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Black fashion designer draws fire for Obama criticism

The New York woman who criticized Michelle Obama for not wearing the work of a black designer on Inauguration Day is drawing some fire of her own from several black fashion industry veterans.

"The comment is inappropriate," said Bethann Hardison, a former model who now is an agent representing Tyson Beckford and an advocate for diversity on the runway. "You don't wear a designer because they are just black; you wear them because they are great."

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Amnau Eele, co-founder of a little-known group called the Black Artists Association, claimed she received death threats after Women's Wear Daily published comments she made in an e-mail last week. "If you are going to have Isabel Toledo do the inauguration dress, and Jason Wu do the evening gown, why not have Kevan Hall, B Michael, Stephen Burrows or any of the other black designers do something too?" she wrote.

On Tuesday, African-American designer B Michael distanced himself from Eele's comments, telling Women's Wear that they do not reflect his opinion. "I personally believe it is an unfair expectation to place on the first lady," he said. "Fashion is subjective and a matter of personal choice."

"We all think it's ridiculous," Hardison said. "We just look at it with shrugged shoulders. Isabel Toledo is representative of people who are nonwhite. And Mrs. Obama is making creative selections."

Eele, identified by Women's Wear as a former runway model, said in the follow-up story that her comments were not made on behalf of the designers.

"B Michael has a right to issue a statement," she said. "It doesn't change the fact that he's an excellent designer and he deserves to be considered to dress the first lady, whether he stands with BAA or not. We don't represent designers, we represent painters. We spoke up for black designers because we felt it was the right thing to do."

The story got play everywhere from The Australian to The Huffington Post to New York magazine's Web site, with most reaction critical of Eele's charges. "I think we start getting into some dangerous territory when we start expecting someone to look, act, speak, etc. a certain way just because they're black," wrote Karyn D. Collins of the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press.

Beyond that, wrote Collins, "I think it does a disservice to the designers in question for suggesting that their work should have been selected because they're black. I'm sure B Michael, Kevan Hall, Mychael Knight, Tracy Reese, Stephen Burrows and any other black designer would be the first to say they would want their design to be worn because the first lady liked the design, period."

Anne Bratskeir and Tania Padgett contributed to this story.

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