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Malia Obama follows her mother into the fashion spotlight

Aug 26th 2015 at 7:10 PM

It was the T-shirt seen round the world.

In January, a candid photograph of Malia Obama, the older daughter of the president and first lady, dressed in a baggy white T-shirt imprinted with the distinctive logo of the Brooklyn rap collective Pro Era, showed up on the Internet - most notably on the Instagram account of Pro Era

The response to that image, a far cry from the demurely dressed teenager seen in the officially sanctioned photos issued from the White House (always in the company of one of her parents and usually her younger sister, Sasha), was immediate.

It was quickly picked up by Refinery29, Gawker, Complex and New York magazine, while Fox News and other news media outlets reported that the White House was investigating how that photo became public. (It's been widely reported that the first lady has barred Sasha from social media and has restricted Malia to Facebook.)

Not only was the T-shirt a striking departure from the ladylike J. Crew and Kate Spade dresses that 17-year-old Malia typically wears to official events, but it also signalled that, after more than eight years in the public eye, in which she had grown from a somewhat shy preadolescent into a confident teenager, she is increasingly seen as a style icon for young women in her age group, one who occasionally takes the kind of fashion risks long associated with her mother.

"The Pro Era T-shirt is interesting because we rarely see her in an edgy way," said Christene Barberich, Refinery29's editor-in-chief. "It makes me wonder if she has yet to have her rebellious fashion phase. That's generally when fashion influencer status starts."

Even if she has not yet reached the "fashion influencer" stage cited by Barberich, who said she will be interested in seeing how Malia's style evolves after her father leaves the White House, her clothing choices are now dissected closely on fashion sites like InStyle, Harper's Bazaar and a popular Tumblr blog called Malia Obama Is Gorgeous.

Her profile (and, with it, the reporting of sightings of her around New York this summer) has only been enhanced by her internship on the HBO series Girls. That followed both Malia and Sasha (along with Mad Men actress Kiernan Shipka, singer Lorde and reality TV stars Kylie and Kendall Jenner) being named to the list of the "25 Most Influential Teens" by Time magazine last October.

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Her moment now as New York's most recent "it" girl "is all about timing," said Kerry Pieri, digital director of fashion and features at Harper's Bazaar, adding that Malia's height (about 6 feet) and good looks don't hurt.

And despite White House restrictions on which photos can be taken and published of the two Obama girls, clothing brands have certainly benefited from Malia's sartorial choices. When a look is spotted, brands immediately send out news releases, or editors scramble to identify the lesser-known labels by scouring the Internet. (A spokeswoman for the first lady declined to comment on whether Malia uses a stylist.)

In June, when disembarking from the plane on an official trip to London, Malia stepped out in an Alice and Olivia blue with sunflower print shift dress (A$617) paired with Mary Janes. Stacey Bendet, founder of Alice and Olivia, noted that the dress nearly sold out after Malia's appearance but that "Flotus is still the queen" when it comes to rousing sales.

Malia is still "a blossoming influencer," Bendet added, albeit already an "elegant one."

On the multiday trip, though, Malia seemed to come into her own aesthetically (or at least seemed more willing to flaunt her choices). Despite the first lady's parade of dresses by high-end British designers, "it was Malia who nearly stole the show with a series of simple, polished and pretty ensembles," Vogue wrote.

For a visit to the British prime minister the next day, Malia donned a red lace sleeveless skater dress by Kate Spade (A$700) with a demure neckline and high-low hem, which was hailed by Teen Vogue as a "perfect summer dress." While Deborah Lloyd, president and chief creative officer of Kate Spade, declined to provide sales numbers, she noted that Malia's choices have an effect on the "style and shopping decisions of young women who wear our clothes," particularly because her style is "aspirational and relatable."

(Pieri echoed the sentiment, pointing to Malia's mix of accessible designers including Topshop, ASOS and Elizabeth and James. "Unlike her contemporary Kylie Jenner, who opts for more high-fashion pieces, Malia dresses very much for her age," Pieri said.)

For all the style credit Malia is garnering, there's still a sense that she is closely mirroring her trendsetting mother. Pieri noted that, like the first lady, Malia has a style that is often based on bold colours and patterns but one that also makes her come across an "approachable teen."

But she added that the internship at Girls had placed "her directly in the pop culture zeitgeist."

That was certainly the reaction of Sage Klapper, 22, who had been living in Manhattan for a month (she recently graduated from college and moved to the city for a marketing job) when she had what she called a "major moment" in July: a sighting of Malia with her mother and 14-year-old sister at the restaurant Otto Enoteca e Pizzeria.

"It was so much bigger than seeing just any celebrity," Klapper raved, adding that her group, which included her roommate and a couple of friends, felt the same way. They were first offered a table in the bar area, which they passed up for a chance to sit in the dining room where the Obamas were.

Imagine their delight when the host walked them to a table right next to the first lady and her daughters. "This was just next level," Klapper said. Up close, she made note of Malia's chic top, although an attempt by her roommate to take a selfie with the Obamas in the background was immediately shut down by the Secret Service. (Klapper did manage to post a Facebook missive announcing her proximity to the first family.)

"I actually wasn't that interested in Malia's fashion before," Klapper said. "The internship at Girls is what got my attention. It's a racy kind of show. It's really cool. I'm interested to see where Malia ends up."

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