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First lady lets wardrobe take back seat to objectives

| Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Michelle Obama has proven her fashion savvy time and again since she was introduced as first lady in a yellow sheath and coat by Isabel Toledo on Inauguration Day 2009 — so much so that we don't discuss it nearly as much as we used to.

Four years ago, there was a daily barrage in the media: Jason Wu gown! J. Crew gloves! Jimmy Choo shoes! It remained that way for months and even years.

There was the Naeem Khan beaded strapless gown for the first state dinner in the Obama White House, the black racer-back dress by Michael Kors worn in her official portrait. Her wardrobe for the Obamas' state visit to England included the white cross-neck halter gown by Tom Ford she wore to a black-tie event with Queen Elizabeth in London, and the fiery red Alexander McQueen she wore the for the state dinner the Obamas hosted for China generated news around the globe.

More recently, her pink Tracy Reese dress was practically an honored guest at the Democratic National Convention in September, and one of the moments so many are eagerly anticipating on Monday is when she'll emerge in her gown for the inaugural balls.

But she's figured out a way to largely move the focus from her style to her substance.

“What's really interesting about the first lady is that she's been able to incorporate the fact that she's stylish into a much larger persona,” says Ariel Foxman, managing editor of InStyle magazine.

In the early going, there was intense focus on what she'd wear “because we hadn't seen a first lady who had such an innate style and sense of color — and great arms,” he adds. “It's been exciting to see a first lady embracing fashion by remaining consistently interesting and diverse in her fashion choices, and in doing that, she's been able to draw attention elsewhere.”

She probably doesn't want the first question when she visits a school to promote healthy living to be about her sneakers, and she doesn't want the print of her dress to steal the thunder of a speech about veterans.

“Consistency has made her look much more matter-of-fact,” Foxman adds.

In an age of the overused term “style icon,” Obama is one of the few modern women to deserve it. In the past four years she has adeptly walked — usually in kitten heels or ballet flats — the line between directional fashionista and everywoman.

She has a deep tool box and she knows how to use it, says Kevan Hall, a Los Angeles-based designer. “Every designer wants to dress her,” he says. She has worn his label.

“Just like any woman, she wants to look pretty, and I think she's having fun with it. It must be fun to be a girl with a big White House closet,” Hall says, noting all the events, galas and speeches to dress up for.

She looks comfortable in clothes that can be a little edgy, and, Hall says, women find that inspiring.

Nick Verreos, fashion designer, “Project Runway” alum and instructor at Los Angeles' Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, was the host four years ago in Washington of the California State Society's luncheon celebrating inaugural fashion. “It has been a great journey watching her,” he says.

He credits her with putting daytime dresses back on the map. After years of women favoring separates and jeans, Obama came along in her sheaths and A-lines. Then they were a trend on runways, malls and Main Streets.

“I know I always gravitate to the woman who's not the wallflower, and the first lady is no wallflower,” Verreos says.

She also makes “conscious choices” about what she's going to wear, knowing that people will take note — and read into it, he says.

“Of course she thinks about it,” agrees InStyle's Foxman, “but she isn't preoccupied by it. She thinks about it in the way that everyone else does.”

He describes her as a working mom who has favorite go-to pieces: the sleeveless dresses, cardigans, capri pants, chunky jewelry, flat shoes and waist-nipping belts.

It's nice to see that she often wears the same pieces, finding new ways to mix and match them, Hall says.

The moment she's probably the most relaxed in her style is coming on and off Air Force One. Maybe travel encourages those above-the-ankle pants and flowy tops? “You just know there's some stretch in those pants,” Hall says.

If you look at her style over the past few years, not much has changed, he adds, but you can tell she's grown more comfortable in her own skin, in her wardrobe and in her role. Casual clothes, looser hair and more natural makeup show that off.

The fashion industry is looking forward to another term, giving another chance for her to wear a variety of designer names and brands and call attention to new designers.

“It's a big business in this country,” Foxman says. “We're waiting to see who she can pluck for obscurity on the inaugural night like she did with Jason Wu four years ago.”

Samantha Chritchell is a fashion writer for the Associated Press.

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