On Tuesday evening, when Michelle Obama appeared on stage at the United Centre in Chicago for the beginning of her 10-city, 11-stadium rock concert — oops, sorry, book tour — in an off-the-shoulder white sequinned shirt that echoed the shirt in her cover photograph, plus high-waist white pants (both by Sally LaPointe), the reaction was unfettered and instantaneous.
The crowd loved her! They loved her honesty about her marriage and President Donald Trump! They loved her memoir, Becoming. And they really loved her new look.
Cringe if you want, but as surely as you can bet that she’ll go high, you can bet that for the next four weeks your social media feed will be dominated by analysis of her every appearance and a detailed itemisation of what she wears. It has already begun, with a cover from Elle magazine featuring Obama, laughing, in a crisp white shirt, pleated skirt and black leather corset by Dior.
There’s an appetite for the nuanced way Obama used fashion both as a tool and a celebration (as opposed to, say, a defensive measure). All of which makes her every fashion choice even more freighted, and none of which has escaped the woman who, starting during Obama’s second year in the White House, has helped her put it all together: Meredith Koop. (Koop styled the Elle shoot, so the clothes reflect Obama’s idea of herself, not the magazine’s.)
“I met Meredith when she was a young sales associate about a decade ago, and ever since, I’ve been blessed to have her by my side,” Obama wrote in an email. “Together, we’ve prepared for every sort of event — from afternoons in T-shirts and gloves in a garden with middle schoolers to evenings in formal ball gowns with heads of state. Over the years, I’ve come to depend on Meredith for far more than wardrobe. She’s ridden with us through eight hectic years. She’s been a friend and mentor to our daughters. And she’s given us all a sense of comfort and home, no matter where in the world we might be.”
For years, Koop, a 37-year-old from Missouri with the height, broad cheekbones and bright blue eyes of the Midwest, functioned largely behind the scenes, but since the end of the Obama administration she has slowly emerged from the shadows. But the book tour is about to carry her — or at least her work — to the edges of the spotlight.
It’s a role she is not entirely comfortable with, in part because her biggest calling card is the one she is most apprehensive about appearing to exploit. (She has given only one formal interview, in 2016, when she was leaving the White House.) The mission now: to define what the next stage looks like. Not just for the former first lady, but for herself.
Koop spends more time surfing e-tail sites and runway slide shows than sitting in the front row at fashion week or going to store openings. “I’ve always been an outsider,” she said one afternoon this summer when she was starting to plan for the book tour. “I think it makes me more approachable for people who are intimidated by the idea of fashion coming in their door.”
Koop did not set out to be a stylist. Growing up in St. Louis, she wanted to be a dancer. She went to Vanderbilt University and ended up living with her older sister in Chicago. One day she saw an ad in a paper for a sales associate at a clothing boutique and decided to apply.
The boutique was Ikram, a Chicago store run by the charismatic Ikram Goldman, a retailer with an uncanny ability to match clothing and clients and deep personal relationships with the women whom she dresses. (Her fans include Mellody Hobson, the high-profile Chicago asset manager and philanthropist, and DesirEe Rogers, the former White House social secretary and Johnson Publishing executive.) Koop spent some five years there, “exposed to so many different types of women, women that are out there in the world doing something.”
“It was extraordinary training,” she said, “although I did not realise it at the time.”
One of those women was Michelle Obama.
When Barack Obama embarked on his first presidential campaign, Michelle Obama had enlisted Ikram as her wardrobe adviser, and Goldman had become a key figure in defining what became the “Obama style” — that is, one focused on using the attention that came with the job to support independent and emerging American designers, bridge all price points and break the first lady pastel skirts-and-suits mold. (The J Crew outfit Michelle Obama wore on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was Goldman’s idea.)
But Goldman was running a business and couldn’t move to DC, so she was looking for a person to facilitate communications. Koop was young and didn’t have anything keeping her in Chicago. And she could recognise an opportunity.
She started as a general aide, and in 2010, after Goldman stepped away from her unofficial White House role to focus on her store, Koop became the first lady’s de facto stylist in the Ikram mode: exploring “the patchwork of America.” Which is when she learnt what it really involved. Which is pretty much what all dressing involves, only with much higher stakes.
From the White House to the Wing
One afternoon in October in the Chelsea, New York branch of the Wing, the coworking space for women, some members were hovering in the entry to a small back room. Along one wall were racks filled with basic pieces from Cuyana, a line focused on local production and started in 2011 by two business school graduates with the mission statement “Fewer, better things.”
Koop had been enlisted by the Cuyana founders, Shilpa Shah and Karla Gallardo, to do some “guest styling appearances” and help women understand how to define their style.
Koop, wearing high-waist jeans, kitten heels and an “I’m a Voter” tee, was trying to speed-psychoanalyze each potential customer in 20-minute slots. “Are you a dress person?” she said to one young woman. “Sometimes a blazer or suit can feel like a costume, like you’re trying too hard to be a boss,” she said to another.
A young woman in a striped dress and sneakers appeared. “Are you really Michelle Obama’s stylist?” she asked. “That’s so cool.” Then she said: “I recently realised crop tops are not right anymore. But what’s next?”
Later Koop said: “It’s so complicated now to be a woman. You want to be yourself, and you want to look good, but you don’t want to be objectified, and you don’t want to wear a bag.”
Her time now is generally divided between projects like the one with Cuyana and another she is doing with the American Civil Liberties Union that will bring it together with the fashion community to brainstorm ways to use clothes beyond simply making a message T-shirt.
She also designed a raincoat for Everybody World, a label started by the one-time American Apparel designer Iris Alonzo as a sort of hub for like-minded creatives with an eco bent. It has an adjustable waistband to fit as inclusively as possible and will go on sale in February.
She is working on a TV series as well, with the production company Honto88 (it made the #MySentence PSAs on prison reform) that will look at the way fashion reflects the culture of its day. And she still does personal styling.
For now, she is focused on the book tour.
“I really want what she wears to reflect her in a genuine way and resonate with what is in the book,” she said of Obama. “For a certain percentage of the country, these are depressing times, and there’s a fine line between acknowledging that and celebrating her for who she is as a woman. Plus, a lot of her message is about connecting to younger individuals. So what does all of that look like?”