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Critics applaud Michelle Obama's inaugural fashion; First daughters make an impression in J. Crew outfits

"First of all, how good-looking is my wife?" asked

President Barack Obama at the first of 10 official inaugural balls, as Michelle Obama revealed her second blockbuster outfit of the day: a white chiffon one-shoulder gown by Jason Wu.

>>Photos of Michelle Obama

The dress, with a strap across one shoulder, ruched bodice, fluffy appliqués and sparkling beading, will (as tradition dictates) be donated to the Smithsonian.

Wu, 26, who was born in Taiwan and works in Manhattan, has been compared to Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera. But that Park Avenue sensibility is often tempered with a touch of youthful whimsy.

Not everyone loved it. "I was expecting a different silhouette like a halter - and color," said fashion personality and stylist Robert Verdi. " Nancy Reagan wore a one-shouldered job, Laura Bush wore white and of course, Jackie Kennedy wore it. Wearing white is the historic route and I thought she'd do something different."

>>Photos of Malia and Sasha Obama

Oprah magazine creative director Adam Glassman disagreed. "I love that she's wearing white," he said. "It's about optimism and a new start and a fresh moment; she's the bride of the evening. I think she looks modern, youthful and fresh, and I'm happy she kept her hair the way she wears it, instead of some updo."

The new first lady put the fashion world on notice from the very beginning yesterday: Expect the unexpected.

Odds were that her Inauguration Day outfit would come from any one of America's new fashion darlings like Thakoon or Wu, or an African-American designer such as Tracy Reese or perhaps her local favorite, Chicago designer Maria Pinto. Instead, she went with Isabel Toledo, a veteran Cuban-born designer based in New York who is known for her creativity and beautifully structured lines.

The jewel-collared, pale yellow-gold lace coat, sweater and sheath dress ensemble featured a clever hidden layer of pashmina and to help the first lady stave off the cold. Obama accessorized with green Jimmy Choo shoes and green gloves from J.Crew.

Toledo, who only learned that Obama would wear her design early Tuesday morning, told The Associated Press, "It's not just my moment and hers, but it's the world's." She said she chose the "lemon grass" color of the outfit for the optimism it represents, fitting as the Obama campaign based its message on hope and optimism.

"That color has sunshine in it," she said.

Many applauded the choice. "I think Isabel did a brilliant job," said Simon Doonan, of Barney's New York. The famously imaginative creative director spent the day changing three windows of the Madison Avenue flagship store to honor the designer. "It's about formality, appropriateness and history," Doonan said. "The dress was regal and appropriate."

"I thought she looked beautiful," Glassman said. "With just that touch of embellishment, I think it came across as being special without being too royal. It was not like she was wearing the crown jewels."

And he liked the way she wore it. "She looks pulled together and chic, but not scary fashionista. She wears it real, and you see her first; you're not looking at the outfit."

As for the new president, he looked presidential in a dark suit, red tie and white shirt, topped by an overcoat adorned with an American flag pin.

At least one fashion type gave Jill Biden a big thumbs up for her red coat, houndstooth sheath by Milly and black boots. "She looked snazzy and contemporary, kind of like a modern-day Nancy Sinatra," Verdi said. He was less keen on the first lady's look. "I'm sure the outfit was pretty in person, but it photographed sallow. ... I like colors ... you can assign a name to."

That said, others were happy with the pick and what it means for American fashion. "I think the choice of Isabel Toledo is inspired and [Obama] continues to be adventurous in her choices," says Constance White, eBay's fashion director. "This will be a great contribution to American fashion, because she will be broadcasting American talent around the world."

STYLISH SISTERS

So first lady Michelle Obama wasn't the only one in the fashion limelight yesterday. First daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, got way into the act. And despite the pomp and circumstance, they looked fabulous - but still like kids.

Malia wore a double-breasted, deep periwinkle coat, while Sasha shone in a guava pink coat, contrasting orange scarf and gloves, with just the hint of a coral dress peeking from below her hem. Both coats were tied with velvet ribbons, echoing the tie on mom's sparkly coat.

All the clothes were from crewcuts, the children's division of J. Crew and (how lucky are they?) were specially designed for the girls. According to the company, Michelle and the girls were able to choose what they liked. "We wanted to offer a collection ... that would let their own personalities show through," said Jenna Lyons, creative director of J. Crew.

Too bad you won't find the exact looks in the crewcuts catalog, but the company says highlights may be seen in fall 2009 J. Crew and crewcuts collections.

- Anne Bratskeir

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