AMERICAN DREAMS:
FIT plays a major part in the First Lady’s Celebration of Design event at the White House

Fashion is about so much more than just a pretty pair of pumps or the perfect hemline,” First Lady Michelle Obama said at the first Celebration of Design event, on October 8, part of her Reach Higher initiative, encouraging students to complete their education. “For so many people across the country, it is a calling, it is a career, and it’s a way they feed their families. So that’s why we thought it was important to bring the industry to the White House, and to share it with all of you who are coming up in the next generation.”

The students with Phillip Lim.

The students with Phillip Lim.

The occasion underscored the economic impact of the $350 billion American fashion industry and exposed high school students to all aspects of the industry. And Mrs. Obama offered FIT students a special gift: the opportunity to design her dress for the event. The two finalists in the design competition, Natalya Koval ’16 and Chelsea Chen ’15, went to the White House for the day’s activities—and the First Lady wore Koval’s dress.
Koval and Chen, along with Dean for Art and Design Joanne Arbuckle, joined the First Lady at the educational program. They sat at lunch with Mrs. Obama and Anna Wintour, and mingled with industry luminaries, who praised and encouraged the students. Style expert Lilliana Vazquez moderated a panel, which included Diane von Furstenberg, Tracy Reese, and Jenna Lyons. Top designers, including Carolina Herrera, Thom Browne, Narciso Rodriguez, Phillip Lim, Prabal Gurung, and Zac Posen, conducted workshops for the high school students.
To cap off the day, the FIT students were invited to the evening reception, along with President Joyce F. Brown, Dean Arbuckle, Acting Assistant Dean Sass Brown, and Fashion Design faculty member Kathlin Argiro, coordinator of the design competition. Among the industry notables present were Nanette Lepore ’83 and Michelle Smith ’92, designer for Milly.
“[Mrs. Obama’s] appreciation of FIT—and her dedication to education—was palpable,” President Brown said later. “She could not have been more gracious or more impressive.”

Dressing the First Lady

Koval, President Joyce F. Brown, and Chen.

Koval, President Joyce F. Brown, and Chen.

What President Brown called the students’ “memorable White House moment” was made possible by a mysterious project that began in June. FIT Fashion Design students were invited to submit sketches for a daytime dress for an unnamed high-profile African-American woman in her 50s. Koval suspected it was Mrs. Obama and began researching what styles and colors she liked to wear. She settled on a bicolored fit-and-flare racer-back dress made of silk/wool hammered satin and silk crepe, with curved seams instead of darts. Chen’s fluid creation incorporated a slash of color that disappeared at the waist and returned in the skirt.

Anna Wintour and Koval.

Anna Wintour and Koval.

Both students had taken a circuitous route to FIT. Koval dreamed of being a designer as a child in Ukraine but couldn’t afford to study at FIT until she was 27. Chen, from Toronto, left a career in financial accounting after falling in love with Project Runway. For both, the journey is paying off.
By the middle of July, their designs were selected as finalists from among the 26 submissions, and the mystery client was finally revealed.
“I was like, ‘Yes! I knew it!’” Koval said.
Koval was mentored by Lela Rose, Chen by Phillip Lim,to edit the designs and produce sample after sample until the dresses were just right. Adjunct faculty member Kathlin Argiro oversaw the competition and guided the students’ process. Chen was excited to work with Lim. “He was oneof the first people I looked up to as a designer,” she said.
At the event, Mrs. Obama wore Koval’s design, and Chen’s was displayed on a dress form while the First Lady spoke. When Mrs. Obama walked by in her design, the astonished Koval nearly fainted. “She looked so graceful and elegant and beautiful, I wanted to cry,” she said. “She made one of my American dreams come true.”