"I didn't have this master plan. What I'll say is, I had this feeling — and I think everyone probably had this feeling one way or the other — that I'm supposed to be here."
In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
When Meredith Koop first stepped into the job that would introduce her to a global audience — and for a few months after — the public didn't know her name. The person responsible for styling the First Lady of the United States has historically been a behind-the-scenes gig, their name hardly ever confirmed by the East Wing. By the time she was identified as Michelle Obama's style advisor, she'd been in the role for months. It would be another few years, though, before Koop would speak to the press about her time dressing one of the most visible women on Earth.
"It was the level of attention I think not only because of the social media era, but also because here is this statuesque Black woman and her husband coming into this very rare, special space," Koop tells Fashionista over Zoom, of the unique scrutiny Obama faced when she stepped into the role of First Lady. "They had younger children, which was also something that catches the imagination of the public. So everything about it, there was a big spotlight."
What Obama and Koop were able to do with fashion — the communication, the advocacy, the messaging, the layers — during that time was extraordinary. Much has been written about the importance and the impact she had, not just on the fashion industry (and the many designers they turned into household names, from Prabal Gurung to Tanya Taylor) but also on the perception of what it means to get dressed. With every appearance, they argued that what we wear matters, that it says something about us and that it's something worth talking about.
Koop has continued to style Obama (in some incredibly epic looks, might I add) since then. She's broken the internet a few times, too — recently, at the Presidential Inauguration in January and at the Democratic National Convention last August.
"When I put her in that necklace... I knew I wanted her to wear a necklace that said 'vote' for the DNC," Koop says of the By Chari design that quickly went viral after Obama wore it during her powerful speech. Though she "had no plans of making it part of the merch" she was working on for When We All Vote, Obama's nonpartisan voting organization, Koop went on to collaborate with Chari Cuthbert, the brand's founder, on a special style as part of a collection benefitting the nonpartisan organization. "I just wanted a necklace that said 'vote' and that I thought looked cool... My thing was, it's something that women would want to wear. I'd been seeing a lot is very big labels, very big things that said 'vote, vote, vote.' So it's just trying to make something a little bit more subtle, very wearable. But it's cool that people loved it."
Koop took some time to talk to Fashionista about her career, which started when she walked into Chicago's famed boutique Ikram and asked to prove herself, and all the places it's taken her — and what she thinks is exciting about fashion now. Read on.
Tell me a little bit about where your love of fashion came from.
This is a question I have had before and I think it's so interesting because I hear a lot of people in fashion say they had some very fashionable person in their family or something — I definitely did not have that, but what I had, for whatever reason, [was] an interest, and that interest was bolstered by television, specifically MTV: MTV videos, MTV 'House of Style,' pop culture, magazines. My sister was six years older, so I was getting exposed to different music, different magazines. I was looking at them after she was done, stealing them from her room. So I think a lot of it really came from a little fantasy world that I was building out, for whatever reason. I didn't understand that interest; also nobody really fostered that interest, per se. It wasn't like, 'Oh, this is something that you can actually do and make money doing.' The career thing was more like, 'You get a job that's a thing that you show up to 9 to 5.'
Are there any images from that era that stand out to you as being the foundation for that world that you were building in your head?
I really love Missy Elliot and loved the aesthetic of her videos because it was different. Lil' Kim and her bikini, I was like, 'Wow.' But also, one of the things that I loved about House of Style was seeing Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford — as soon as that Cindy Crawford workout video came out, somehow I got it. I grew up taking dance classes, so anything that combined choreography, fashion, lights and colors was just.... When Todd Oldham was on 'House of Style' putting shit together, it was just cool because it's something you could do at home. I just felt like that show was so cool in a very accessible way. As inaccessible someone that's as amazing-looking as Naomi Campbell is, it didn't feel so incredibly distant, the way it was produced.
After college, you moved to Chicago and you started working at Ikram. Was that your first fashion job?
Yes, and I don't think I put much thought into it, like, 'Okay, this is now my career.' It was a combination of desperation to do something [and] to have a career. When I left college, I didn't have a plan. I felt like I was looking at other people going, 'How are they figuring this out? I'm trying to just keep my shit together here.' So I didn't have this great plan.
When I went [to Ikram] for the first time, for the interview, I had just never seen anything like it. I had never seen an Alexander McQueen gown hanging on a rack. These were objects that blew my mind — the artistry of them, the creativity, the colors. It just had such an impact on me visually that I thought, 'Wow, I really want to work here and learn all about this.' There was just something about it that was very, very striking. But I didn't have any experience. In fact, I wasn't really offered the job. But I was just like, 'Can I please?' I had just made up my mind when I walked in there, so I was just, 'Please put me on a trial period, I'll do anything just to have this experience and prove myself to you.' That has been a theme... 'Please let me walk through this door and I will prove myself.' Certainly, people have let me walk through the door, possibly because of other factors, but I feel very grateful that that's been possible.
What's something you learned either about fashion or just about having a career in fashion from being in that boutique setting?
What I've seen now is that every experience that I thought was really great and really informative, or also not informative at all and worthless in my mind at the time, has proven to be valuable later on. One thing that I really took away from there was working with women. At the time, I did actually have some customers that were not women, but primarily I was working with women. The exciting thing about working at a place like that is you have clients and you have people that you see regularly, but there are also people that will just come in. What I also learned is you don't pass judgment on someone based on their appearance. Look, if you work in retail and you work on commission, it wouldn't matter. I learned about the value of just being in the process, of just enjoying helping someone, no matter if they were going to buy it or not.
Also, just about different women — different women's preferences and body shapes and sizes. I've never been in a position in my life in fashion where I've worked with an up-and-down, small-sized woman. That's fine, there's nothing wrong with that, but that still remains, to this day, a standard operating procedure [in the industry], even though we're seeing a peppering of inclusion of different sizes and different-looking people. I haven't really worked in that construct, so in a way, I'm very grateful. I think that informed future work because I was used to altering things and making things work, not just like, 'Okay, sample size, put it on, out the door.' It was always more of a process and more of a personalized experience.
A major theme in your work over the years has been using fashion as a means of storytelling. Does that go back to that boutique experience or did that come later?
I have always had a pretty vivid imagination. I'm always weaving up some story in my head — 'Oh, this is that and this is that and look at that. Oh, you're giving me this and that.' It's always a story. But I think what I did later is so specific and so unique. I mean, there are really not a lot of things that are unique and I think I felt like, 'Oh, that's very egotistical, to say it was unique.' But you know what? It was unique.
When did you start working at the White House?
I had been working there since 2009, but I had basically been the assistant to the main stylist. That first inaugural look is not my work — I never want to take credit for it. I was there as that assistant, that go-between. Then, at the end of 2010 is when I started doing the styling by myself.
I had never really been to D.C. I didn't really know much about anything, and I didn't come on with some plan. Again, I didn't have this master plan. What I'll say is, I had this feeling — and I think everyone probably had this feeling one way or the other — that I'm supposed to be here. I don't know why, I don't know what's going to happen, I just know I'm supposed to be here and I'm supposed to help. I'm supposed to help this family. So when Michelle asked me to get clothing for her, to style her, to help her in that way, 'Okay, yes. Sure.'
I think the journey of life for a lot of people, myself included, is a journey of just having some confidence that you can do something. I hate contrived phrases like, 'Believe in yourself,' but it was just believing — and her confidence in me really helped me a lot, to feel like, 'Okay, if she thinks that I'm capable of this, let me try to borrow that so that I can move forward.' I feel very lucky and very grateful that I've been able to basically take that role and in it, have a lot of freedom and a lot of trust.
It's different for everyone, so I can't speak to [another stylist's] process. People will contact me and be like, 'I want to be a stylist.' I'm like, 'What does that mean to you? You want to dress celebrities? You want to do red carpet?' There are so many different processes. It's like, you're a writer, so if someone comes to you and says, 'I want to be a writer.' Well, what do you want to write? Do you want to be a novelist? Do you want to write for US Weekly? You can do that with any profession. For me specifically, I was just interested in: How can I make this meaningful and make this about more than fashion?
The thing that I love about the age of the internet and the age of social media is the access to information. With the access to information comes power, and I was able to learn so much because I was able to access information. I can research anything, like the significance of something in another culture. The amount of work and intention was and continues to be a lot, but I would say it was even more so because I was given a very big responsibility and given a lot of trust to do my process without a lot of interference. My work style is like, 'I need to go away and be by myself. I don't want any input.' Then I will come to you and I will bring you my work and take your feedback, but until then I need to do all of my stuff by myself.
Having never worked as a "professional stylist" prior to that, how did you overcome challenges?
I'm trying to just speak for myself but it's hard for me not to extrapolate. Generally, people have something to ground themselves — some people, maybe it's religion and that's where you go for answers and to get your soul fed... I relied on things that I learned on my own journey of being in recovery, struggling with addiction and coming out of that, learning phrases like, 'One day at a time.' I was like, 'That's stupid, how is that going to help me?' But those are things that grounded me and helped me go, 'Okay, I have some sort of understanding that things are going to be okay. I just need to move forward and do the work. I need to show up. I need to work, work, work.' I worked a lot. The lines between work and whatever else life is supposed to be were very blurred, but those things really grounded me.
Also just, challenging myself. I've always been like, 'I want to grow, and I want to be better next year than I was last year. I want to learn more. I want to be a more centered person, a more grounded person. I want to be a kinder person.' Just trying to be better every day and have some sort of trust that things are going to ultimately work out. Even if they don't work out, even if I were to fail miserably and fall on my face and be dragged out of the White House, does that mean that's the end of my life? Some of the people that have had great success have amazing stories of failure. There are so many phrases and little things when you're reading that I think are helpful. That's what I relied on — and trusted people in my life that I could talk to.
Through your work, you've helped the profile so many emerging American fashion brands. Can you speak a little bit to the effect you see when you're working with a brand and then seeing them grow? And what are things that catch your eye when you're researching brands to begin with?
It's just a huge honor. Even By Chari and that necklace — what a freaking honor that I could be a part of her getting more notoriety and building her business? It almost makes me want to cry. It's shocking to me because it's just such a great honor to be a part of that.
There's so many designers out there now, and you can find designers and you can find clothing [in so many ways]. What's going on on Etsy? What's going on on Instagram? Who's on TikTok? What's the local thing around the corner? I think that's so interesting and I'm trying to keep up with all of it... Of course, I still go look at the traditional shows or lookbooks on vogue.com or another outlet, that's still there. I'm very interested in discovering talent in different places. Maybe you see somebody wearing something and you find the designer, go to their website or whatever it might be...
I've worked with so many people, I can tell if they know how to really design clothing for different bodies or if it's more just the design and not necessarily the construction or the execution. All of those things are important... Also, there's just so much more freedom now. I know not everyone feels this sense of freedom, but I do see reflections of not being so tied to, 'Okay, I need to wear this because I look like that.' It's more, 'I like this, it makes me feel good, I'm just going to do me.'
Since you left the White House, you've expanded the scope of your work to consulting. So what are some of the projects that you've worked on in that capacity?
I wouldn't say consulting is a huge part of what I do. I'm almost like, 'Why did I even say [consulting]?' Because it's such a weird term. It means everything and it means nothing at all. I just thought, 'Well, I want to work in a different capacity, where I'm advising people and maybe styling could be a part of it, but I don't just want to be putting together outfits.' I don't like being part of projects where I'm not in it from the ground-up. I had some offers like, 'Do you want to do this shoot, or do you want to do this ad?' It's basically show up, bring some clothes, put the person in clothes and that's it. You don't have any say in the creative or what's happening. I just don't want to be a part of it because it's just like, 'You guys could be corrupt, I don't know.' I'd like to know what's going on. I'd like to be part of something that I feel like it's really meaningful to me, and that's hard to do in this world.
Basically, I've tried to focus on working with brands or companies that have some sort of awareness or intention to give back to a certain community, or to bring something new to the table. It's been a bit challenging because there have been cases where I've been offered something by a large brand or company where I feel like it would be great because perhaps it would be a nice little paycheck, but once you get into that world, you have very little control over what [happens.] It's a luxury that I can make that decision, that I can decide somewhat who I'd be interested in working with. But I don't really do it a lot for that very reason — I've realized I like doing my own thing. I want to spend my time doing things that I create versus things that other people create.
One of the projects that you worked on was obviously Michelle Obama's When We All Vote, pairing up with different brands, including By Chari. Tell me a little bit about that.
At the beginning, March 2020 — let's time travel — we're like, 'What are we doing? What's happening? My calendar looks really different right now.' With the election coming up, I wanted to get involved, but I was like, 'How can I be most useful?' So I just reached out to a contact there. If they would've told me that they needed me to put stamps on envelopes, I would've done that. I wanted to volunteer. They were like, 'We need help with merch. We've been wanting to get into this space. We're just not sure exactly how we want to do it.' I was like, 'Oh okay, that's super interesting. I would love to work on something like that.' I conceptualized a few things, and then I brought in a friend of mine, Sarween Salih, and we worked on this project.
The highlight of it for me was working with these smaller brands because it was just so fun and cool. It's more creatively impactful to work with a small business and lift up the beautiful candles that they make versus just getting a candle from a merch company and putting a sticker on it that says 'When We All Vote.' The world of merch — you probably, hopefully agree — has become a thing where it's like, everybody has merch all of a sudden. I don't know what happened, I know there's somebody making a lot of money out there because there are people connecting influencers, celebrities and whomever with manufacturers to make stuff that will eventually go somewhere. So I just really wanted to do my best to try to make something a little bit more meaningful than just this is a no-name, label-less sweatshirt we're putting a logo on. That's been, as far as I can see, somewhat standard practice — except, of course, there are designers that put a lot of thought into the design and merch. So, not hate on the merch world, but I just was hoping that we could do something a little bit more impactful. I love that direct contact. It's very different, working with a huge behemoth company [versus] working with somebody that's literally building a company and there's two people. I've had both experiences. It's very interesting.
Now, you helped break the internet twice in the past 12 months — with the By Chari necklace at the DNC, then again at the Presidential Inauguration, with Mrs. Obama wearing Sergio Hudson. Looking back at your work as a stylist, what are some of the looks that really stand out for you, either because you really loved working on them or because it had a special meaning to you?
God, I loved a lot of them. I mean, I love working with Sergio — he's awesome. That was an awesome moment for Inauguration. The two times that I worked with Sergio before were also really cool. That was probably one of my favorite looks of the book tour because it was just fun — I went around the Garment District finding the right sequins that we were going to put on the corset, it was cool.
I have a policy: If you're rude, I don't want to work with you. If you're rude to anybody down the line — that could be me, that could be my tailor, that could be somebody that works for my tailor — I don't want to work with you, because that shit is just old and tired and not interesting. That went into effect early on, because I just realized it was so draining, and there are so many people making clothes. There's no lack of fashion in this world. So I don't care who you are, I don't need to do that to myself and to the people around me.
There have been a lot of looks over the years that I love — some in the looks, some in the process, some in both. I can't really isolate one or two because I wouldn't want to just give a shout-out to one or two people.
What is something that is really exciting to you about the fashion industry right now —voices that you're really excited to see in the conversation or brands that are really inspiring to you?
I feel like in the last couple years, there have been a lot of people being like, 'Fashion sucks. New York Fashion Week is dead.' Whatever. But it's like, if that's how you look at it, you're missing out on what's new and what's emerging and what's outside of the norm.
There are so many brands that I've discovered even in the last year or the last month through social media, through whatever algorithm I'm on. Even on TikTok, I just like seeing what's happening. I really do enjoy that. I don't think that's age-dependent — I hear a lot of people saying, 'Oh my god, what are they doing on TikTok? I couldn't possibly understand it.' It's not that complex. You can understand it.
The conversation that I'm into is: more freedom, more awareness. I'm not about tips. I'm not about rules. A lot of that is just so dated and boring. I think anyone that tells you that there's some rule is trying to sell you something. Even with us having a new female Vice President, women being in different spaces, trans people being in different spaces — there's a lot to take in, there's a lot of exciting new information. It scares some, but it's actually quite interesting that people are having more freedom to be in spaces. I want to hear about young, up-and-coming people or old up-and-coming people or whatever age up-and-coming you are.
Also, just more awareness around brands and designers and their stories, humanizing what can be an oddly dehumanized industry. People think clothing are just made. I've had people and clients that almost think clothing's two dimensional — I don't care where you buy your clothing, somebody touched it. You can buy it at Walmart, you can buy it at Saks Fifth Avenue, somebody touched your clothing somewhere along that supply chain. So I think more awareness and more transparency is always good.
Now there's room for new things to emerge — new voices, new concepts, new perspectives. That's really important because there has been a gatekeeping culture, nepotism... We need fresh energy in here. Open the windows, we need new stuff in here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.