FIT Students Honored at White House

Chelsea Chen's dress on display next to First Lady wearing Natalya Koval's dress. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Chelsea Chen’s dress on display next to the First Lady, who wears a Natalya Koval dress. Photo: Alex Wong

Fashion enthusiasts know which designers First Lady Michelle Obama favors. Now add FIT’s Natalya Koval and Chelsea Chen to a list that includes Rachel Roy, Narciso Rodriguez, Jason Wu and Azzedine Alaia.

The First Lady spoke at the White House yesterday at her star-designer studded, student-centered Fashion Education Workshop.

History will record what the First Lady wore: Natalya Koval’s midnight blue racer front, fit and flair dress. Beside her, on a dress form, was Chelsea Chen’s dark navy color-blocked dress with emerald, lavender and off-white panels.

“The dress that I am wearing today and the dress that you see here were designed by two [FIT] students,” said Mrs. Obama. “Natalya and Chelsea, thank you. Thank you for your creativity, thank you for your passion.  We’re very proud of you,” she said of the winners of the White House’s design competition.

Natalya Koval, FIT President Joyce Brown, Chelsea Chen outside the White House
Natalya Koval, FIT President Joyce Brown & Chelsea Chen outside the White House

It was an “OMG” Day for the FIT family.

“I couldn’t have fathomed myself in this position of my designs being chosen by the First Lady,” said Chelsea. “Even for an established designer this would be a huge opportunity.”

“I’m overwhelmed and feel so privileged to be given a lifetime opportunity to represent FIT,” said Natalya Koval, a fifth semester fashion design student. “This is such a big life event!” Reporters from the New York Daily News to Ukrainian Vogue are lined up for interviews with Koval.

The White House was transformed–in Vogue’s Anna Wintour’s words — “into a center of creativity and collaboration for students from across the world.” Five technology-innovative workshops were led by fashion’s big hitters Phillip Lim, Zac Posen, Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig, Naeem Khan, and Thom Browne.

Meredith Koop, stylist for the First Lady with Chelsea Chen
Meredith Koop, stylist for the First Lady with Chelsea Chen

At the luncheon the First Lady’s comments reflected Chelsea and Natalya’s experience.

“The clothes you see in the magazine covers are really just the finished product in what is a very long, very complicated and very difficult process, as I’ve come to learn working with many designers,” said the First Lady.

“It might seem to be an easy process for one dress,” said Natalya, “but it took many people to take it to the level of perfect, of something you would want to see on our fashion icon Michelle Obama.”

Student designs were chosen in a competition hosted by the White House. They knew they were designing for a real “celebrity” but the name was not revealed until the First Lady had chosen her designs. 

Designer and mentor Phillip Lim, Natalya and Chelsea Chen at the White House
Designer and mentor Phillip Lim, Natalya and Chelsea Chen at the White House

Chelsea Chen, a seventh semester fashion design major, comes from a business and finance background, and says she barely knew how to sketch or sew before coming to FIT.

“I came from the tiniest, tiniest city in northeast China. When I was walking home from the meeting with the First Lady’s stylist Meredith Koop, who broke the news to us, I had a flashback of all that it took to be here — to then being present in the same room with the First Lady’s stylist and all these fabulous respected faculty members from FIT!”

Natalya Koval’s earliest muses were her paper cut-out dolls. By middle school she was creating clothes for herself. Yet emigrating to the U.S. was a long, arduous process.

Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine with Chelsea Chen
Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, with Chelsea Chen

A panel discussion, with a chance to network, was held just for students. The panel included Jenna Lyons, Diane von Furstenberg, Prabal Gurung, Jason Wu, Tracy Reese, and Edward Wilkerson with Lilliana Vazquez as moderator.

Panel discussion for students at the Fashion Education Workshop at the White House

“You’ve got to hone your skills in college or at design school; you’ve got to be willing to take some risks and you also have to be prepared to fail…a lot,” the First Lady said. “All of these are essential for the journey.”

Said Wintour, “Education in [The First Lady’s] view is the key to the whole thing.” 

“It’s very true,” said Natalya. “I would have never gotten this far without FIT.”

Chelsea and Natalia at the White House



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