When Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron appeared side by side for their photo op at the State Dinner on Wednesday night, it was hard not to wonder “Who Wore It Better?”—a kind of political fashion Olympics. There was Michelle Obama making a safe play in an off-the-shoulder teal dress designed by Georgina Chapman, the British-born and U.S.-based designer of Marchesa who was a guest at the dinner along with her husband, Harvey Weinstein. It was a gentle tip of the hat to British talent. Cameron, on the other hand, appeared in a blue lace design by a local underdog: the lesser-known Alessandra Rich, a London-based designer who began her business only two and a half years ago. In two very different dresses, each woman sent a message about fashion.
On her trip to the United States this week, Samantha Cameron flew the flag high for British designers. She landed in a Burberry trench coat, wore a color-blocked aqua dress by British favorite Roksanda Ilincic to their arrival ceremony in D.C., and an Erdem blouse upon her departure Thursday. “I was so happy, I was speechless,” Rich told The Daily Beast from her home in London on Thursday evening of Cameron’s decision to wear her dress at the State Dinner. She says she received multiple inquiries from interested shoppers on Thursday about where they can find SamCam’s dress. (It’ll be on Net-A-Porter in a few weeks and at select retailers.)
Side by side, the first ladies resembled two pillars of fashion—but it was hard not to wonder whether Cameron, next to the Obama powerhouse, could hold her own. While it is clear that Michelle Obama drives consumers to buy clothes from the brands she wears—whether it’s Target or Ralph Lauren—Samantha Cameron has less of a distinctive influence over British shoppers. Simply put, does anyone think SamCam is cool?
“Samantha Cameron is a more low-key and high-fashion by comparison,” says Melanie Rickey, fashion editor at large of the U.K.-based Grazia Magazine. “She’s influential, but not in the same way as Michelle Obama. She’s not going to cause women to stampede and buy dresses.”
“She wears young, new designers in a palatable way and makes them look like wearable clothes,” says Catherine Ostler, contributing editor at The Daily Mail. “But if you’re 24 you probably don’t care, because you think she’s a mother and married to some bloke who wears a suit. I think people who are over 30 are interested in how she dresses.”
As an official ambassador of the British Fashion Council, Cameron champions young homegrown brands—many of which are higher-end. Obama, on the other hand, is known for her crowd-pleasing mix of high and low fashion—a penchant to top off a J. Crew sweater with an Alaia belt. Kate Middleton, for her part, beats the drum for affordable “high street” fashion, which usually sells out immediately in stores.
“There’s nobody who has near to the influence of Mrs. Obama on the marketplace,” says David Yermack, professor of finance at the NYU Stern School of Business, who analyzes changes in apparel company stock prices after Michelle Obama wears those designers to public events. Yermack found that the first lady’s fashion choices in 2009 led to immediate gains exceeding $5 billion in shareholder value for publicly traded brands. (It’s impossible to know the real effect of her influence, he says, since most of the brands she wears are privately owned.) Other political wives, including Cameron, he says, “don’t make as many appearances and are operating in a smaller marketplace.” It may be tough to compare anyone with Obama, as she has “a sense of style that has attracted a following that few other women in public life have.” And as she continues to make steady appearances in 2012, Yermack says, the “Michelle Obama Effect” on the fashion industry is as strong now as it has ever been. “I’m surprised by its staying power,” he says. “You’d think people would lose interest.”
But popular British designers Peter Pilotto, Roksanda Ilincic, and Jonathan Saunders all tell The Daily Beast that Samantha Cameron wearing their designs has markedly helped their sales. (In fact, Cameron gifted the American first lady with a patterned scarf from Saunders’s last collection—a token we’ll surely see her wear across the White House lawn this spring.) “In Britain, she definitely has impact,” Pilotto says. “People really look to her.”
One young British designer, Louise Gray, says, however, that she wouldn’t be caught dead letting SamCam sport one of her designs. Sure, her fall 2012 collection was inspired by punk legends like Shirley Manson (of the band Garbage) and Blondie—and included one incredible bra made of bubble-wrap—and doesn’t necessarily scream SamCam. Gray says she’s joked with Cameron about not wearing her clothes. “It’s too embarrassing,” she says. “Girls would never wear it if they saw it on the prime minister’s wife!”
Cameron may not be able to pull off a bubble-wrap bra—but even next to Obama, she’s seen as a valuable asset for Brits. “In Britain, there’s a big difference between being cool and being chic,” says Rickey, “Cool used to be the thing you wanted to be, but now it’s all about being chic. And [Samantha Cameron] is very, very chic.”
Even next to Kate Middleton and her Midas touch, Rickey says, “together I hope they could reach the power Mrs. Obama has over there. We have a lot going on this little island.”