore a short gown, if she wore something that was more akin to sort of a '50s-ish kind of party dress, because I think it would certainly suit the occasion. It could still be formal, but it wouldn't necessarily have to be full-length.

MARTIN: Well, we will certainly be watching. Robin Givhan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, journalist. She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Always good to talk to you.

GIVHAN: My pleasure.

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