Meredith Koop was serving in a Chicago boutique when she met the future first lady. Then she moved to the White House. So what is it like working for one of the world's most powerful women? Julia Llewellyn Smith finds out.
There's a scene towards the end of Becoming, Netflix's fabulous new documentary about Michelle Obama's sold-out 34-city stadium book tour in 2018, when we see Meredith Koop, Obama's stylist since late 2010, in a back room with a rack of clothes, amusedly fingering a Stine Goya pink jacket studded with rhinestones.
"[Michelle] is not a minimalist," she says, with her characteristically dry delivery. "When I look at this suit, I do see Elvis and I don't have a problem with that."
It's just a tiny glimpse into the meticulous thought processes that went into dressing the former first lady, who, after she left the White House, transformed herself into an inspirational force, enrapturing stadium audiences with her witty account of her trajectory from growing up black and poor in Chicago to being "at probably every powerful table there is in the world".
As Obama noted in her autobiography, also titled Becoming, "My clothes mattered more to people than anything I had to say." Her every outfit was met with a tornado of judgment. Too prim and pastel? Boring. Too expensive? Elitist. Non-US designers? Unpatriotic. Too fancy? Déclassé. Too casual? Lazy.
"It was a thin line to walk. I was supposed to stand out without overshadowing others, to blend in but not fade away," she writes, adding, "This stuff got me down. But I tried to reframe it as an opportunity to learn, to use what power I could find inside a situation I could never have chosen for myself."
The woman Obama chose to guide her through this sartorial minefield and help – as she puts it – "turn fashion into a tool" was not at all the kind of person you might imagine.
Koop, who worked for the woman people often mistakenly called Madame President first as a general aide and then stylist throughout her eight years in the White House and beyond, was a young woman from the US Midwest whose only fashion credentials were serving in a boutique.
Her political interests, compared at least with many of the Obama staffers who'd worked on their campaign, were vague.
"It was an extraordinary, amazing, challenging, once-in-a lifetime situation that you just can't make sense of," says Koop, talking from her apartment in Brooklyn, where she lives with her boyfriend of nearly seven years, dressed in her customary lockdown workout gear. "Every day you showed up at the White House and tried to do the best you could, because you were just happy to be there."
Koop's journey to the White House is almost as extraordinary as Obama's. Her father ran his own medical sales business; her mother was a nurse turned housewife. As a child growing up in St Louis, Missouri, she enjoyed dressing up and had strong views about what she wore. She was also a passionate dancer and briefly wondered if she could make a career as a hip-hop dancer. But in her suburban community, there were no role models. "Looking back, the arts were really calling to me, but I didn't see a lot of examples of people doing those jobs and perhaps I lacked the support to say, 'This is what I really want to do.' "
Her crippling lack of confidence stemmed from the fact that as a teenager she suffered from mental health issues. "I experienced some depression and anxiety to clinical level in high school that really affected my ability to function," she says. "I don't think people in my community really knew how to help me so it was just like, 'Move forward.' "
Without huge enthusiasm, Koop studied psychology at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. "College was really hard. I did not thrive. I was one of the kids on the fringes having a really tough time," she says. She began using drugs and alcohol "to medicate my emotional state. Addiction just became a lot of who I was and what I did, and through it I lost a lot of time and experienced some consequences."
Towards the end of college, Koop reached her nadir. "I got extremely depressed. I was afraid of myself. I was afraid I was going to hurt myself and I wouldn't be able to come back from it. I was like, 'I have to get out of here or I'm not going to make it.' Ultimately, I wanted to live."
"She's like my sister, daughter, friend, everything," said Obama.
Initially she didn't recognise the problem to be drugs and alcohol, but eventually she got sober. "It was almost like a re-education of how to function," she says, chuckling. "I hadn't had that much clarity for a long while, certainly not as an adult." Still, Koop was unsure what to do with her life. "I really felt so lost. I was like, 'How the hell are these people figuring it out?' "
Her sister, six years older and working in Chicago, suggested Koop move in with her. There, scanning the job adverts, Koop saw a vacancy for a sales assistant at Ikram, a local high-end boutique. She went for an interview with the shop's owner, Ikram Goldman, and immediately knew this was her calling.
"I was so viscerally taken with the place. I saw these things I had never seen before outside the pages of a magazine, like a McQueen gown. I was like, 'This is crazy.' "
Goldman thought otherwise. "She said, 'You really have no experience. I don't think you can work here.' " After all, Ikram wasn't Gap. "You had a client book, relationships with clients. You were expected to style them and arrange alterations. It was a very mature job." Uncharacteristically, Koop begged her to reconsider. "Who knows where I pulled it out from, but I was like, 'Please, you can put me on a trial. You don't need to pay me.' "
So Koop, who stresses she thinks she was paid the minimum wage, was given a try-out and ended up spending five years at Ikram, dressing successful – although not usually famous – women. "It was extraordinary training, although I did not realise it at the time."
Koop wondered about branching out from the shop but, again, was unsure. "I didn't know how to break into the industry. " Instead she decided to study for a psychology master's, hoping for a happier student experience.
She left the shop but kept in touch with Goldman, who by now was choosing outfits for the lawyer wife of a local senator, Barack Obama, whom Koop had met a handful of times in the shop. "I wasn't particularly politically engaged, but I thought this was cool."
Goldman was pivotal in influencing Michelle Obama's trademark "high-low" outfits alternating designer and high street pieces, such as the gold skirt and cardigan with the rhinestone brooch that she wore for her crucial Tonight Show interview. The host, Jay Leno, immediately began grilling her about it, guessing it had cost $60-$70,000 (Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin had just been revealed to have a clothing budget of $150,000). "J.Crew," Obama shot back. "Ladies, we know J.Crew. You can get some good stuff online."
"I didn't want her to feel fragile and untouchable. I wanted women to know that they can look like Mrs Obama," Goldman later told Vogue.
On election night in 2008, Koop watched on TV as Obama give his victory speech, Michelle beside him in a red and black Narciso Rodriguez dress. "I texted Ikram: 'This is so cool. Michelle looks great,' " she recalls.
Two months later, the Obamas moved into the White House but Goldman, with a family and business in Chicago, was unwilling to relocate. She wondered if Koop, with no ties, would make a good go-between.
So Koop, who won't reveal her age but who would have been in her late twenties, travelled to Washington to be interviewed by the new first lady. "I was terrified. I think I was in a mild delusional state. I wasn't sure if it was real. I was like, 'What's going on here?' "
She clearly impressed, because within a month she had moved to Washington to help with Obama's clothing "and basically whatever she needed".
Koop is close to Obama's daughters. "I felt a desire to protect them."
Koop is vague on the details of her eight years at the Obamas' side, wherever they might have been in the world, partly because she's hoping to write her own memoir and partly because it was such a whirlwind, she hasn't yet processed it. "At the time it was all, 'I have to do this. I have to do that.' I should have savoured the experience more, but now it's too late."
What did her parents make of their daughter being in the White House? "I still don't think they fully understand what I did."
As often with Koop, you sense she's underselling herself because, plainly, she did a fantastic job. It's easy to see why Obama liked her. Just on the phone she comes across as thoughtful and funny, with a well-developed sense of irony. "Very quickly she became a trusted friend," Obama wrote in Becoming. She's even more forthcoming in the documentary, describing Koop as like "my sister, daughter, friend, everything". She told The New York Times, "Over the years, I've come to depend on Meredith for far more than wardrobe… She's been a friend and mentor to our daughters. And she's given us all a sense of comfort and home, no matter where in the world we might be."
"I really liked Michelle; I loved her," Koop says, her voice cracking when I read this to her. Obama has also remarked on Koop's closeness to her daughters, Malia, now 21, and Sasha, 19. Koop shopped for them too. "At the beginning of the White House, those girls were very young and I just felt a desire to protect them, to be helpful to them, hang out with them and have conversations about whatever they wanted to talk about. It's amazing to watch a young person grow into a teenager and then a young adult. I felt very grateful for that."
As an unhappy, aimless teenager, would Koop have welcomed a mentor such as Obama? "Definitely," she says. "Michelle has always shown me love and support, and she has really believed in me. That would have been really useful when I was younger."
Two years into her job, Koop became Obama's official stylist or, as she relates it, "Michelle asked, 'Hey, why don't you get clothes for me?' And I was like, 'OK. Wow!' "
A couple of times a month, Obama has recalled, the pair would spend an hour or two trying on outfits – mainly paid for by Obama herself, with just some items like ballgowns lent by designers and then donated to the National Archives. Every choice had to be meticulous. "As a black woman… I knew I'd be criticised if I was perceived as being showy and high-end, and I'd be criticised also if I was too casual," Obama writes.
She's praised Koop for being "sharp and knowledgeable about different designers" and having "a playful sense of colour and texture", but the White House was no place for wacky experimentation. "I couldn't really approach the styling like, 'Oh, this is so fabulous. This is beautiful,' " Koop says. Instead, she thought of the job as "more like costume design… dressing [Obama] and her children for this role".
Potential reactions – good and bad – to every outfit were evaluated forensically. "Michelle is a very powerful and striking woman, and the way we used fashion was bigger than just her. It was about all the people looking at her, and about trying to support the president working towards this bigger purpose, working towards issues like healthcare and LGBTQ rights," Koop says.
Koop attended meetings with policy experts and the foreign relations team, ensuring Obama's outfits paid respect to the cultures of countries she visited – for example, using her 2015 trip to London to showcase an all-British wardrobe of Christopher Kane, Preen and Mary Katrantzou. Every dress had to be trialled to make sure Obama could move around in it without any accidental rips or flashes of flesh. "We'd think about logistics: what surface will you be walking on? How many events? Will you be sitting or standing?" To obtain the clothes, she emailed designers – trying to ensure they came from as diverse backgrounds as possible, and highlighting both the up-and-coming and superstars.
When the Obamas' time was up, Koop – who during that period had lost her sister to ovarian cancer ("I was trying to do this crazy job in this crazy place, and show up for her when she was sick for a long time") and met her boyfriend, who was working in the White House archival department – witnessed a very different first family being sworn in. She declines to discuss the Trumps, only to say, "I was at the inauguration of our current president and at the end of that I really thought, 'I need to get away.' "
After a break, Koop moved to New York and soon she was reunited with Obama, to plan for her book tour. "I was so excited for Michelle that we could step out of the box and try new things. I really wanted the tour to be about Michelle and not former first lady Mrs Obama, and to see that reflected in the clothes." Koop decided to "forget the dresses" – too reminiscent of the Flotus days. Instead, she resolved, "Let's wear pants! Let's have fun!"
Outfits she selected included a Sergio Hudson purple trouser suit over a black bustier. Then there was the yellow split skirt accompanied by yellow, holographic £3,000 thigh-high stiletto boots from Balenciaga that Koop commissioned and resulted in #Balenciaga trending on Twitter. "Now I'm free to do whatever," Obama explained of the ensemble. "I had people in the industry telling me Balenciaga never did that sort of thing, but I just asked," Koop says.
"These clothes were about celebrating Michelle as an individual but also about everything she stands for," she continues. "Her story is so relevant to so many young people, who doubt themselves or don't have the opportunities to achieve. I really wanted to celebrate that part of the story. "
Since the tour, Koop's continued her private styling, mainly "women with big jobs who need to go from a meeting, to a speech, to a plane, to a big dinner". She has no interest in so-called celebrities. "I like working with women with real body types. I've never wanted to pull samples for size zero." The fact hers isn't a high-fashion background gives her extra appeal. "I think it makes me more approachable for people who are intimidated by the idea of fashion coming in their door."
But the pandemic is precipitating changes. Having previously been vaguely planning to leave New York, now she and her partner are actively searching for a home surrounded by space and greenery. She's not interested in marriage but thinks she would like children, although she isn't sure how they'd fit around the work she loves so much.
But that work is changing too. Koop gives herself a maximum of five more years' styling – mainly because it's hard to scale up a business like hers without losing the personal touch.
Twelve years with the Obamas has, perhaps inevitably, politicised Koop. "It gave me a better understanding not only of the power of politics, but the importance of being engaged in politics." Now she's determined to move from behind the scenes. She's been acting as a creative adviser for When We All Vote, an organisation urging people to use their democratic rights. She's also in talks with streaming platforms about a potential docuseries investigating the links between fashion and politics – such as racism in the industry, which she says is widespread. "Such issues have never been more pertinent than now," she says wryly.
She's outraged at how some fashion houses have appropriated black culture to sell products, and thinks change is happening far too slowly. "It's not enough to have different types of models on the runway. People need to be thinking about a lot more than that."
Listening to Koop, you note a steeliness that she once lacked. She's starting to blow her own trumpet. "I just want all the time and effort I have put into my work represented," she says. "There have been so many circumstances when the designer said, 'We dressed Michelle,' or it's like, 'Who picked the dress? Michelle picked the dress.' Well, no. She did pick the dress in a way, but saying it in that context totally nullifies my work and my existence. I can't do that any more."
Written by: Julia Llewellyn Smith
© The Times of London