How does a designer become the choice of a First Lady? We chat with one of Michelle Obama's favourite inaugural designers, Maria Cornejo.


It’s 10am on inauguration day and Maria Cornejo has been receiving calls from every corner of the globe to her New York studio as she works on an upcoming collection for New York Fashion Week. She's one of a small handful of designers who has been fortunate enough to be touched by the glittery, lightning-fast PR magic that is Michelle Obama's wardrobe.


Ever since the new first lady began wearing Cornejo, Isabel Toledo, Maria Pinto, Jason Wu, Thakoon and Narciso Rodriguez (who are all, coincidentally, either Latin- or Asian-American) on the campaign trail, the world's interest in them has jumped in major ways. In the hours leading up to the swearing-in ceremony, Cornejo fills us in on how Obama came about wearing her clothing for the inaugural whistle stop train tour.



Maria Cornejo, pictured above, will show her autumn/winter '09 collection ­during New York Fashion Week on February 16.

It sounds like you've had a really busy start to 2009. How did Michelle Obama end up wearing so much Zero + Maria Cornejo during the campaign?
To be honest, we sell our clothes to a boutique in Chicago called Ikram. It's one of the most well-known stores in the area and Michelle is a client there and had been buying our clothes off the rack. So then the store owner, Ikram (Goldman), asked us to make a few extra pieces for her.

Did he go into specifics about what she was looking for?
He just said to me, 'She loves your jacket; she loves the sleeves. Just do your bright colors. Make what you think she'd like.' So we did several versions of jackets, coats and dresses that we have in the collection and sent them over to her in November. But the thing is, we don't know specifically when she's going to wear any of it, if at all. We would just be watching the news and spot it.

When did you create her outfit for the Whistle Stop Tour?
That was a part of the selection of items we sent to her before Thanksgiving.

Her wardrobe choices are definitely a stark contrast to what first ladies have traditionally worn in years past.
For me it's great because I can relate to her life and what she's wearing. She's the same age as me, and she's a working woman with two children. We try to make clothes for real women. And apparently Michelle really
likes the fact that our clothes are made in America. The price point is
also really accessible and the clothing is very free and easy. We use a
lot of stretch fabrics that are easy to just throw on. We dress real,
intelligent women who aren’t fashion victims. They have lives.

She's been credited with giving a shot in the arm of fashion by supporting such a wide array of American designers. Do you think she has the potential to revive the industry on a longer term?
I think she will definitely help the fashion business. Just the fact that she's one day wearing Narciso (Rodriguez), and then J. Crew the next. It's not about being a fashion plate or feeling the pressure to look like a picture in a fashion magazine. It's very freeing because she's not dressing according to a fashion hierarchy. She picks and chooses what she wants. And she pays for them. But the fashion is so (secondary.) The main thing is that big changes are on the horizon overall as a result of having this young couple in the White House. It’s new blood, new energy.

Many designers have had to cancel their shows for New York Fashion Week. How are your preparations coming along?
We’re very excited about it. The show will be on the 16th (of February). We have less than a month to go. And we're also opening a new store.

So it sounds like business is booming for you despite the bad economy.
Yeah, to be honest we have been growing steadily from season to season. But the Michelle thing of course doesn’t hurt.

The Cornejo look.