ON THE RUNWAY
On Sunday, the day of the Italian referendum that resulted in the announced resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Michelle Obama wore an Italian dress to the Kennedy Center Honors, a.k.a. “Washington’s cultural event of the year.” Specifically, she wore a Gucci dress. Coincidence? It’s possible.
But consider this: It was the first time she had worn a non-American designer to the event in the eight years she had attended.
Such a choice is not casual, especially on an evening watched by millions, not just because of the paparazzi photos that come out of appearances by such names as the honorees Al Pacino, the Eagles and James Taylor, but because it is broadcast on television later in the year. (The 2015 awards were viewed by 7.5 million people; the 2014 ones, 9.25 million.) And because her choices throughout the two terms of her husband’s administration have been watched with increasing intensity (“Michelle Obama stuns in XX” is the typical headline post-Honors ceremony), and this is her last ceremony as first lady. And because this is only the second time she has worn Gucci, the first being in September on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” when she wore a vintage map-print dress.
And though the first lady has largely broken out of the Made in America box, she has done so primarily by using clothes to convey cross-border diplomatic messages. For example, at the administration’s last state dinner, held in October for — yes — Mr. Renzi, she wore Versace. He wore Armani.
As it happens, the soon-to-be-former Italian prime minister has had a very close relationship with the Italian fashion world, which in turn gave him its full support — in many ways not unlike the way the American fashion world embraced Hillary Clinton during her campaign for the presidency.
He became the first Italian prime minister to officially open Milan Fashion Week, appearing at a lunch last season and the season before to schmooze with industry power players such as Diego Della Valle, chairman of Tod’s Group; Marco Bizzarri, chief executive of Gucci; Giorgio Armani; Stefano Sassi, chief executive of Valentino; Anna Wintour, artistic director of Condé Nast in the United States; Franca Sozzani, editor of Italian Vogue; and so on, and making a speech about the importance of fashion to Italy.
This was a big deal, as traditionally, prime ministers, while understanding fashion was one of Italy’s most celebrated global exports, were loath to be seen as too cozy with an industry associated with luxury.
Specifically, in September, Mr. Renzi said, “I strongly believe you are a fundamental part of the general economy and the Italian way of life.” And “this country needs a Made in Italy of culture, values, ideas and production.”
And, as if in acknowledgment of fashion’s favorite presidential candidate, “we are available to welcome the new president of America, whoever she may be.”
Little wonder that as the referendum drew near, fashion voiced its support in turn, with Patrizio Bertelli of Prada and Ferruccio Ferragamo of Salvatore Ferragamo telling WWD that they were behind him.
Now, of course, like the American fashion industry, they are left in limbo, waiting to see who follows Mr. Renzi: whether they will take an equally supportive and friendly approach to the sector or turn a colder shoulder; whether their bet on the losing horse will come back to hurt them; whether their relationship with Rome is about to be reframed.
Maybe Mrs. Obama wasn’t thinking about any of this when she chose the custom-made green and pink off-the-shoulder metallic silk crepe Gucci gown she wore Sunday night. Maybe she just thought, “Oh, that’s pretty.” Because it was.
But more likely, given her history with dress and the way she has used it as a strategic tool, she was also doing what she could to stress the importance of Italian fashion at a delicate time; making a discrete gesture of solidarity with a country and an administration and an industry. What was it? To paraphrase Mr. Taylor — they’ve got a friend.