Is fashion political? What’s the meaning behind Vice President Kamala Harris opting to wear Converse Chuck Taylors on the campaign trail? What about Michelle Obama and the effect she had (and still has) on up-and-coming designers? Should the clothing worn by public servants in office be up for discussion at all? The answers to these questions may elicit different answers depending on who you ask. But one thing is for sure: during a time when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is spotted stepping out with a Telfar bag slung over her shoulder and the Vice President wearing a purple Christopher John Rogers look for 2021 Inauguration Day makes headlines, people have plenty to say about the impact at the intersection of fashion and politics.
It might be helpful to hear a perspective on these inquiries from someone who has spent over a decade on the inside. Meredith Koop has been Obama’s stylist for years, and during that time, she has found that dressing the former First Lady is not unlike dressing any important person. Ultimately, the look must not detract from the goals the client has set by making a public appearance—and the stylist must always be flexible enough to make alterations on the fly or change things up at the last minute. Here, Koop gives her Style Notes, explains how she got the gig working for the Obamas, and, of course, breaks down FLOTUS’s iconic Inauguration Day look.
When did you start getting into fashion and styling?
It’s always been an interest for me. I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, watching music videos and thinking, “Oh my God, I want to be transported to that place.” I had a rich imagination that fashion was a part of. I moved to Chicago in the early 2000s, and I started working at this high-end boutique. I got that job after replying to an ad that I saw—an actual print ad—and I’d never seen any of that fashion in person. It was always magazines or TV. There were high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue in St. Louis, but there are different things that different stores in different markets get. I had never seen such beautiful gowns and jewelry. Frankly, I had no experience, and I wasn’t really offered a job, but I begged for the job. [Laughs.]
How did that lead you to work for Michelle Obama?
Mrs. Obama and former President Barack Obama were in Chicago, so I was eventually connected to her through my previous employer, which was that boutique. I ended up moving to D.C. to be an assistant stylist. I ended up taking over and being her main stylist around the end of 2010. Yeah I worked hard, yeah I have some natural gifts, but a lot of it was that thing that people don’t want to admit: luck, right place, and right time.
In 2008, there was a visible shift in “First Lady style” and a larger emphasis was placed on how Michelle Obama looked and what she was wearing compared to those who came before her. How were you feeling, at the time, about the responsibility to make her look good and appear to be someone who cares about fashion?
I was racked with anxiety. I didn’t want to let anyone down and I didn’t want fashion to be an issue for someone. There are so many different factors. If you look at what previous First Ladies had done, all of them had worked almost exclusively with one designer. I don’t know their processes, but when they were making appearances they were usually seen in the same designer. Michelle is different in that she was the first Black First Lady, was younger than a lot of previous First Ladies and Presidents, and had that vibrancy. She decided to allow fashion to be part of her life and have someone like me [as a stylist]—I like the work and being in my process, but I was the first person to be a stylist in that sense. Even now, I think, I should have done a better job of representing different designers. There are so many designers and so much that people were looking at. Back then, there was a lot of negative energy being directed at her and her physical appearance, and that included what she was wearing. I just never wanted to distract or take away from the mission and the goals of the Obama administration, because that’s so much bigger than any dress. You don’t want to distract from a really important message with something that is inappropriate. At the end of the day, this woman is in public service and our elected officials are elected to represent everyone, not just the people who really understand fashion.
What was your process like working with her? Did you pull looks and present them to her, or did she have a lot of input up front that you incorporated into putting together outfits for her to wear?
My style, for better or worse, is that I’m a very independent person. I like collaborating, but generally I want to do my thing. God knows why she trusted me, but I would do everything from pulling looks to working with designers, and then would present it to her in the fitting. We would do a fitting for an upcoming event—and I would have to do a lot of events—in a couple hours. Over time, with any client, you start to learn what their personality is and what speaks to them. I knew what needed to be done. Her role is so demanding that she doesn’t have as much free time to be involved in researching fashion. So she trusted me to be that person to do that work.
Have you seen a growth in terms of her awareness of what’s fashionable, especially new Black designers that she often wears, like Christopher John Rogers, for example?
I don’t really like to speak for her in that way. I am doing my best to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in fashion. It’s not just about one core group of people that we’re going to pay attention to, it’s more disparate than that. It’s on Instagram, it’s on TikTok, it’s the locally made thing down the street. That’s the direction. There will always be the core people putting on couture shows, but there’s so much going on and I think it’s really cool that that’s happening, so I’m trying to keep my awareness up and not get locked into an echo chamber and make sure I’m paying attention to new designers.
How did her Sergio Hudson inauguration look come together?
I’d worked with Sergio two times before the inauguration—once for the Becoming book tour and once for Essence Fest. I just felt like the looks that we did were very successful and I really liked working with him. He’s one of those designers who I’m not seeing represented everywhere, but if I had to create like a spreadsheet of who I think in my personal opinion is in this tier of being able to design, has a directional aesthetic, understands construction, understands women’s bodies, is able to dress women beyond a size two or four, he’s there for me. I love that he’s created this belt as a piece that represents his aesthetic in a way that’s more accessible than a full look.
What was the key piece of the look that you wanted to start from when putting it all together with Sergio?
The one thing that is most important for the inauguration is the coat. It’s cold! You don’t know if it’s going to be 10 degrees, 20 degrees, or 40 degrees. You don’t know if it’s going to be sunny, or if it’s going to rain or snow. You’re just sitting outside for two hours on a winter morning. I was looking for who can make a really solid coat, and that’s not that common. And I really wanted to do pants. He sent through some sketches, and there were a couple I really loved. I think there’s a perception that it’s just clothes, you put them on and go. That’s not how it works for this type of thing. You know, we made the sweater into a bodysuit with a long zipper in the back, so it’s easier to get on and off. Pulling a turtleneck over your head is not great, especially after getting your hair done. And obviously her hair was a huge deal that day, so I’m really glad that I thought that one through. That’s my job, though. It’s the look, the aesthetic, the logistics and follow through, and the problem solving.
Her look was more than just a political moment, it was a pop culture moment. She inspired countless memes and recreations of the look. Do you have a favorite fashion moment in pop culture?
I love Missy Elliott and her music videos. The trash bag moment—I just don’t see that anymore. I don’t see anybody doing that. Her videos are still iconic. Even that song “She’s a Bitch” was a big deal for me. I felt like that was my introduction to even having a grasp on what feminism could look like.
Would you say Missy Elliott is your style icon, or do you have someone else in mind?
I love people who take risks and express themselves. I just think that’s who I would love to be. I’m not there. Maybe I’ll get there someday. I just love people who really go for it. I think right now it’s Rihanna. I just love the way she dresses. I think her stylist does an incredible job. I see so many women that I’m just like, she looks great. She looks great. She looks great. I like when people are directional, I like when they look like they are being themselves, whatever that means.
You mentioned looking at Instagram and TikTok, as well as other places that are not as mainstream to find new designers and new looks. Where do you like to shop currently?
I go so many places to shop! I’m a bit of an online addict. I do it all. It depends what you’re looking for. I really think Farfetch is cool because you can see a lot of different pieces that you wouldn’t find on some other websites. If I see something on Instagram that I really like, I’ll go directly to that person’s website.
Has anyone given you any fashion advice that you either really loved and took to heart or that you hated and totally rejected?
I’m like, “Good fashion advice, where was it? Where was that person in my life?” [Laughs.] I did a fashion show when I was four years old. Everything that was interesting to me was from television and music, and that was what I was getting inspiration from, but I can’t think of any specific advice.
What was your style like as a teenager, when you were finally making your own decisions?
Bad. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. [Laughs.] I was probably in my prime when I was 9 or 10. That’s when I was super cute, super cool. Side ponytail, the whole thing. I was much more confident in my style. The teenage years got a little rough because I was depressed and I didn’t feel good, and I wasn’t cool. I was sad and lonely. [Laughs.] I don’t really remember having great style. I was very into what I bought and going shopping, but it was just going to West County Mall to Express or Delia’s. That catalog would come and I would want it all.
How would you describe your personal style now?
This is not the most succinct answer, but right now I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I’ve struggled with depression, I’ve had an eating disorder. There were years where I didn’t want to show any part of my body, ever. It’d be 90 degrees and you’d find me in a sweatsuit walking down the street. I disappeared in terms of my own appearance, while I was doing this work for a while, because I was focused on making my client look great, it wasn’t about me. I wasn’t going to parties or fashion shows. Now, I am entering a new place in my life where I want to be healthier and more expressive, and sexy when I want to be, which weren’t really options for me in the past. I’m wearing a black hoodie right now, but I appreciate color more. I don’t feel like I’ve got everything figured out, but what I do know is I love wearing jeans and being comfortable. You’re not going to find me wearing a miniskirt anytime soon, because I don’t feel comfortable in that.
Do you have a uniform?
I look at certain male designers or people who say they have a uniform. They wear a t-shirt and jeans. But women in fashion, it’s expected that we’re going to be wearing corsets and bustiers. No, dude. This is what I do for work, and I really enjoy my work, but styling myself is different from styling a client. I can look at a client and I have X-ray vision: I see your beauty, I see your struggle, I see you. When I’m looking at myself, it’s a very different process, which is why people hire a stylist, because it’s difficult to do it for yourself. Especially if you’re a public-facing person, where people are looking at you and judging you; it’s a lot. It’s a difficult process that I can’t necessarily make a connection with for myself, but we’ll see how it goes. Maybe next week could be totally different.