Fashion Show Updates, First-Lady Style

Posted January 17, 2009 at 5:33pm

There’s still no word on what designer gown soon-to-be first lady Michelle Obama will wear to the inaugural balls on Tuesday night, but if it was up to designer Nick Verreos, she’d be a lady in red.

Verreos, perhaps most famous for appearing on the second season of the hit television show “Project Runway,” displayed his Obama-inspired handcrafted gown on Saturday afternoon at a media preview of the California State Society Inaugural Luncheon and Fashion Show. Slated for Sunday at the downtown Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the show also will feature Verreos-created gowns inspired by eight other first ladies, including Martha Washington, Mary Todd Lincoln, Jacqueline Kennedy and Laura Bush.

But it’s the Obama-inspired, crimson red, strapless floor-length dress that is the highlight of the collection. Verreos picked red, he said, because it goes against the stereotype that only Republicans sport the color.

The gown also has pockets and is highlighted by an asymmetrical gathered side. It is crafted from silk zibeline, essentially silk wool that is a bit warmer than the lighter fabrics typically used in ball gowns.

“When it’s 18 degrees outside, you might need a little bit of warmth,” Verreos said.

Creating a gown for Michelle Obama might be a designer’s dream, but Verreos, who studies political science at the University of California-Los Angeles, found designing for each of the nine first ladies featured in the show thrilling.

When the California State Society asked him to put together a collection based on first ladies, Verreos spent months studying, from reading biographies to spending time at the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit that showcases ball gowns worn by the wives of presidents.

Eventually, he selected the nine women he felt made an impact on both fashion and America as a whole. He said it was especially fun designing for Washington, Lincoln, Dolley Madison and Louisa Adams since he had to imagine what they might have worn if they were first ladies today.

“You have to suspend your belief,” Verreos said. “I sort of had a little more playing room.”

The gowns shown at Sunday afternoon’s fashion show might even show up at inaugural parties Sunday night, since they can be purchased from Verreos’ NIKOLAKI line, with prices ranging from $4,000 to $12,000 (although it might be hard to get fitted so quickly).

More than 750 people are expected to attend the sold-out bash, including 20 Members of Congress. The fashion show actually will be the third the society has hosted during an inauguration, according to society President Linda Ulrich. This time around, it’s being co-sponsored with the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Several other designers will display collections, along with Verreos’ first ladies collection.

Rather than hosting another inaugural ball, the society holds fashion shows to showcase California’s entertainment and fashion industry, which drive so much of the state’s culture. “We just decided there were enough of those, and enough people do those,” she said of the formal balls. “We decided to so something different.”

California Congressmen confirmed for the show include Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), state society Chairman Ed Royce (R), Reps. George Miller (D), Jerry Lewis (R), David Dreier (R), Maxine Waters (D), Howard McKeon (R), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D), Jim Costa (D), Zoe Lofgren (D), Loretta Sanchez (D), Lois Capps (D), Grace Napolitano (D), Joe Baca (D), Mike Honda (D), Adam Schiff (D), Diane Watson (D) Jerry McNerney (D) and Jackie Speier (D). San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (D) and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) also are expected to attend. Actress Sharon Stone is a tentative guest.

Like his Obama-inspired dress, Verreos picked crimson red for Washington, putting together a silk crepe satin, backless gown in black that features Swarovski encrusted beaded straps.

Lincoln, who, despite many photos of her dressed in all black, was a huge fashionista for her time, inspired a light green, silk zibeline, fitted gown with a pleated bust and exaggerated cascade back.

But it’s his gown for Madison that is the most creative. Building off of Madison’s love of bejeweled turbons, Verreos crafted a black silk taffeta-fitted gown with multi-tiered rulles toward the bottom, which are accented with a hand-beaded crystal feather trim.

If worn today, Verreos thinks the gown would start a trend, something Madison was known for in her time. When she wore rouge, for example, it created a scandal.

“The society ladies were like, ‘Oh, no she didn’t!’ But yes, she did,” Verreos joked.

Verreos called Nancy Reagan one of his favorite first ladies. While he might not have much in common with her, the pair shares a love of one-shoulder gowns, and thus, Verreos’ design for her is a floor-length, one-strap gown crafted with hand-beaded, sequin-silk chiffon and a plunging back.

“She was a first lady who took risks,” Verreos said. “She knew her body. She was very thin. She was a perfect muse for designers.”

For departing first lady Laura Bush, Verreos created a simple, silk zibeline strapless gown. Its highlight is a cascading back detail of which Verreos says: “I’m done, I’m out of here, but I’m still fabulous.”

And for former first lady-turned-Senator and soon to be secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Verreos crafted a draped gown that’s turquoise on top (a “Clintonesque color”) and a pale green on bottom.

Verreos’ goal? Just get Hillary out of those pantsuits.