It was around 6 p.m. on May 19, and designer Peter Soronen was rearranging his desk when the phone began to ring. He was preoccupied with making sure everything was in place as he'd just switched from the third to the fourth floor of his building in Chelsea. "We moved up," he says in reference to that day's work, his words appropriate also for the news that came at the other end of the line. "There was word of a blue dress. We knew it was probably mine." An iPhone picture came through, and someone started screaming, "She's wearing it! She's wearing it!" and it was confirmed: Michelle Obama had chosen Soronen's single-shoulder corseted shiny blue dress for the night's state dinner. It wasn't the first time Mrs. Obama had worn Soronen's design (recall the slate sparkler she wore to last year's Governors' Ball) but it didn't matter. "People are paying attention to what she's been wearing lately more than other times," the designer says.
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Rapt attention to Mrs. Obama's style is nothing new. Jason Wu and Narciso Rodriguez's electric first lady moments were well-documented events. Consider also the heavily trafficked website Mrs. O, with its tagline "Follow the Fashion of Mrs. O: What and Whom She's Wearing," an Internet go-to for designer recon on Mrs. Obama's looks. Isabel Toledo, Sophie Theallet, Rick Owens, and Rodarte are among the shortlist of designers Mrs. Obama helped introduce to those watching for her silent endorsement. Unlike many red-carpet collaborations, Mrs. Obama's final choice is not known until she steps into public view. It is then that the flashes go off, text messages fly, and the high starts for a designer—even if it's a repeat experience. "It gave me exposure to people who wouldn't have known me or my clothes," says Soronen of the blue-dress moment. "It feels like I'm on the map." The Internet provides instant commentary and photographic evidence when word seeps in, amplifying and preserving the moment's impact.
Prabal Gurung was in a taxi en route to a party when he received a text message from a friend who was at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. "There's a buzz going around that it's you." There was a flurry of phone calls, co-workers logged online and it was revealed that the red dress was, indeed, his design. "It was a big event," says Gurung. "It's still surreal." Two months prior, Mrs. Obama had worn another of Gurung's looks to the Smithsonian for the donation of her inaugural dress designed by Wu. (Gurung found out via Twitter.) "She does her own thing and is able to have that much freedom to think independently—to toss all the traditional norms," he says. "You look at the White House and it's so alive. There's a new sense of energy there and it affects me as a designer." Gurung isn't at all jaded, which made hearing the news on the Correspondents' Dinner all the better. "More than anything else I wanted to jump and dance." This proved very convenient when Gurung's taxi arrived at his final festive destination.
"Every time it happens, there's a joy in my heart," says Thakoon Panichgul. Mrs. Obama has worn countless Thakoon looks, and Panichgul can recall the specifics of each moment. Word often arrives via a co-worker who's been tipped off by a Google Alert set for Thakoon's name. The message is suddenly sent off around the world. It's an experience not lost on designers of a different establishment.
“More than anything else I wanted to jump and dance,” says Prabal Gurung.
Michael Kors was at the theater in London when news broke that Mrs. Obama had chosen his black bonded jersey racer cut dress for the first official White House portrait. "When we left the theater and turned our gadgets back on, I had close to a hundred emails and 30 phone messages," says Kors of the influx of congratulations. Being abroad, Kors witnessed first-hand the international effect. "The next morning, she was on the cover of every U.K. newspaper."
Post-elation, there's potential for a technology hangover. "It didn't give me the day off," Soronen says of the endless interviews, emails, and text messages he had to answer following the state dinner, "but it took the grind away." Still, there's a pleasant side effect to the furor. Says Soronen, "I know when you Google me, there's a few more things to look at."
Stephanie LaCava is a writer living in New York City. Previously, she was a features associate on staff at Vogue.