Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were immortalized today. Their official portraits, his painted by Kehinde Wylie and hers by Amy Sherald, were revealed inside the Smithsonian Museum this morning, and both were far from traditional. Mr. Obama is pictured seated in a chair surrounded by a heaping mass of vibrant flowers, while his wife is captured in a halter gown printed with geometric shapes. The dress was a bespoke creation from American designer Michelle Smith of the label Milly, based on a look from her Spring 2017 collection. At today’s unveiling, Sherald spoke about how the dress reminded her of a quilt from Gee’s Bend—a quiet, all-black community in Alabama that became widely known for its craft. She also noted that the colors were reminiscent of Mondrian. But the actual thinking behind the dress was quite different, according to Smith, who worked on the project alongside Obama’s stylist Meredith Koop. Smith says it was meant to be “a dress that Mrs. Obama could wear in her everyday life, as well as in this iconic portrait.” The designer adds, “It’s made of a stretch cotton poplin print in a clean, minimal, geometric print without a reference to anything past or nostalgic, which gives the dress a very forward-thinking sensibility—this is very Michelle Obama.”
Obama stood out as a First Lady because of her progressiveness and reliability, much of which was mirrored in the American labels she chose to wear, whether it was a reasonably priced cardigan from J.Crew or a floral skirt from Milly. Some within the fashion industry may have wondered why she didn’t choose a luxury label she worked with in the past, like Jason Wu or Michael Kors. However, it makes perfect sense that she would like to be remembered for her approachability and her effortless sartorial sensibilities. As Smith also points out, the gown was made in New York City, in the heart of the garment district.
“It’s up to Mrs. Obama to say why she chose this for the portrait, but I would say that it’s a very modern, emotional dress with a very womanly, very American spirit,” Smith says. “The dress also reveals her arms, which I believe is groundbreaking and very modern for a portrait of the First Lady.” She adds, “her portrait represents her perfectly—her intelligence, modernity, confidence, sensuality, and kindness. It’s a very open, honest, and beautiful portrayal of her.” Having worked with Obama over the years, Smith was ecstatic to be given the opportunity of designing the portrait gown. During the process, she also made one very big request: “I hope she runs for president! I begged her to do so in a handwritten note.”