“Is this not cool?” Those were among First Lady Michelle Obama’s opening words when she addressed the crowd of high school students and famous fashion designers at a luncheon as part of her recent Fashion Education Workshop. I watched Mrs. Obama’s speech on my iPad as I traveled to Washington by train for the reception to celebrate the fashion industry that would culminate the day.
Indeed, how cool is it that the First Lady of the land has not only recognized the importance of the fashion industry to our country’s economy—but also, and perhaps especially, has consistently made such a strong link between the future of the industry and education? How cool is it that she brought in 150 high school students that morning to participate in workshops led by the elite of the fashion design industry—Jason Wu and Diane von Furstenberg and Phillip Lim? How cool is it that she approached FIT last spring with a secret request that we sponsor a contest to design a dress for her to wear to this event?
As I think most members of our community now know, Mrs. Obama selected designs by two of our students: Natalya Koval and Chelsea Chen. At the luncheon, she was wearing Natalya’s design and next to her, on a mannequin near the podium, was Chelsea’s dress. I could not have been prouder.
We met up with Natalya and Chelsea that evening as we waited, along with many of today’s fashion industry luminaries, inside the East Gate to enter the White House. They were elated—and wearing, I should add, newly created dresses of their own design. Many of FIT’s good friends and “family members” were there, including trustee Robert Savage and his wife Nanette Lepore ’83, Lafayette 148 designer Edward Wilkerson (which is trustee Deirdre Quinn’s company), Carolina Herrera, Fern Mallis, Michelle Smith’93, and Zac Posen. The corridor leading to the East Room, where the party was being held, was lined with mannequins dressed in designer gowns that Mrs. Obama had worn to a variety of formal occasions. The mood—enhanced by a small music combo and champagne—was exuberant. I am estimating that Mrs. Obama shook about 300 hands that night as the receiving line snaked through the East Room, the Green Room and finally, the Blue Room where she stood. And although, under the circumstances, none of us had an opportunity to hold a “real” conversation with her, her appreciation of FIT—and her dedication to education—was palpable. She could not have been more gracious or more impressive.
This is not the first time I have had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Obama. Last spring, she invited 10 FIT students to join her as she cut the ribbon to open the Charles James exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our students joined a large contingent of fashion’s most celebrated names, but Mrs. Obama nevertheless took the time to meet separately with them and to speak with them individually. Her message to them was the same one she delivered to the students at the White House luncheon while wearing Natalya’s dress: combine your passion for design with higher education and hard hard work…take risks, because, she said, “Risks, failure, it’s all part of being great.”
With great good humor, Mrs. Obama reiterated her own love for fashion and respect for the fashion industry in the East Room that evening. Wearing a blue embroidered Oscar de la Renta dress, she cheered the designers but circled back, as she always seems to do, to the centrality of education and the role it must play for the industry, and young people, to succeed.
Natalya and Chelsea had a life-changing experience—one clearly only available to FIT students. I am thrilled for them. I am also thrilled for FIT and grateful to our fashion design faculty—whose members nurtured our two students every step of the way—allowing them, and FIT, to have this memorable White House moment.