Mary-Kate and Ashley to the Rescue

“We really want The Row to be an American luxury brand. We believe in not just American by representation but American by make.”

--Ashley Olsen to Newsweek, April 24, 2011

Last Wednesday President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama flew to Chicago for an appearance on Oprah. The segment, which features an interview between the couple and Ms. Winfrey, is scheduled to air tomorrow. An online photo of the Oprah summit (taped the same day Mr. Obama released a copy of his official birth certificate) shows Mr. Obama in a dark suit and tie; Mrs. Obama wears a brightly colored sleeveless dress. While pundits debated the timing and political purpose of the interview, I wondered this: who designed Mrs. Obama's dress? Had it been manufactured in America?

Blogger-fingers crossed.

After all, with high unemployment, a shaky dollar and dismal economic figures--our GDP is a paltry 1.8 percent--all threatening to weaken our global position, wouldn't the First Lady's appearance on Oprah provide a welcome opportunity to showcase an American designer, American manufacturing, American gumption? I could easily picture Mrs. Obama smoothly interjecting a well-timed comment: And Oprah, if I could, let me tell you and your audience about my fabulous dress. It's by American designer Nanette Lepore. Did you know she designs and manufactures all her clothing right here in this country, in New York's garment district? Just wanted to give a shout out to the hard working garment district folks. And to all my fellow Americans: buy made in the USA!

Sorry. Daydreaming again. But as it turns out, I'm not that far off. A couple of weeks ago, the First Lady and Jill Biden appeared on The View. Mrs. Obama wore a v-neck sweater and pale pink satin Evelyn Skirt by The Row ($1170). Within days Newsweek ran a story with this heading: "Look, Ma, We're Fashion Moguls! With their high-end label The Row, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have such a grown-up hit on their hands that even Michelle Obama wears their clothes." And apparently the Olsen twins, former child stars-turned billionaire entrepreneurs, share a commitment to manufacturing in this country. More from the Newsweek interview with the powerhouse pair:

"I really believe in our being able to create here and utilize the skills that people have here," says Ashley. "The skill set is here. Our main issue is that some of the machinery is gone, so some knitwear is produced in Italy. But whether it’s clothing or cars, I believe in manufacturing as close to home as possible.”

So whether by accident or (let's hope) on purpose, Mrs. Obama wore clothing manufactured here in America on The View. I congratulate her for doing so, and congratulate the Olsens as well. Apparently Mary-Kate and Ashley--like Nanette Lepore and other high-end designers--have joined the New York-based Save the Garment Center cause. By manufacturing The Row clothing line (other than sunglasses and handbags) in New York City's Garment District (as well as in Los Angeles) the Olsens are saving and creating jobs. Yes, these are luxury goods. No, I won't be snatching up a $375 t-shirt or $15,000 coat anytime soon. But perhaps in the future the Olsens will create a more affordable clothing line as well, and manufacture it right here in America.

In the meantime, America's apparel manufacturers would certainly welcome the First Lady's endorsement. None's forthcoming this time around, sorry to report. A quick Internet search revealed that the bright-colored dress Mrs. Obama wore for her Oprah appearance was designed by Duro Olowu. According to live.milkmade.com, Mr. Olowu was "born in Lagos Nigeria, to a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother…raised between Nigeria and England in an environment that embraced international culture, art, fashion and music." Olowu continues to live and design in England. Apparently Mrs. Obama, too, embraces international fashion. And were she not First Lady of the United States, this wouldn't be up for discussion. Yes, this is a free country. And yes, she pays for her own clothes. But couldn't she choose American designed and manufactured fashion, at least for all public appearances during her husband's White House tenure? Couldn't she lead by example?

The same day the Obamas flew to Chicago to tape Ms. Winfrey's show, Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke spoke at an event in New York. According to money.cnn.com, Mr. Duke explained that Wal-Mart shoppers frequently live paycheck to paycheck. "We're seeing core consumers under a lot of pressure," he said. "They're running out of money."

So we have Wal-Mart shoppers "running out of money," unable to fill up their gas tanks. And we have shoppers snatching up luxury skirts {designed and manufactured in the U.S.A.} by The Row for $1170. What's going on here? Have we offshored so many jobs and so much capital that our middle class is being phased out? I know what Dad would say: Show me the missing capital. Show me the jobs. Bring 'em on home. But how can we begin? For me, for now, by buying products made in the U.S.A. Maybe I'll buy a DVD box set of Mary-Kate and Ashley's old sitcom, Full House. Hope the DVDs are manufactured here. Fingers crossed again.