Michelle's Secret Weapon

Brooklyn designer Sophie Théallet is one of Mrs. Obama’s new favorites. Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni talks to Théallet (and her good friend Rupert Everett) about her newfound success.

06.04.09 3:54 AM ET

With today’s grim and gray financial climate, it’s a Wild West moment for independent high-fashion designers, and Michelle Obama is still being viewed as striking gold; of the vast shiny nugget variety. Once worn by Mobama, a designer is forever known. So imagine finding out that the first lady had worn your dress by accident—this is exactly what happened last month to the French-born but Brooklyn-based Sophie Théallet. “I was starting a new collection and feeling a little depressed,” the 45-year-old says with her strong Gallic lilt. Fooling around on the Internet, she suddenly saw pictures of Mrs. Obama in her black dress with bright ribbon stripes. The occasion was the unveiling of the bust of abolitionist Sojourner Truth. “I just felt so honored and touched because I have so much respect for that woman,” says Théallet. “She is SMART.”

“Sophie had this jet black hair, white skin, and quivering cleavage,” Rupert Everett says. Plucky with a punk-rock dash, he was “reminded of the French resistance,” the type to “hide tons of Jews under their bed.”

There again, it was smart of Théallet to have used only black models at her Spring-Summer show in September of last year, two months before the election. “I was thinking of color, the late Yves Saint Laurent, and how nothing looks better than color on black skin,” she says. “And although I am not remotely political, I was thinking I love this couple and I hope to god that Obama gets in.”

Michelle Obama discovered Théallet via Ikram, the Chicago boutique. Ikram, of course, is owned by Ikram Goldman who unofficially advises the fashion-forward first lady. But although Théallet’s dress was requested and indeed paid for, the designer gave it little credence. “You never know if Michelle Obama is going to wear your clothes,” she stresses. “In many ways, I think that’s better.” Obama’s endorsement led to new stores contacting Théallet and loads of press. “But what’s most exciting is that I’m now accepted as an American designer, albeit French-born.” And according to Rupert Everett—a former model and fashion insider who dismisses certain talents as “delivering Gap-style clothes spruced up by stylists”—Théallet “is an absolute proper designer who creates breathtaking clothes that are sensationally made.”

Click Image Below to View a Gallery of Michelle’s Fashion

Having been designer Azzedine Alaïa’s right-hand woman for 10 years until 1999—“Azzedine taught her couture tricks that few young designers know,” says Everett—Théallet is no stranger to the high-profile client. She’s dealt with all the supermodels, one of her favorites being Veronica Webb—“a present client and big supporter”—and a certain Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who she summed up as “polite and elegant.”

Describing her style as “classical with French knowhow and polish,” Théallet’s designs are made in a little factory in New York—“not China,” she says firmly. And although “it has taken a great deal of time and energy,” Theallet’s seamstresses work like Parisian ones (read: flawless pleats, tiers, pin tucks notable for their finish). With two extremely well-reviewed collections behind her, Théallet remains obsessed with cut and fit. “Being a female designer, I know how some women don’t want to show their arms, others want to distract from their knees or like to accentuate their waist.”

Everett met Theallet in the mid-'80s when the then-bisexual actor was having an affair with her best friend Beatrice Dalle, the Betty Blue actress. “Sophie had this jet black hair, white skin, and quivering cleavage,” he says. Plucky with a punk- rock dash, he was “reminded of the French resistance,” the type to “hide tons of Jews under their bed.”

Théallet was one of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s assistants who designed his knitwear and accessories, and was part of the very happening nightclub scene in Paris—The Palace and so forth. “Jean-Paul taught me how to play with color and that if you believed in something, not to be scared.” Then the “enfant terrible” of Paris’ fashion world—it was prior to his becoming world-famous with Madonna’s cone-breasted satin corset—Théallet recalls one Thanksgiving when Gaultier sent “live geese in cages to various fashion journalists.” “It still makes me laugh,” she says.

Théallet recalls one Thanksgiving when her boss, Jean-Paul Gaultier, sent live geese in cages to various fashion journalists. “It still makes me laugh,” she says.

Three years later, having designed a line of children’s clothes under her own name, Théallet joined Alaïa, the king of cling. “All the fittings, the rigor of the clothes, the need for perfection,” she says. “Working for Azzedine was like taking your religious vows. It was a very difficult apprenticeship, but worth it.”

In 1999, Theallet left Alaïa and packed up for New York. No hotshot Seventh Avenue job was set up. “I came because I fell in love,” she says, referring to Steven Francoeur, her Canadian husband and business partner. After freelancing for Alaïa and other designers, she created Motu Tane, a line of clothes for François Nars, the makeup artist, before starting her own line in 2006.

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Every penny earned goes back into Théallet’s next collection. “Since we are a self-financed group, it’s not so easy,” she says. Meanwhile she’s happy to live in Brooklyn, which she compares to the Biarritz of her childhood. “What I miss are the mountains,” she says. “Oh my god, I sound like Heidi!”

Plus: Check out Fashion Beast, updated every Wednesday, for more news on the latest runway shows, hot designers, and emerging trends.

Based in Paris, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni freelances for the International Herald Tribune, British Vogue, Elle Decor, Glamour, the Times Magazine (U.K.) and is the author of Sam Spiegel—The Biography of a Hollywood Legend, published in 2003.