How To Dress As 'Commander In Chic' Many have come to consider First Lady Michelle Obama a fashion icon. In Mikki Taylor's new book, Commander-In-Chic, she tells women how to dress like the first lady, while shopping from different price points. Host Michel Martin speaks with Taylor, a leading authority on beauty and style for women of color, about her new book.

How To Dress As 'Commander In Chic'

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is the time of year when many women grapple with whether to wear the same frock that dazzled this weekend's office holiday party to next weekend's shindig with neighbors and friends.

But there is one woman who, despite her prominence and resources, does not appear to fret about recycling her wardrobe, and that's just one of the things that many people seem to like about First Lady Michelle Obama. She's admired both by fashionistas and women just trying to keep it all together for her ability to set trends and her practical approach to style that incorporates everything from J. Crew to up-and-coming designers she's put on the map to high end looks by established designers.

At least so says someone who should know, leading fashionista Mikki Taylor, the longtime beauty and cover director, now editor-at-large at Essence magazine. Ms. Taylor so admires Mrs. Obama's look that she wrote a book about it. It's called "Commander in Chic: Every Woman's Guide to Managing Her Style Like a First Lady." And she's with us now to tell us more about it and her tips for emulating first lady style.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us. Happy holidays.

MIKKI TAYLOR: Happy holidays. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Okay. Now, I will admit it. I've been known to perhaps click through one or two slide shows of Michelle Obama and her look and there are things that certainly catch my eye, but I don't know about writing a whole book about it. What is it that made you feel that her look deserved a whole book?

TAYLOR: You know, Mrs. Obama masters style with distinction, simply put. And she has such an easy philosophy about it. I mean, Michelle Obama dresses Michelle Obama. She has a dress code that works for her and she shops at all price points in putting her look together, and I thought that it was a philosophy that every woman could embrace, really finding out what works for you so that you could be the commander in chic of your life when it comes to style and, as you'll see, in other ways, as we talk about in the book.

MARTIN: But you know that a lot of people are going to say, well, sure, that's great, but I mean she's got every designer in the country who wants to dress her, as they say. I'm sure there are people who are sending her look books and sketches and photographs all the time, so what does that have to do with the regular person who's just trying to get somebody's attention, you know, at the counter when they go to Bloomingdales?

TAYLOR: You know what it has to do with us is that she also wears J. Crew. She wears Talbot's. She wears Diane Von Furstenberg. We've seen her shopping at Target. She shops at H&M and so she is at all the places that we are.

And that's the takeaway. When you know what works for you, when you've established your dress code, you can shop it at all price points. And I make a point of showing that, illustrating that, in the book. In fact, I give endless shopping resources so you can shop at your desk, online. You can step into a Payless. You can step into an H&M and really find your look, and that's what it's all about. We don't have time to stress what to wear.

MARTIN: Is there something - there are specific signatures that Mrs. Obama seems to have. Is that what caught your eye or is it the overall philosophy?

TAYLOR: It was actually both. The bankable wardrobe that she's put together, based on the pieces that she wears repeatedly, you know, the cardigan - she's proved that as a First Lady or a businesswoman you don't have to always be suited up, the great dress, the fluid, easy flared pant, you know, the pencil skirt. I mean the little black dress.

These are mainstays in anyone's wardrobe, and I like how she stays in her lane and drives so well. You know, she's not trying to become someone else. You know, you might see her in one look and then next week you'd see her and it's like, who is that? No. She always dresses Michelle Obama well, so she doesn't make those fashion missteps, you know, if you're not careful about what works for you.

MARTIN: I was laughing when you said, who is that? Because I was going to ask you, has she ever blown it in your view?

TAYLOR: No, she - Mrs. Obama has never blown it. She has what I call that classic with a twist style and it is the signature style that really works for her.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Mikki Taylor, longtime beauty and fashion editor, now editor-at-large at Essence magazine. We're talking about her new book, "Commander in Chic: Every Woman's Guide to Managing Her Style Like a First Lady."

You talk about how you feel that her style is accessible and her style offers lessons for all women who are trying to sort of put it together. But you have a particular thought about the impact you think she's had on women of color. I just want to read a passage from the book where you say: Her agenda is our agenda, that of taking back our health, cancelling out obesity and therefore disease on our watch. It's dispelling that angry black woman syndrome that folks at large have tried to place on those of us who say what we mean and are affirmed enough to roll up our sleeves and place our hands on our hips while doing so. She's not angry, nor are we, just tired of the way things are, as she's told the women at a Las Vegas community center, while on the campaign trail. Having embarked on what she herself has described as one of the best jobs in the world, she also sees her role as first lady as an opportunity to help women transform their lives.

You know, it's a beautiful passage, but what does that have to do with clothes?

TAYLOR: Because style, in the broad stroke, really has everything to do with who you are within. You know, the way we put ourselves together in terms of clothes is only a manifestation of how we feel about ourselves and what we want to express, you know? And that's why style is so important. It is so important that you define your style across the board - from how you conduct yourself in the world, for what you will and won't allow to become your truth, to how well you dress.

Yeah. Style has everything to do with that. If it were about just putting on clothes, I mean we'd all wear a uniform, right?

If it were about all of us acting the same, then we'd just get the script and go for it. But, no. And what's really critical in these times for African-American women is Mrs. Obama is really, you know, not the icon, per se, because I think icons are somewhat untouchable. She is really the aspirational(ph) buy(ph), in that she owns her life, she's mastering her purpose and her style with distinction, and we're inspired.

MARTIN: But to, again, the point you were talking about, if clothes didn't matter we'd all wear uniforms, before she became first lady, Michelle Obama was an accomplished woman in her own right - a successful attorney, she worked for former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. I just wonder, and I have the sense that she might be a little chagrined about this too, at least some of the people around her. Do you find it odd that she is so much admired for her sense of style when she's got so many other dimensions? Do you find it strange?

TAYLOR: I don't. I actually don't find it strange and I'll tell you why. I think we've been waiting a long time for a Michelle Obama, if you will. And I also really, really believe that the casualization(ph) of America, which began with that great era of society known as Casual Fridays, you know, has really changed the way we think and how we show up ready or less than ready, if you will. And I think Mrs. Obama has single-handedly brought back, elegance, sophistication, a polished sense of style, even when she's - her off-duty chic is pulled together - and I think we like that. It sets an example.

MARTIN: What about the whole question of - I know that people in the fashion industry are thrilled at the way she gives a nod – both to, as we discussed earlier, the up-and-coming names and the established names - and really is very diverse in her choices. I mean she's tapped into people from, really, all backgrounds. But what about, you know, as you know, Mikki, there are a lot of people out here still struggling - unemployment rate, very, very high - particularly high in minority communities. What do you say to those who might argue gee, you know, it's great that she can afford these fabulous clothes and that she looks so great but, you know, I'm struggling just to put food on the table right now and I just, I don't, you know, I'm just not feeling that?

TAYLOR: You know, the reality of it is, is I wrote "Commander In Chic" truly with every woman in mind. And I use Mrs. Obama as a muse for a philosophy that could work across the board. And I've tested this. I mean "Commander In Chic" is really like your personal style diary. So you can open your closet and know exactly what to wear based on the information that I talk about in this book. You can step into a vintage store and know exactly what to purchase based on the philosophy in this book, because we are on purpose and though the times at hand are very challenging, we are moving forward

I tell people that everywhere I go that we as women are here to shape and change the word. And in truth, it must begin within ourselves. And so that focus, clear understanding of what works for you and what doesn't, has to remain in the times adversity as well as in the times of triumph. And these - with this book, you can open your existing closet and know exactly what to wear and what works for you. You can even take the H&M cardigan or the cardigan from your vintage store, if you will, and change the buttons and make it a mileage maker in your wardrobe.

The book is full of ideas, because in times of challenge as well as in times of triumph, we need to be keen and focused about what works for us and what doesn't.

MARTIN: You know, one of my favorite page is in the book, actually, is where you talk about the cropped black cardigan because, you know, I was reading this and I was thinking, oh that's great. You know, I can't afford Jason Wu. Oh, that's great; I can't afford Isabel Toledo. And then there's a page...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: There's a page where you talk about the way she - you have three different pictures where she's wearing the same cropped black cardigan and she's wearing it over a rather somber, very formal black sheath. She's wearing it over a fun print, and then she's wearing the same cropped black cardigan over a kind of a black and white satin cocktail dress, giving it a very different look. It's kind of an example of what you're talking about, of repurposing the same item, and you can certainly see where you can get an affordable item like that at a Target or JCPenney's or something.

TAYLOR: Absolutely. And, you know, worth noting, here is one of the only first ladies I know who makes what I call those repeat performances. And, you know, again, that's another example for all of us that, you know, sometimes we kind of trip wearing the same thing again and again, especially if our Facebook friends have seen it or our Twitter friends have seen it. Mrs. Obama lives in the public eye and she makes repeat performances, and again, just another example of a wise woman and a great well-invested wardrobe, if you will.

MARTIN: OK. Now I have to pick on you, Mikki.

TAYLOR: What's that?

MARTIN: OK, back at the end of the book you have your Mikkisms. You have what's utterly chic? A sandy nude nail topped off with a layer of shear gold. How fab. Mikki, are you coming over to do my dishes? How am I going to keep that shear gold on there and chase around two kids?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TAYLOR: I'll tell you exactly how. I'll tell you exactly how. So when you turn a few pages ahead, you'll see that I say to you, pick up your deli shears and pick up the rubber gloves, put your hand cream on, and do that while you're the dishes, so that not only will you preserve your manicure, but you'll soften your hands and you'll moisturize your cuticles, and that'll extend your manicure.

MARTIN: Well, thank you very much.

TAYLOR: That's how you do it.

MARTIN: Somehow I don't think Mrs. O. is doing her dishes now. Somehow I don't think she's got the...

TAYLOR: You never know.

MARTIN: I don't think she's got to extend her manicure in quite the same way that we do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TAYLOR: You never know. You never know. I love her old fashioned sensibility. I mean the girls are making their beds. She just might be doing a dish or two. Anyway, it's not as if she hasn't.

OK. Well, that's true. Finally, before we let you go, is there one tip that you'd like to pass along for the holiday season.

Oh, there's a few. One, I want to say a page from my Mikkisms: Don't ever match your makeup to your clothing. Be far more creative than that. Extend your little black dress by just a change of accessories. Do wear conversation-worthy shoes. And no matter how tempting it is while you're out shopping, never buy a look for a single occasion, unless it's you're wedding, then you're allowed. Remember, everything else has to go the distance.

MARTIN: OK. What are you wearing now, if you don't mind my asking?

TAYLOR: I am wearing a purple David Meister sheath.

MARTIN: And what are your shoes saying?

TAYLOR: My...

MARTIN: What are your conversation-worthy shoes saying?

TAYLOR: My conversation-worthy shoes are chocolate suede, and they're played against a large chocolate fishnet, so it's a very unexpected way to finish off color and it just extends the leg because I'm brown and they're brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Yes. Okay. Work it, Mikki.

TAYLOR: Thank you.

MARTIN: Mikki Taylor is a former beauty and cover director at Essence magazine. She's now editor-at-large there. She's the author of "Commander In Chic: Every Woman's Guide to Managing Her Style Like a First Lady." And she was kind enough to join us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Thank you so much and Happy Holidays once again.

TAYLOR: Thank you. The same to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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