The Real Story Behind Michelle Obama's Milly Portrait Gown


Throughout her eight years in the White House, designers like Derek Lam, Zac Posen, and Prabal Garung have enjoyed the distinct sartorial honor of dressing Michelle Obama.

But Monday Milly co-Founder and creative director Michelle Smith had perhaps the most historic honor yet: Designing the gown featured in the former first lady’s official portrait, which was unveiled yesterday at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. “I was humbled to be able to create such a special piece for such an intelligent and influential female, who also reflects such confidence, beauty, kindness and compassion,” Smith told ELLE.com.

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

Smith based the design off a piece from her spring 2017 collection, with a few subtle tweaks. “I used the same cotton poplin and minimal, geometric print to create something more conservative and modern,” she says. Smith’s revised design had a bow sash waist and a slightly fuller skirt. “The outcome is minimal in shape, but has beautiful lace and draping details. I wanted to create a dress that reflected Mrs. Obama’s personality—bold and confident, yet approachable and relatable.”

milly michelle obama inspiration

The spring 2017 dress that inspired Milly’s recent design for Michelle Obama.

Getty

milly michelle obama sketch

Smith’s sketch of her dress for Michelle Obama.

Courtesy Milly

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

The portrait gown wasn’t the first time Smith had dressed Obama; Meredith Koop, the former first lady’s stylist, had often reached out to Milly over the years. Most recently, Obama wore a Milly blouse on her final day in the White House.

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

Amy Sherald, who painted the portrait, spoke about her own inspiration at the unveiling: “It has an abstract pattern that reminded me of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s geometric paintings. But Milly’s design also resembles the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small remote black community in Alabama where they compose quilts in geometries that transform clothes and fabric remnants into masterpieces.”

Composition with red, yellow, and blue, 1921, by Piet Mondrian.

Getty

A Gee’s Bend quilt by Malissia Pettway.

Courtesy Souls Grown Deep

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

“Mrs. Obama, you exist in our minds and hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you,” Sherald continued. “The act of Michelle Obama being her authentic self became a profound statement that engaged all of us. Because what you represent to this country is an ideal. A human being with integrity, intellect, confidence and compassion. And the paintings I create aspire to express these attributes—a message of humanity.”

Amy Sherald