Kate Betts Interview

KATE BETTS began her history-making career in fashion as a reporter covering perfume and lingerie for Women’s Wear Daily and W magazines in Paris. Kate has referred to those early years as a “baptism by fire”, but believes that you have to learn about the people and processes in the fashion industry in order to truly understand fashion and make a significant impact.

And impact the world of fashion publishing she did.

After a few short years “on the beat” in Paris, Kate was appointed bureau chief for Fairchild Publications, but one successful year later, in 1991, she left to join the Anna Wintour team at American Vogue in New York City. As Vogue’s Fashion News Director, Kate increased Vogue’s news coverage and created the very successful Index section for the fashion bible.

After almost a decade at Vogue, Kate accepted the prestigious title of Editor-in-Chief at rival publication and America’s oldest fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazaar. The youngest ever to edit Bazaar, Kate left Bazaar after two rather challenging years, and began writing for The New York Times before being appointed editor of Time‘s Style and Design, a special supplement that was published six times a year in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Now a respected international journalist and fashion insider, Kate was uniquely qualified to write the book about first lady Michelle Obama’s style.

At the India state dinner in Naeem Khan

In Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style, Kate explores the authenticity behind Mrs. Obama’s signature style, and makes the case that style and intelligence matters. In addition, Kate, as a person whose career ascension was one of the most talked about, understands the challenges and responsibilities our first lady endures since being thrust into the international spotlight. Indeed Everyday Icon puts the past two years’ fashion critiques into context and helps us understand the global impact and historical significance of Michelle Obama’s trendsetting wardrobe.

Personally, I find both women fascinating and was honored to interview Kate about Everyday Icon. I want to thank Kate for being so gracious and kind to me during the interview process. And now, without further ado…

On vacation in Jean Paul Gaultier

With so many books on the First Lady’s style published within days of the Obamas entering the White House, why did you decide to write a book about Michelle Obama?
Mrs. Obama’s style inspired me–and by style I don’t only mean what she is wearing, but also the way she presents herself to the world. When I saw the Obamas on the world stage for the first time at the Inauguration and later on their first trip together to Europe I was amazed at the impression they made on people. I wanted to examine Mrs. Obama’s style, in particular, in the context of history, first ladies and the broader cultural context.

Why the title Everyday Icon?
Because Mrs. Obama is iconic in her position as the first African American first lady, and yet also so accessible in her style.

In researching for Everyday Icon, did you uncover any surprising, little known historical facts about first ladies and fashion?
Oh yes! When I interviewed Nancy Tuckerman, Jacqueline Kennedy’s best friend and her social secretary in the White House for the final eight months, I learned that Jackie had been so precise about her style choices to the extent that in boarding school she even sketched the looks she wanted to wear to debutante parties in her text books. I was also very surprised to learn that Grace Coolidge was forbidden to speak publicly by her husband. She made an impression on people only with her appearance and her energy.

Did you have the opportunity to meet with the First Lady to discuss Everyday Icon?
No, I was told by the First Lady’s press office that she does not do interviews for books. But I did get a chance to join the press pool at the White House and to follow her around to many events in the White House, including the first state dinner. I also met her at the Time 100 dinner in May 2009. She was the keynote speaker that evening and she was incredible.

At Time’s 100 Dinner in Michael Kors

You’ve said that the First Lady is “precise in her public image”, but what fashion missteps has Mrs. Obama made?
She did once take a wrong turn on the South Lawn while walking first dog, Bo, and she ended up in front of a bank of cameras. She was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, no make up or anything. Of course, it wasn’t so much a fashion misstep as literally a wrong turn on an early morning walk. But it was probably a lesson for her about the intense scrutiny she would have to learn to accommodate.

Why do you think that a majority of women feel that the First Lady is “just like us” when she has a fondness for French designers and other luxury brands?
Because she also has a fondness for J.Crew, H&M, and Talbot’s. But mostly because she enjoys fashion and actually wears quite simple clothing when you think about it. Her style favors simple, easy shapes. Nothing too complicated, except, of course, the more glamorous evening dresses she wears to state dinners.

In your opinion, is Michelle Obama’s style similar to Jackie Kennedy’s style during the White House years?
Only in the simplicity of it. Jackie’s style was much more formal, Michelle is very casual. That said, there is no question in my mind that Michelle is taking style cues from Jackie–her use of color, her preference for simple shapes like the sleeveless dress, her flat shoes. These were all Jackie signatures.

Diana Vreeland famously advised Jackie Kennedy on fashion during her White House years, given the opportunity, what would you add to the First Lady’s wardrobe?
Gosh, that’s a tough one. I think Mrs. Obama gets it right most of the time. Her instincts are spot on when it comes to fashion. I know there are many American designers–both young and not so young–who would love it if she wore their clothes, even just once!

Outside of the sales boost for retailers like J. Crew and White House Black Market, how has the First Lady impacted fashion culturally?
She has certainly allowed women to be more feminine–and almost frivolous–with fashion. She’s got that brio and confidence when it comes to clothes and I think that’s incredibly infectious. It’s almost as if she’s telling us to just try it, try wearing color, floral prints, a feminine dress or skirt, or a cardigan instead of a jacket. I do believe a younger generation of women in the workplace are following her lead and I think that’s great.

Having lived here for 15 years, I can tell you that Washington is definitely more fashionable than the rest of the country thinks, but for the most part, the designer power suit still rules. So, how has the First Lady’s style impacted fashion in the political sense?
She’s shown women that it’s OK to stand out, we don’t all have to look like lemmings, following some mythical dress code and falling in line behind the dull, dowdy pantsuit. As Michael Kors said, she really has redefined what’s appropriate and it’s about time.

In Rodarte

How smart were the First Lady’s instincts when deciding to champion little-known or younger fashion designers like Rodarte?
In this economy, when young designers and entrepreneurs have such an uphill battle to get recognition and to be successful, it was an incredibly smart and inclusive thing to do.

What were you most surprised to learn about Michelle Obama when writing Everyday Icon?
I was very surprised to learn that she had modeled in student fashion shows at Princeton! I went to Princeton and I don’t remember much of a fashion scene there. Also, to model in a fashion show does demonstrate a pretty keen interest in fashion as well as a lot of confidence.

What do you believe the First Lady’s legacy in fashion will be?
Confidence. She wears it well and her motto “wear what you love” is very liberating and empowering for women, especially women who think they have to dress a certain way–whether they are fashion victims or corporate soldiers who are afraid to stand out.

After writing a book that most assuredly will become a part of historical record, what’s next for you?
I would love to write another book, not necessarily a memoir but some combination of memoir and fashion history book.

Sounds like an intriguing concept, so I have to ask, if you were asked to write your memoirs, what would the title be?
Designers, Deadlines, and What I Ate! That’s sort of a joke, but not really. I am as obsessed with food as I am with fashion and I love to cook.

Interviewed January 2011 by Yolanda, editor of Zavvi Rodaine.com
© Zavvi Rodaine.com 2011. No part of this interview may be used or reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the Editor of Zavvi Rodaine.com.

Photos courtesy of Jorge Guerrero/Getty/Time, Inc.

Fashion, Life + Style 4 Comments

4 Responses to “Kate Betts Interview”

  1. 1
    quintessence says:
    February 8, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Fabulous interview Yolanda!! I think Betts is smart, perceptive and certainly well spoken. I’ll be curious to see what her next move will be.

  2. 2
    meredith says:
    February 8, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Loved the interview. Great questions and interesting responses! I’ve decided though that they really chose the wrong title for the book. Everyday Icon… everyday implies regular or common, or nothing out of the ordinary. You can chip or break your everyday dishes because you save the china for special occasions. MO is anything but ordinary. Kate says in the interview that people appreciate MO’s style because it is casual, and therefore, more accessible. I think the “everyday” is perhaps supposed to allude to that but the meaning – to me at least — is very different.

  3. 3
    Melissa says:
    February 8, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    Great interview! I love the part about Grace Coolidge….how times have changed…thank goodness:)

  4. 4
    Cindy says:
    February 10, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Yolanda, congratulations on an excellent interview! It’s great inspiration.