We Spoke With the Designer of Michelle Obama's Official Portrait Dress

We Spoke With the Designer of Michelle Obama's Official Portrait Dress

For her Presidential Portrait, the former First Lady went with an American brand.

For her Presidential Portrait, the former First Lady went with an American brand.

Text: MATHIAS ROSENZWEIG

Yesterday, Barack and Michelle Obama celebrated the unveiling of their official portraits at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Kehinde Wiley painted the former Commander-in-Chief, illustrating a tranquil Obama looking off into the distance in front of lush greenery, an element that’s a signature of Wiley’s style. In Obama’s case, the background includes chrysanthemums, which are the official flower of Chicago, Obama’s hometown. The former First Lady was portrayed by painter Amy Sherald, who’s actually the first woman to win the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.

But beyond the painters and their presidential muses lies another MVP from the unveiling—Michelle Obama’s dress. Just today, V spoke with Michelle Smith, the woman behind the stunning and soon-to-be iconic piece by Milly. 

Yesterday, Michelle Obama’s official portrait came out, in which she’s wearing a dress you made. How’d you find out about it?

Actually, I was really surprised! I was in Paris—I’m in Paris, now—when the announcement happened. I was totally out of the loop, I guess, because my show was last week. I didn’t realize that it was going to be announced this week. So I got a call from my publicist while I was shopping, she told me, and I just flipped out. I was ecstatic.

Is this not just…the most insane thing ever?

Yeah…I’m like, should I just retire now? I can’t imagine anything more honoring and incredible. I’m really speechless about it. I guess the process started about a year ago. I want to say a year, a year and a half ago, I was contacted by Michelle Obama’s stylist, Meredith Koop. She gave me a little backstory. She said that they were looking for dresses for Mrs. Obama to wear in her Presidential Portrait. They had a very specific idea about what they were interested in. There was a dress in my runway show from Spring 2017 that they liked a lot, so I offered to make some modifications. I also did some sketches of solid dresses, and they chose that original geometric-printed dress, which is custom-made for Mrs. Obama. I changed the back detailing of it. I guess it was about six months ago when I knew that it was confirmed, that she’d be wearing my dress, but I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. And I still didn’t know who the artist was. And then, life just happened. I was busy, busy, busy, not thinking about it, and then boom!

There’s only a few times each year that fashion actually intersects with politics in an important way, and this is most certainly one of them.

It feels incredible to be a part of it. I feel really honored that she chose me. As a woman, as a designer who is…I’m pretty outspoken as an activist for human rights, for equality, for women’s health. I feel so happy. It’s such an incredible moment. And I love her choice of artist. I love the portrait. So modern and forward-thinking. I can imagine it hanging in the National Gallery and imagine someone visiting it in 100 or 200 years from now, how they’re going to perceive the painting. It’s the most incredible thing, that it’s so forward-thinking but also speaks so much of our moment in history.

You said you were honored to be selected because you’re not only a designer, but an activist, too. Did you feel like you aligned heavily with the Obama’s beliefs?

Well, I think their presidency will be remembered for having championed equality across gender, race, religion, sexual orientation—they were champions of LGBTQ rights, women’s reproductive rights, and I think their legacy will be that. They’re very kind, very human people, and I think they will also be remembered for that. I mean, gosh, it’s amazing enough to have your dress in a presidential portrait, but the fact that it’s Michelle Obama? What an incredible woman she is. What an incredible president Obama was. It’s just…oh my God.

I read that you actually met them. So when you say they’re really human, I assume it’s from personal experience, right?

Yeah! I was lucky enough to have been invited to the last party at the White House. It was amazing. It was a few days before they actually had to leave the White House, and it was such a beautiful night. So laid back. Everyone checked their phones whey they went to check their coats, so everyone let loose. It was very relaxed, and it wasn’t a formal setting. It was like if you can imagine a house party in the White House. The Roots were the band and there were so many incredible musical performers. Everyone was just mixing and dancing, and it was surreal seeing all these celebrities, actors, mixing with musicians, mixing with humanitarians. It was an incredible night. We stayed until about 4am. No one wanted to leave. We were walking out and Bruce Springsteen was behind us. One time, I turned around and Paul McCartney was dancing on a chair next to Stevie Wonder, and I thought, “What is this crazy life of mine that I got to be here in this room in this moment?” It was an incredible night.

But speaking to them and about how they’re so down to earth, they weren’t separated from the guests. They were out in the middle of the dance floor, having a great time. Speaking to every single person, and it was so heartfelt and so genuine. It was just wonderful.

It’s only February, and you’re already having a great year. What else are you working on?

Right now, I’m looking at fabrics. I’m in Paris look at fabrics for Spring 2019. Doesn’t that sound crazy and futuristic? Spring 2019…

I feel like we won’t even still be here in Spring 2019.

I know. It feels like we’re gonna be traveling around in spaceships. And it’s funny, though, saying that, because I’m looking at the fabrics an they’re very futuristic. Minimal and futuristic. It’s interesting. So, for now, I’m here doing this. We’re planning on opening some more stores around the country, and growing our e-commerce business, milly.com.

Via @milly on Instagram

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