Feb 14, 2018
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Milly’s Michelle Smith designs dress for First Lady portrait

Feb 14, 2018

When the National Portrait Gallery unveiled presidential portraits of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama on Monday, reactions flew in from all over the world. There was applause for the choice of critics’ darlings Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald as artists, nostalgia for a very popular presidential couple, and some criticism around the portrait of Michelle Obama not bearing enough resemblance to her.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald - Image: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

However, there was another aspect to her portrait that was unmistakably of note — a graphic-printed sweeping white dress. From the viewer’s standpoint, the dress appeared almost as central to the portrait as the figure wearing it. That dress was designed by Michelle Smith, the designer and founder behind brand Milly.
Obama has in fact worn Milly several times through the couple’s two terms at the White House. She wore a black Milly dress on the October 2016 cover of Essence magazine. She also wore Milly on her final day in January 2017 at the White House — posing on the staircase with her dogs, Bo and Sunny.

Obama is, of course, far from Milly’s only famous client. The New York-based Milly has been worn by the likes of Emma Roberts, Jennifer Lopez and the Kardashians and is popular for its modern, feminine silhouettes and custom prints.
Increasingly, the brand that Smith owns with her husband has also been noted for its political messaging — and like with so many other American brands, the 2016 election was the lightning rod for her strong feelings.
Milly’s Fall 2017 collection, titled “Fractured”, featuring t-shirts with phrases like “Unbreakable” and “Steinem AF" was a clear reflection of Smith’s displeasure in the wake of Trump’s election win. Previously, her Spring 2017 collection, she says, was led by a “desire for equality, equality in human rights, racial equality, LGBTQ equality.” The campaign featured gender-fluid model Elliott Sailors, and made bold statements against the stifling of gender and sexual rights.
Last year, Smith, a longtime defender of Planned Parenthood, created a T-shirt to celebrate its 100 years, donating all profits to the organization.
At a time of some of the largest organized protests in American history, other fashion designers have also weighed in with their politics. Marc Jacobs and Phillip Lim have publicly refused to work with the American First Lady under this administration. Others like Rachel Comey and Ulla Johnson, have chosen to donate a portion of sales to organizations under political stress like EarthJustice and the ACLU. 
With others still, female empowerment, sexual rights and immigration reform have featured heavily in collection inspirations and runway presentations. Like Prabal Gurung, who last year, sent models down the runway in t-shirts with phrases such as "The Future is Female" and "We Will Not Be Silenced." 

In her personal choice of a Milly dress, Michelle Obama has tellingly picked an all-American brand with strong liberal roots and clear political messaging. Williams, for her part, has said she will continue to use her fashion to affect positive change.

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