Barack Obama is slowly making his way back into the public eye as a former President, and today he and wife Michelle attended to some key post-presidency duties: the unveiling of their official portraits at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery. It’s tradition for former presidents and First Ladies to be immortalized on canvas in the museum, and proved that the history-making couple aren’t done shaking things up in Washington.
According to CNN, Barack chose to have his portrait done by Kehinde Wiley, the first ever African-American artist to produce an official presidential portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. The portrait shows the former POTUS sitting on a wooden chair and staring straight ahead, while vibrant green leaves and colorful flowers flourish behind him. “How about that? That’s pretty sharp,” Barack reportedly said as he and Wiley uncovered the painting. Dan Zak, a reporter for The Washington Post, wrote on Twitter that, at the unveiling ceremony, Wiley spoke about “charting [Barack’s] path on Earth through those plants.” The flowers embedded among the leaves are species found in Illinois, Hawaii, and Kenya, three places fundamental to Barack’s background.
Michelle also chose an African-American artist to execute her portrait. Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald painted Michelle, who looks confidently ahead in a gorgeous black and white gown, in front of a sky-blue background. In the portrait, though the background and Michelle’s dress are done in bright colors, her skin is somewhat washed out, a purposeful choice by Sherald, who often paints darker skin tones in grayscale “as a way to take away the assigned ‘color’ of her subjects,” according to CNN. After Michelle’s portrait was unveiled, Barack reportedly expressed his gratitude for Sherald’s powerful painting in the sweetest way. “Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman I love,” he said.
The former First Lady, who pronounced herself “a little overwhelmed” by her portrait, spoke about the significance of the painting. “I’m also thinking about all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place, and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls. And when I think about those future generations and generations past, I think, again, wow. Wow. What an incredible journey we are on together in this country. We have come so far and, yes, as we see today, we still have a lot more work to do, but we have every reason to be hopeful and proud, and I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to stand alongside my husband and play a very small part in that history and in that future.”
Many Twitter users took advantage of the Obamas’ latest public appearance — and their amazing new portraits — to reminisce about the couple’s groundbreaking tenure in the White House. “Monday morning joy as portraits of President and First Lady Obama are revealed by artists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley. Reminds me to hope. #ObamaPortraits,” Ava DuVernay tweeted. Chrissy Teigen also chimed in, captioning Barack’s portrait “come back” and Michelle’s “help us.”
Michelle Obama Has a Long History of Supporting Emerging Fashion Designers, from Teija to Jason Wu
Today, Jason Wu is the creative director of Hugo Boss and his eponymous label, but 8 years ago, the then-26-year-old Taiwanese-Canadian designer had only been running his namesake label for two years when Obama first wore one of his designs—to Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration, no less. The gown has since ended up in the National Museum of American History, and Wu is now long past his days interning for Narciso Rodriguez, another favorite of Obama’s, having outfitted the former first lady in plenty more looks throughout her time in the white house, up to Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Thakoon Panchigul‘s eponymous label may now once again be on hiatus, but the Thai-American designer got quite the boost when Obama wore a printed dress of his on the night that Barack Obama accepted the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. “It was like watching a scary movie—wanting to look but not wanting to look,” he said of fitting the former first lady for the occasion. Clearly, the pair worked it out: Obama has been a known admirer of his floral dresses, even—gasp—wearing the same one three times in as many years.
In a move that inspired bloggers to follow her style for the next eight years, Obama wore a teal dress by Maria Pinto (studded with a brooch by Erickson Beamon) to the Democratic National Convention in 2008, paving the way for the designer to develop something of an empire in her home base of Chicago, where, with the help of a wildly successful Kickstarter, she’s launching her latest ready-to-wear foray, M2057.
Three years after the Detroit-born, New York-based designer Tracy Reese called Michelle Obama’s 2009 People magazine cover in her lacy sleeveless dress “the moment we’ve been waiting for,” Obama turned to Reese once again for an equally pink frock at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, making the designer “flattered” and “a little mystified.” Since then, Reese’s dresses have become one of Obama’s go-to’s, as seen here in 2016 at the White House in ‘70s-esque florals.
Long before Sophie Theallet became one of the first designers to take a stance against dressing Melania Trump, the French, New York-based designer was busy organizing welcomely diverse runway shows, which attracted much more of a spotlight once Obama wore a striped dress of hers to unveil a bust of Sojourner Truth in 2008—a look so popular that Theallet recreated it (for a much more affordable $80) five years later, in 2013.
Many designers are taken by surprise when Obama shows up in one of their creations, but the Korean-American designer Doo-Ri Chung worked with Obama herself to alter one of her purple gowns so that it had a belt and more modest slit—alterations that were definitely worth the sacrifice when Obama wore it to a 2011 state dinner for South Korea.
Justin Bieber, Cee Lo Green, and Conan O’Brien were all there when Obama transformed the brand Cushnie et Ochs, which designers Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs had already found some niche acclaim for, from a favorite of critics to a profit-turning company with an agenda full of appointments. Since Obama wore a green dress of theirs on-screen of a 2011 White House Christmas special, the brand has since found a home in New York Fashion Week, worked its way into the red carpet looks of Sarah Paulson and Gigi Hadid, and even launched its own activewear line.
Though she blended into the background in cobalt blue, Obama still definitely stood out at the 2016 National Democatic Convention when she wore a silk cap sleeve dress by Christian Siriano, the Annapolis-born designer and Project Runway alum. He may have been planning on dressing Hillary Clinton next, but in the meantime, he’s been working with names like Leslie Jones, whom he stood by after other designers turned away from working with plus sizes—a message Obama would no doubt get behind.
Like Lady Gaga, who once employed him as his stylist, Obama has fallen for Brandon Maxwell, the small-town Texan designer who’s proven himself as adapt at streamlined evening ensembles as Gaga’s picks of more out-there designs. Obama first wore a dress of his on the cover of InStyle last year, and it was clear just a few weeks later that she was hooked: Soon after, she wore an ivory, floor-length number of his to a state dinner for Singapore. “She really is the embodiment of the women that I love and adore and create for,” Maxwell, who also won 2016’s CFDA Swarovski Award, has since said.
Teija Eilola had already been planning to party in honor the five-year anniversary of her eponymous brand Teija this month when Obama brought another cause for celebration: She wore an eye-catching, one-shouldered top by Teija while sampling gelato and otherwise wandering around the small town of Montalcino, Italy with her husband Barack. Before that, Eilola, who trained under Christopher Bailey at Burberry, had no idea Obama owned one of her pieces, but she’s definitely embracing the attention—and already referring to it as her “Michelle Obama moment.”