For President Obama’s farewell speech on Tuesday evening, he went back to his adopted hometown of Chicago. And first lady Michelle Obama went back to a favorite designer: Jason Wu.
FLOTUS wore a lace, long-sleeved, below-the-knee number in navy, the same hue worn by her husband and their daughter Malia. The understated dress had sheer sleeves and an A-line silhouette that perfectly skimmed her statuesque physique. “You took on a role you didn’t ask for and you made it your own with grace and grit and style, and good humor,” the emotional president told his wife from the stage. A nation — and a nation of fashion designers — couldn’t have agreed more.
The first lady was a gift to the fashion world, as she infused diversity into her choices of attire whether she was meeting Queen Elizabeth or attending the BET Awards. She famously wore J.Crew, yes, but she also wore designers ranging from Cuban-American Isabel Toledo to Prabal Gurung, who was born in Singapore, to celebrated American designer Tom Ford. Again and again, though, she returned to Wu, and his designs helped define her fashion legacy.
She had worn Wu to an important event eight years earlier — President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. It’s true: Michelle Obama gave Wu his big break when she made her official debut in a white chiffon asymmetrical gown by the designer, who at the time was unknown and just 26 years old.
Michelle Obama shocked the fashion world by picking Wu, but the most shocked of all was Wu himself. According to ABC, “Wu had only three employees and was at home eating pizza with a friend” when he spotted the first lady of the United States on television in his white gown. “I was just elated,” he told Women’s Wear Daily. “It’s hard to describe.” In 2010, the white dress was inducted into the Smithsonian.
At just 34, Wu has come a long way since debuting his first Ready to Wear collection in 2007. The Taiwanese-Canadian designer is based in New York, where about 90 percent of his garments are produced, according to his website. “I create clothes for women who are not only fiercely fashionable but also own their power and femininity,” he says on his site. He’s dressed Reese Witherspoon, Julianne Moore, and Kerry Washington, among others. But it’s Michelle Obama who has come to be known as Wu’s most influential and loyal client.
There’s no doubt that the first lady’s decision to punctuate her tenure by wearing Wu to mark each of three milestones — two beginnings and Tuesday’s farewell — was, well, by design. FLOTUS has never spoken out about why she chose to champion a young Wu and stay true to him throughout her time in the White House.
Shortly after she assumed her post as first lady, she appeared on the cover of the March issue of Vogue in a sleeveless, high-necked magenta dress by Wu. Then, in April of that year, she stepped off Air Force One to attend the G20 Summit in London in a bright pop of chartreuse; it was a Wu number that she wore belted with a long black jacket. She recycled the dress (a first lady, recycling fashion!) to visit Capitoline Hill in Rome on July 8 of that year, revealing this time that it had an apple green floral appliqué.
FLOTUS floated down the Cross Hall to the East Room of the White House in 2012 to attend a dinner with members of the U.S. armed forces who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She wore a stunning cobalt blue gown by Wu. And at the 2013 State of the Union address, she wore a burgundy A-line Wu design that she recycled — yet again — at the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony later in the year.
And in March 2016, FLOTUS wore another navy frock by Wu — this time a custom strapless gown with a vibrant floral print — to a White House dinner for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Asymmetrical draping gave the gown an effortless, airy allure. The dress was fun, but it was also sexy.
But it was at the second inaugural ball in 2013 where the first lady wore one of Wu’s most daring designs. A nation watched as she took the stage clad in a bright red gown, a confection of chiffon with velvet flocking and a long halter neck. The first lady in red was a vision to behold, especially when she danced onstage with her husband to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
Michelle Obama’s unconventional choice at the second inauguration was a shock to everyone in the fashion industry — including Wu himself. Many thought she would wear another young designer, according to ABC, and Wu told Woman’s Day in 2013 that he had no idea FLOTUS would be wearing his creation, “although he did create it specifically for her and submitted the sketches and finished gown to the White House.” Wu told WWD at the time, “Mrs. Obama likes to keep her secrets.”