Inaugural Gown

Michelle Obama Wears a Second Inaugural Ball Gown by Jason Wu

Isabel Wilkinson on how the first lady shocked the Twitterverse by picking the designer for a second time.

Michelle Obama’s done it again. She’s worn a Jason Wu dress for a second round of inaugural balls.

By the time the president took the stage at the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball to greet the audience and to introduce the first lady—“I have a date”—the Twitterverse was hyperventilating over which designer she would choose. (According to CNN, the first lady had narrowed it down to two designers from a pool of 15.)

But when she emerged in a beautiful red draped dress by Jason Wu, she still managed to shock. Wu is the designer she catapulted to fame in 2009, when she wore a one-shouldered dress of his design to the first inaugural balls. Immediately after that, Wu, who emigrated from Taiwan at age 9, was on the map. So wouldn’t it have been nice for the first lady to pay it forward—and to select another, lesser-known American designer to wear on the big night? (After all, the Tracy Reese dress she wore to the Democratic National Convention in September created a sales boom for Reese and cast a fresh spotlight on the designer.)

But according to David Yermack, professor of finance at the Stern School of Business at New York University and the author of the 2010 Harvard Business Review study on The Michelle Obama Effect, the first lady doesn’t owe it to anyone to change designers. “She has a big impact [on sales],” he says, “but I don’t think anybody’s entitled to it. If she picks the best designer and it’s the same person twice in a row, more power to that person.”

And after Monday night, Wu is that person. Still, the designer says he’s changed since the 2009 inauguration. “I’ve just refined my skills and grown my business,” he told The Daily Beast earlier this month, noting that the Jason Wu woman in the last four years has become “a little sexier, a little more provocative, and a lot more womanly.” That was certainly evident in Obama’s fire-engine red dress.

There’s a political benefit to wearing Jason Wu: his is a privately held company—and that might work to the first lady’s advantage. “If Jason Wu were owned by, say, LVMH, you might see their stock prices rise a billion dollars tomorrow,” Yermack says. “You might see the headline ‘The Billion-Dollar First Lady.’ And I don’t think she wants that.” In 2010 Yermack’s study measured that Obama’s effect on the fashion industry was roughly $2.7 billion, a number he expects has grown significantly in the last four years. The first lady also favors J.Crew, and several of the pieces she and her daughters wore on Inauguration Day immediately flew off the shelves. (Her belt, borrowed from the retailer’s bridal department, was gone in a matter of hours.

One more advantage to wearing a dress by Jason Wu: the designer now simultaneously represents high fashion and affordability. In early January, Wu, now 30, released a cheaper line for Nordstrom called Miss Wu, a prim and ladylike 40-piece collection of sweaters, dresses, and jackets that retail for between $190 and $900. And, surprisingly, Michelle Obama was the first person to wear Miss Wu before it hit stores, appearing in a green checkered Miss Wu dress at a Cincinnati rally in October.

“I was sending her some clothes, so I thought I would send her some Miss Wu pieces,” Wu told The Daily Beast by phone early this month of his Miss Wu collection. “She’s so great at mixing different price points of clothes, she always makes it work and looks really good.” Indeed, for the inauguration, Wu collaborated with jeweler Kimberly McDonald to create a custom diamond ring for the neck of Obama’s dress.

“I can imagine, whatever this guy does for the rest of his career,” Yermack says, “he will always be referred to as Jason Wu, the person who designed both of Michelle Obama’s inauguration dresses. And that’s probably a very good thing.”