The clothing donated by designers includes Mrs. Obama's two inaugural gowns made by Jason Wu, a lesser-known designer before Mrs. Obama turned him into a star in the fashion firmament. Wu declined to discuss how he works with the first lady.
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Mrs. Obama and Wu both were there when the first inaugural gown was presented to the Smithsonian in March 2010. The first lady said in her remarks: "The dress I donated today, made by Jason Wu, is a masterpiece." But the Smithsonian lists the gown as a "gift of Jason Wu in honor of first lady" Michelle Obama, making clear it came from him. The first lady's office had no comment on that.
Two other examples of gowns worn by the first lady that were donated by designers: the blue Carolina Herrera gown that Mrs. Obama wore to February`s state dinner for French President Francois Hollande and the gold beaded Naeem Khan gown that Mrs. Obama wore to the 2012 governors ball, now on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Herrera and Khan declined comment.
The first lady's office had no comment on whether the couture gowns worn by Mrs. Obama for her six other White House state dinners also were donated. Nor would it say how many gowns have been donated for the array of other big events for which the first lady is expected to appear in couture finery, such as the annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremonies, governors' dinners and White House correspondents' dinners.
Wearing donated gowns represents a change in practice from the Bush administration.
Anita McBride, chief of staff to Laura Bush during her time as first lady, said Mrs. Bush paid for all her clothes, including her two inaugural gowns: a red crystal-embroidered gown by Texan Michael Faircloth and a silver and blue V-neck creation of Oscar de la Renta.
McBride credits the Obama White House with finding a cost-saving way to "keep Mrs. Obama in all those incredible clothes and to have the use of them not once but multiple times."
The costs of a custom couture gown can be phenomenal, particularly if it is highly embellished with something like beading.
New Yorker Sarah Phillips, who designed Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1993 inaugural gown, puts the full cost of that violet beaded lace sheath in the range of $50,000, with the Presidential Inaugural Committee paying $10,000 and Phillips and the workshop covering the bulk of the costs. Phillips isn't sure whether Clinton herself paid anything toward the dress, but the Smithsonian's website describes the gown as a "gift of Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Presidential Inaugural Committee."
Lawyers who served in the Obama and Bush White Houses describe taking care in working with the first lady's office to ensure that arrangements with designers didn't run afoul of ethics rules designed to guard against conflicts of interest and questionable quid pro quos.