The First Family's unofficial endorsement of J.Crew threatened to backfire in the days after the inauguration—and not just because Barack Obama dared to wear a white bow tie, custom-made by the retailer, with a short jacket instead of a traditional tailcoat. (The audacity!)
A week later, history already is judging the decision to mix the mass brand with exclusive designer items, many from the now-famous Chicago boutique Ikram, as a stroke of fashion genius.
"We don't want our First Family to look like the family next door exactly, but we also want to feel like we can reach out and touch them," said Mandi Norwood, a former magazine editor and author of "Michelle Style," to be published in May by Avon A, an imprint of HarperCollins. "This was a very shrewd move, going to a store that isn't really cheap but is affordable to lots of people, and getting them to collaborate in exclusive design, and allowing them to roll it out at a later date so we can all have it in some fashion. It's a win-win."
Make that a win-win-win.
J.Crew enjoyed a 10.6 percent bump in its stock price Jan. 21 after it claimed credit for the Obama daughters' vivid coats, the first lady's green gloves (as well as her attire the day before) and the president's white bow tie on Inauguration Day. And, whether credit goes to the Obamas or a big sale, traffic to its Web site has remained steadily high since last week, causing periodic technical difficulties as recently as Wednesday. The brand even gets ink on the cover of Us Weekly, hitting newsstands Friday.
Initially, however, some shoppers were put off not just by problems with the Web site's servers, but also because they couldn't buy the same pieces once they got on. Others pointed out that J.Crew makes much of its clothing in China.
The company's responses have taken the edge off of those complaints.
Last weekend, J.Crew announced that it would make the exact same pieces for fall that the Obamas wore. They will be available in August.
Here's how the product placement of the century began, creative director Jenna Lyons recalled:
"Basically we had gotten an e-mail from someone in [ Michelle Obama's] camp who said, 'Can you call me?' It was cryptic. I called this person back, and she said, 'I'm doing this stuff for the Obamas, and this is what I want.' We did a first round of sketches. They said, 'We love it' and 'Can you do more?' We did more. We pushed the button around the 18th of December to make everything."
Custom-making pieces caused no concern. Nothing was extravagant, Lyons said. The Obamas are returning unused clothing, she said, and J.Crew will invoice for the rest.
"It never felt elitist at all. They were planning this all at the end of the season. They would've had a hard time [finding the pieces] if they'd just gone shopping. They needed something unique and special but from an approachable company."
Just how approachable was the subject of some debate: What is J.Crew's brand positioning these days?
"I don't think we're moderate or luxury," Lyons responded. "We're not doing what Gap is doing, but we're not doing what Louis Vuitton is doing. What we are trying to do is offer people Monday-through-Sunday things that are of great quality that people can mix into their wardrobe. We're trying to shed the preppy iconography of our past and associate more with classic pieces, the trench coat, the white shirt, the chino; those things can be worn many ways, but the chino we show maybe with a sequin tank top and heels. We're taking something that's stodgy but making it feel more modern."
Prices range from $8 for a headband up to $3,000 for a shearling coat.
"That's why it's hard to put a label on it," Lyons said. "We're trying to break out of that old retail model: That's moderate; that's bridge; that's luxury. Nobody dresses that way."
Then there's the China connection.
"If we could make more things in the U.S., we would," Lyons said. "We are a larger company, and one of the problems is there is no place to go in the U.S. We make all of our denim and belts and [swimwear] in California. But nobody in the U.S. makes shoes; no one makes sweaters. There are a few [manufacturers] in Brooklyn, but they couldn't handle our volume."
So, if anyone thought President Obama's biggest fashion challenge lay behind him ... think again.