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Michelle Obama Fashion Choices: A Boon to Some Small Designers

Michele Obama, President Obama, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Eamonn McCormack | Getty Images
Michele Obama, President Obama, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown

When first lady Michelle Obama steps outside the White House, all eyes are watching. For a handful of lesser-known independent designers who make her blog-worthy wardrobe, a sartorial endorsement from America's first lady can provide a big boost in business.

Widely praised for her fashion choices, the FLOTUS is the ongoing subject of many fashion blogs and best-dressed lists, but it's not her taste in haute couture that has everyone talking. While Obama has described her style as "wear what you love," fashion blogger Mary Tomer Byun, founder of Mrs-O.com, says there is some important, if subtle, messaging there. "I do think there's a deliberate effort by the first lady and her team to showcase up-and-coming and lesser-known American design talents and to wear pieces from more affordable retailers."

The first lady's style team often selects from designers only known within fashion's inner circles, with selections from small labels like Isabel Toledo. Beyond going small, Obama's style choices are often symbolic — a signature she has increasingly used. "For the most recent state dinner to host the president of South Korea, Mrs. Obama wore a draped jersey gown by South Korean-born designer Doo-Ri Chung," Byun says. "The sartorial nod showed respect for the culture of her dinner guests, which is just a wonderful gesture that elevates the role of fashion."

Her stylish choices are worth much more than just critical raves. According to a 2010 study published by the Harvard Business Review, Obama's wardrobe created $2.7 billion in value for 29 brands worn over the course of 189 public appearances from November 2008 to December 2009. While it's more difficult to measure the effect on small brands, many sing her praises long after their piece has been put back on the hanger. Indian designer Naeem Khan told The Wall Street Journal, "It's the gift that doesn't stop giving," 12 weeks after Obama donned a design to a state dinner.

"When Mrs. Obama wears one of our designs, we receive incredible feedback and piqued interest from retailers and editors on a global level," says Prabal Gurung, whose dresses have been chosen by Obama's style team several times. "Both have a direct effect on our business."

And it's not just the small, artisan labels that are reaping benefits. The first lady appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno in 2008 wearing a yellow cardigan by then-struggling retail brand J. Crew. The label, which had gone through a redesign under creative director Jenna Lyons, saw its stock jump by 25 percent within the four days after her appearance, from $16 to over $20, according to study author David Yermack. (J. Crew has since gone private.)

The sales jumps aren't a flash in the pan either, Yermack says. "The stock price gains of the companies whose clothes she wore in public appearances are cumulative abnormal returns. That is, the returns cannot be attributed to normal market variations. The stock price gains persist days after the outfit is worn and in some cases even trend slightly higher three weeks later," he told Harvard Business Review.

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