Like any other professional mom moving to a new city, Michelle Obama has been mostly preoccupied with settling her two young daughters into their new school. According to Obama's spokeswoman Katie McCormick Lelyveld, fashion and what to wear to the Inauguration have not been high on the list of priorities for the incoming First Lady.
But make no mistake: Michelle Obama arrives in Washington with a more recognizable and distinctive style than any other First Lady in recent memory. And while Michelle might not yet know what she will wear when her husband is sworn in as the 44th President of the U.S., the fashion world has been feverishly wagering on who will create her Inaugural wardrobe. Odds favor Chicago-based designer Maria Pinto, 51, an Obama favorite, and Thakoon Panichgul, 34, a Thai-born designer whose name went viral when Michelle wore his red floral-print dress on the final night of the Democratic National Convention. Other possible contenders include Jason Wu, Narciso Rodriguez and Isabel Toledo. Some insiders venture that Obama might even play the low-key populist card and wear J. Crew, a brand she supposedly likes to buy online. (See pictures of Michelle Obama's fashion looks.)
"With Michelle, it's about the real thing," says Pinto, who has been designing clothes for Obama since 2004. "Her style is thought out, but it's not contrived or deliberate. It's a natural process for her. To my knowledge, she doesn't have a stylist."
Not since Jacqueline Kennedy stepped to the podium in her pillbox hat and fur-collared cloth coat in 1961 has the focus on a First Lady's style been so intense. Before and since, every First Lady has had her signature look that has influenced the way some women dress--from Nancy Reagan's penchant for electric red to Barbara Bush's triple strand of fake pearls. But Obama brings unique stature to the post. Both professionally and physically--at 5 ft. 11 in. (1.8 m), she is nearly as tall as Barack--she stands not behind her husband but shoulder-to-shoulder with him.
"She is someone with authority and style that people can look up to," says Panichgul. "It's a new way of looking at fashion. It's about women who are real and confident and in a position of power, as opposed to the celebrity thing, which is so false. But this is about confidence, power and intellect. It's about something more real."
That real characterization of the incoming First Lady shows up in her fashion choices as much as it did in her campaign speeches. She is not afraid to wear bold colors, which speaks to her confidence. She's also not afraid to show her quirky side: flats with cocktail dresses or the black cardigan wrapped around her Narciso Rodriguez dress on election night--as if to say, "This is what I've been wearing all day. No need to change just because he won." On weekends, she wears jeans, T shirts and the occasional baseball cap.
It's Michelle's real image that will most likely set the tone for her time in the White House. "She's got an independent streak in her, and she radiates strength and Americana," says Evelyn Gorman, a retailer from Houston, Texas. "It's been a long time since we've had that. She is going to set the tone on a global scale."
Fashion executives hope that Obama's strong sense of style will inspire women to shop. "What she puts on sparks incredible interest," says Michael Fink, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, who said the store received hundreds of calls about her election-night outfit. When Obama appeared on The View last summer in a $148 black-and-white dress from the label White House/Black Market, the company sold out of the item the next day.
Although she has shown interest in fashion, particularly the work of young American designers, Obama is clearly not carried away by it. "She knows herself, and the whole style thing comes through in her personality and wit and the way she moves," says Pinto. "But she sees the higher place for other things in her life." As First Lady, Michelle will be a model in more ways than one.
The Looks of Michelle Obama For a year of behind-the-scenes photos of the new First Lady, go to time.com/Michelle-Obama