New York City

The Obamas are here to attend two campaign fundraisers this evening. The most fashionable one is at the home of Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker, who's known more these days as a fashion icon than an actress. Advertising for the event included a short YouTube video of Vogue editor Anna Wintour encouraging the sort of people with whom she normally wouldn't make eye contact to enter for a chance to win two seats at Parker's table.

In truth, this is the sort of event that benefits all who are involved, because this White House and the fashion industry seem to have a symbiotic relationship – one in which each raises money for the other.

There hasn't been such a close relationship between a first lady and the fashion industry since Nancy Reagan – and she was pilloried for it. One former staffer for a first lady says Michelle Obama's glamorous – and expensive – wardrobe is by no means business as usual in the White House.

Federal Election Commission filings show that almost half of the name designers whose clothes have been worn by Michelle Obama have donated to her husband's campaign, in 2008, 2012, or both. Not a single one has donated to a Republican candidate – though that's not a surprise, given that it's a mostly liberal industry.

It seems to be a smart investment. A New York University business professor found that getting a piece of clothing on the first lady is worth millions. After Michelle Obama appears in public in a designer outfit, that company's stock goes up. The bump can mean an increase in a company's value of $14 million.

The first lady appeared on the cover of Vogue in March 2009. But she began wearing expensive designer clothing long before that. New York magazine even has a section of its website devoted to her various outfits. She's worn a suit by Zac Posen – which can retail for over $3,000. To an event for the nonprofit Girls Inc., she wore a Balenciaga dress – which can cost even more.

“Multiply that by three and a half years,” says the former White House staffer. “It's not possible they could be spending that much on clothes. I know he's making a couple million dollars a year for his books. But it's hard to imagine she'd be paying full retail.”

So is there – even indirectly – some sort of quid pro quo taking place? “No one has figured that out,” the former staffer replies. But she notes that three months after the president's inauguration, someone asked designer Jason Wu how much the first lady had paid for the dress he designed. He said he hadn't yet been paid. “Maybe she isn't paying. And maybe what they're getting is her wearing their clothes.”

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