Over the weekend, designer Teija Eilola’s eponymous brand Teija feted its fifth anniversary. There was additional cause for celebration on this occasion, though—earlier in the week, former first lady and current world traveler Michelle Obama was spotted in the small town of Montalcino, Italy, wearing a blousy, pink, one-shouldered top by Teija, setting off reactions from bloggers, fashion reporters, and Instagrammers across the U.S. and U.K. alike.
The moment—Obama, roaming Montalcino, sampling chocolate gelato—and its subsequent coverage this week found the designer and her label in front of a wider audience than ever before.
“It might be a pretty deciding moment for my label,” she said on Friday, speaking over the phone from London. “It’s been quite exciting, how suddenly her wearing it has such an impact on a label.” During her tenure in the White House, Obama’s stamp of approval helped launch small brands and up-and-coming designers to international notoriety; Brandon Maxwell and Jason Wu especially benefited from the former first lady’s sartorial platform.
Eilola, 38, was working in her design studio in London on Monday morning when the notifications started coming in. The moment caught the designer and her team by surprise; while often designers loan pieces to stylists, who outfit their clients accordingly, Eilola had no idea Obama owned one of her pieces. Obama, or stylist-slash-aide Meredith Koop, selected the piece organically, Eilola suspects. (As Vanessa Friedman wrote in the New York Times earlier this year, many of the designers whose looks Obama wore as first lady did not know when their pieces might appear. She purchased garments for her personal wardrobe, while those for state functions were donated and ultimately archived.)
“When people actually love a piece, then they can really take ownership of a look, how they style it, feel really comfortable in it,” she said.
This could apply equally to Eilola’s approach to her own designs. In the five years since she established her brand, she has settled into an aesthetic that blends her Finnish sensibility—a taste for minimalism and versatility, combining elegance with a utilitarian edge—with a distinctly British feel—she cut her teeth as a designer in London. Playful takes on shirting have dominated street style for a couple seasons now, such that even the former first lady has caught on, but shirting has long been a mainstay of the Teija brand.
The designer describes one of her signature pieces as a shirt with smocking around the neckline, shoulders, and sleeve cuffs, which she has adapted in different colorways for successive seasons.
Eilola had set her sights on a career in fashion from a young age. She now recalls the thrill of designing and sewing a piece as a pre-teen: “I’d get really excited when I had one complete garment like a dungaree made up, and I was like, ‘Oh, my god, I just figured out how to make it work,’” she said.
Her interest waned in her teens, but she “remembered the whole passion for it” by 19, when it came time to head to college. She attended the prestigious Royal College of Art and, after graduating, earned a position in the design studio of the London-based Japanese label Michiko Koshino Yen.
Michelle Obama Might Be the Best Dressed First Lady Since Jackie O
Michelle Obama in Alexander McQueen at a state dinner in Washington, D.C., January 2011.
Michelle Obama in Azzedine Alaïa in Baden-Baden, Germany, April 2009.
Michelle Obama in Ralph Lauren in London, England, May 2011.
Michelle Obama in Michael Kors on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, January 2012.
Michelle Obama in Thom Browne at President Obama’s second inauguration in Washington, D.C., January 2013.
Michelle Obama in Carolina Herrera at a state dinner in Berlin, Germany, June 2013.
Michelle Obama in Marchesa at the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C., May 2014.
Michelle Obama in Bibhu Mohabaptra at the Congressional Black Caucus dinner in Washington, D.C., September 2014.
Michelle Obama in Zac Posen at the BET Black Girls Rock! special in Newark, New Jersey, March 2015.
Michelle Obama in Mary Katrantzou in London, England, June 2015.
Michelle Obama in Christopher Kane in London, England, June 2015.
Michelle Obama in Carolina Herrera at the arrival of Pope Francis in Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, September 2015.
Michelle Obama in Vera Wang at a state dinner in Washington, D.C., September 2015.
Michelle Obama in Tanya Taylor in Washington, D.C., March 2016.
Michelle Obama in Jason Wu at a state dinner in Washington, D.C., March 2016.
Michelle Obama in Carolina Herrera arriving in Havana, Cuba, March 2016.
Michelle Obama in BCBG at the opening ceremony for the Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida, May 2016.
Michelle Obama in Naeem Khan at the Nordic state dinner in Washington, D.C., May 2016.
Michelle Obama in Hugo Boss speaking with Oprah in Washington, D.C., June 2016.
Michelle Obama in Marni in Monrovia, Liberia, June 2016.
Michelle Obama in Proenza Schouler in Marrakech, Morroco, June 2016.
Michelle Obama in Peter Pilotto in Marrakech, Morocco, June 2016.
Michelle Obama in Proenza Schouler arriving in Madrid, Spain, June 2016.
Michelle Obama in Preen in Madrid, Spain, July 2016.
Michelle Obama in Christian Siriano arriving at a memorial for police officers killed in Dallas, Texas, July 2016.
Michelle Obama in Christian Siriano at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 2016.
Michelle Obama in Brandon Maxwell at a state dinner honoring the first family of Singapore in Washington, D.C., August 2016.
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 08: First lady Michelle Obama speaks during the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities poetry reading to honor student poets at the White House, September 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. The first lady honored five students with the nation’s highest honor for teen poets presenting original work. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Michelle Obama in Naeem Khan at the Phoenix Awards dinner in Washington, D.C., September 2016.
Michelle Obama in Self-Portrait at the Broadway Shine a Light event in New York, New York, September 2016.
But after several years working at studios like Michiko Koshino and Ted Baker around London, Eilola was ready to “design under my own signature,” she said. In 2012, she began conceptualizing her first looks and used them to apply to the city’s Fashion Fringe competition, chaired by Burberry’s Christopher Bailey. Bailey called her shortly after, informing Eilola she was one of 10 finalists for the competition he would coach through three months of appointments and talks with industry professionals, culminating in a showcase at London Fashion Week. (While under Bailey’s mentorship, Eilola also designed a smocked shirt in her first collection, which subsequently became a bestseller—and an essentially Teija look.)
“It was all about generating a moment for a small label,” she said of the competition. “It happened really quickly but that made it exciting because I didn’t really have time to think about it.” It spring-boarded her to the attention of buyers in the U.K. and Japan; her collections have since been picked up by Dover Street Market and Matches Fashion.
In January, Barneys New York featured Teija in a window highlighting British designers. Her label has quietly evolved, she explained, from “a much more Victorian feel” to “more whimsical,” and just as quietly, Teija has landed on several designers-to-watch lists and roundups in European fashion publications. She’s working on her next collection, further developing the brand’s same principles.
But all that doesn’t compare to the attention she garnered this week. “Obviously, it’s not a Michelle Obama moment,” Eilola said, laughing.
Michelle Obama’s Hair Evolution: Elegant, Presidential and Always Inimitably Fabulous
Michelle Obama arriving at the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America
Michelle Obama making the opening remarks as she and U.S. President Barack Obama host an evening of celebration in honor of musician Stevie Wonder’s receipt of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song
Michelle Obama speaking as she and President Barack Obama host An Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word at the White House
Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama attending a celebration of country music at the White House
U.S. President Barack Obama has a word with first lady Michelle Obama after they arrive to make a presentation in support of Chicago as the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Copenhagen, Denmark
Michelle Obama speaks during the ServiceNation launch of ‘MISSION SERVE: Forging A Continuum Of Service’ at George Washington University
Michelle Obama speaking during the media preview of the White House holiday decoration
Michelle Obama and husband U.S President Barack Obama waiting for Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his wife Margarita Zavala to arrive for a State Dinner at the White House
US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arriving at the 2010 welcome ceremony of the G20 Summit in Toronto
Michelle Obama attending an event about the Affordable Care Act at George Washington University Hospital
Michelle Obama attending an event about the Affordable Care Act at George Washington University Hospital
Michelle Obama speaking during dedication ceremonies of the new Fisher Houses on the campus of Naval Support Activity in Maryland
Michelle Obama appears on NBC News’ “Today” show
Michelle Obama listening during the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner
Michelle Obama doing a dance after President Obama joked with her during a Cinco de Mayo reception in the White House
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama waiting to greet Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, for a reciprocal dinner at the Winfield House in London
Michelle Obama greeting volunteer workers during the Heroes at Home program’s 1,000th home renovation project in Washington, DC
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama speaking to one another during the NCAA men’s college basketball Carrier Classic between the Michigan State Spartans and the North Carolina Tar Heels
Michelle Obama attending the 2011 Building a Healthier Future summit
Michelle Obama speaking during the BET Honors 2012 at the Warner Theatre
Michelle Obama awaiting the arrival of British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife, Samantha Cameron, prior to a State Dinner as part of an official visit on the North Portico of the White House
Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha walking from St John’s Episcopal Church after attending Easter Service
Michelle Obama attending the 2012 White House Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington, DC
Michelle Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina
Michelle Obama speaking during an awards ceremony for the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in the White House
Michelle Obama attending the 2013 Inaugural Ball
Michelle Obama speaking during the “Building a Healthier Future Summit” at the Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University in Washington, DC
Michelle Obama laughing to a joke told by comedian Conan O’Brien during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner
Michelle Obama speaking during a veterans employment event in the East Room April 30, 2013 at the White House
Michelle Obama speaking at an awards ceremony in the White House
Natalia Vodianova has a girl crush on Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman: