Mrs. Obama Saves The Cardigan: 'The Obama Effect' In Fashion : Code Switch In fashion, most first ladies have worshiped at the altar of "The Suit." Michelle Obama transformed American fashion by favoring dresses, moderately-priced brands, and simple basics like the cardigan.
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Mrs. Obama Saves The Cardigan: 'The Obama Effect' In Fashion

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Mrs. Obama Saves The Cardigan: 'The Obama Effect' In Fashion

Mrs. Obama Saves The Cardigan: 'The Obama Effect' In Fashion

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Let's head back to the U.S. now for a look at an aspect of American political life that you actually see all the time but might never consider - it's the effect that first lady Michelle Obama has had on the look and business of American fashion. Her look is known as FLOTUS fashion - FLOTUS being an acronym for first lady of the United States. Fashionistas say she has transformed the way American women dress. Karen Grigsby Bates has this report. It's part of a series from our Code Switch team called the Obama Effect, a look at the cultural impact of the Obama years.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Really, Michelle Obama's effect on fashion's bottom line started even before she took up residence in the White House. Like, in June 2008, when Mrs. O visited a popular daytime talk show.


WHOOPI GOLDBERG: Hello and welcome to "The View." Please welcome our very special guest co-host, who actually could be the next first lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama.


BATES: She walked onstage to embrace Whoopi Goldberg wearing a simple black and white print sundress from the chain White House Black Market. It cost $148. And after her "View" appearance, it sold out completely in 48 hours.

Same thing with a $35 striped dress she bought from the fast fashion chain, H&M and wore to a campaign rally and countless items from preppy mid-market J.Crew. Fashion watchers like "POPSUGAR's" Allison McNamara took note.


ALLISON MCNAMARA: Michelle Obama loves her cardigans and isn't afraid to recycle her favorite basics. She's frequently spotted in cute J.Crew sets...

BATES: Writer Teri Agins covered the fashion industry for decades for The Wall Street Journal. Agins says Mrs. Obama has major star power in the fashion world, and one example is how she took this mundane wardrobe staple and made it a must-have.

TERI AGINS: The cardigan used to be just something keep you warm. In the workplace, women wore a jacket. It was not really an accessory you left on.

BATES: Early on, Mrs. O chose a Papaya cashmere cardigan for a Vogue profile of her in her new job, and the international press, including NDTV, also noticed when she wore a jeweled cardigan to 10 Downing Street.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Stepping out in London, she wore a mint green skirt and embellished cardigan. Her upbeat...

BATES: That sweater sold out within hours the same day. The skirt and sweater combined were under $400. This rush to buy FLOTUS clothes is no accident, says David Yermack. He's a professor of finance at the Stern School of Business at NYU. Yermack studied how Mrs. O affected the fashion industry's finances.

DAVID YERMACK: It was truly remarkable how much more effect Mrs. Obama had on the fashion industry than just about any celebrity you could find in any other commercial setting.

BATES: Hear that Kardashians? Yermack's study scrutinized close to 200 of Mrs. Obama's public appearances from November 2008 through December 2009 and tracked 30 publicly-traded brands she wore. Outfits from events like the State of the Union Address or Kennedy Center appearances drove sales and stock prices up for those companies.

YERMACK: And this would be a very permanent thing. The stocks would not go back down the next day. For just a generic company, for a routine event, it was worth about $38 million to have Mrs. Obama wear your clothes.

BATES: While J.Crew had some of the biggest gains, clothes from Target, the Gap and Liz Claiborne also did well when Mrs. Obama wore them, as did high-end clothes from companies like LVMH and Saks Fifth Avenue. No matter what the markets do, Mrs. Obama herself has always downplayed her fashion savvy, as she did in a 2008 interview with ABC News.


MICHELLE OBAMA: I'm kind of a tomboy jock at heart, but I like to look nice.

ROBIN GIVHAN: One of the really vital things that Michelle Obama has done is she's wearing real fashion.

BATES: Robin Givhan, fashion critic for The Washington Post, covered Michelle Obama the first year the Obama's were in the White House.

GIVHAN: A lot of this, I think, was her own use of fashion as a way of defining who she was going to be in the White House.

BATES: Mrs. Obama was going to continue being what she had been - a working wife and mother, wearing what she liked, what was comfortable and what worked for her. In doing that, Givhan says, the first lady was not so much initiating change as reflecting how women around the country already had begun to change their own look - dresses instead of suits, sweaters instead of jackets, bare legs instead of pantyhose.

GIVHAN: And when Michelle Obama came along and sort of made all these things a matter of course, it validated a lot of the things that they were doing and also validated things that they wanted to do but often felt like they weren't allowed to.

BATES: Fashion used to belong to the young, the thin, the wealthy and the white. Michelle Obama broadened the fashionista membership, says Teri Agins.

AGINS: We haven't seen a lot of - many brown-skinned, middle-aged women who've been celebrated for their beauty and style.

BATES: And for decades, we haven't seen women of any race or age who have been able to make cash registers ring simply by stepping out the front door. Safe to say the fashion industry is going to miss this Obama Effect. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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