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Inside the White House’s First Fashion Education Workshop

On Wednesday the White House hosted its first ever Fashion Education Workshop, a daylong event that touched on the many components, from agriculture to social media, the next generation of leaders need to understand in order to succeed in the fashion business—or in what the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama described as “ a big complicated industry.”

Over 150 high school and college students with an interest in pursuing careers in fashion had the opportunity to connect with the likes of Diane von Furstenberg, Jason Wu, Phillip Lim and more during a series of creative and technical workshops, a panel discussion, networking opportunities and a luncheon. Designers Zac Posen, Maria Cornejo and Georgina Chapman shared their construction and draping skills with students who worked on miniature forms. In a wearable technology workshop, students stitched a circuit with a microcontroller and basic electronics. Designers Narciso Rodriguez and Thom Browne discussed ways to use several types of media to express their creative ideas, while Lucky editor-in-chief Eva Chen and W magazine fashion and style director Edward Enninful helped students produce short publications covering the day’s events.

Condé Nast artistic director and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour praised the First Lady for taking the fashion industry seriously and seeing its value to the economy and future generations. Wintour said, “She is constantly thinking about how best to provide all of us with the right ingredients for a full life, especially our young people.” Wintour added,”She has once again turned the White House into a center of creativity and collaboration for students from across the country.”

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Obama revealed to a packed audience of students, designers and journalists in the East Room, that the event had been a dream of hers. “Let me tell you how fashion plays an important role in my confidence. My ability to do my job is really linked to how I feel about what I’m wearing,” she said. Dressed in a navy and charcoal colorblock racerback dress designed by Fashion Institute of Technology student and attendee Natalya Koval, the First Lady said, “I know that many of you are hoping to one day pursue a career in fashion, and that’s why we invited you here today—because we want you to really understand what it’s going to take to be successful. And we want you to see firsthand that a solid education and the willingness to work hard is really at the core of what it’s going to take to achieve your goals: education and hard work. It’s that simple.”

The First Lady stressed the importance the fashion industry’s has on the economy, sharing, “Last year alone, Americans spent more than $350 billion on clothing and footwear, and about 1.4 million American workers are employed annually by retailers and others in the fashion industry—so a lot of jobs, a lot of income that is generated by many of the people who are sitting in this room.” She added, “Fashion is about so much more than just a pretty pair of pumps or the perfect hemline. For so many people across the country, it is a calling, it is a career, and it’s a way they feed their families.”

Obama acknowledged that so often people think fashion is all about catwalks, red carpets and “whether some famous person wore the right belt with the right shoes”—a nod to her own run-ins with the fashion press. “The truth is that the clothes you see in the magazine covers are really just the finished product in what is a very long very complicated and very difficult process, as I’ve come to learn working with many designers,” she continued. “What most people don’t realize is that there are so many different aspects to this industry. Whether it’s business marketing or technology and manufacturing, even agriculture that produces the wool and the cotton that ultimately becomes our clothes, it’s a big, complicated industry.”

She said, “There’s a very entrepreneurial aspect to this industry.” The First Lady shared Spanx founder Sarah Blakely’s long journey from theme park employee and fax machine sales person to spearheading her own company. “She took a risk—she devoted her entire savings, $5,000, to start her own company. She spent two years planning and researching her new business ideas in the nights while she was still selling fax machines. She pitched her idea to factories and mills, asking them to help her make the product a reality, and of course, she was turned down again and again and again. But finally, a manager at a factory liked her idea, and today, 14 years later, Sara’s idea, Spanx, is a multibillion-dollar company with products selling in more than 50 countries.”

The First Lady noted that there is “concreteness” to fashion. During workshops, Obama said students learned of the highly specialized construction skills that can only be learned through hours and years of education and practice and technical training. She told them, “This doesn’t just come out of just talent, sheer creativity. You have to practice it. You have to learn it. You have to study it. And those are the kind of concrete skills that you all will need to succeed.” She also highlighted the importance of writing and verbal skills designers need to communicate their inspiration to others, saying, “If you can’t share your thoughts and ideas, no one will hear them. There’s no mindreading in fashion design; you have to be able to articulate what you want. So you have to be a reader, a writer, a thinker, a communicator.”

The fashion workshop is one in a series of events that the Obama administration has done over the past six years for young people across the country on topics like dance, music and poetry. The First Lady told the room the mission is always the same: “To inspire you guys to dream bigger, to reach higher, and then, most importantly, to pull somebody else up with you along the way.” She added, “Because you know for every kid that is sitting in this chair, you know probably 10 others who could be sitting in this chair. So that’s where the giveback comes in, because you’ve got to be thinking, ‘I was lucky and blessed to be here, so what am I going to do to share these gifts with somebody else?’”

After a panel discussion with Diane von Furstenberg, Prabal Gurung, Jenna Lyons, Tracy Reese, Jason Wu and Edward Wilkerson, Obama reminded students to look at the day as an opportunity. She said, “This is a door. All of you are competing with each other and now you have to think about how you are going to use this opportunity…The next challenge is what are you going to do after today… Don’t waste it. This is really special make the most of it. It won’t be the last door you have access to, but this door is real different.”