Michelle Obama’s Secret Style Weapon

On a recent morning, Irene Neuwirth, who had trekked from Los Angeles to Christy Rilling’s studio on West 38th Street in Manhattan, chattered brightly as Ms. Rilling fitted her for the gown she planned to wear on Oscars night. Ms. Neuwirth, a jewelry designer with an enthusiastic Hollywood following, emerged in her street clothes from behind a screen, exhilarated to have had a voice in the gown’s creation.

“I love this feeling of couture, it’s so personal,” she said. “You want to be in control of the way you look.”

She had settled on a pink velvet evening column, a synthesis of her own aesthetic and the resolutely low-key style Ms. Rilling cultivated years ago.

In 2008, when Ms. Rilling opened her studio, the country was in a recession. “People weren’t really prepared for that,” she said. “I had to find ways to make things that were elegant, not flashy. Nobody wanted to peacock around.”

She was prompted to move in the direction of minimalism, her creations “pulled back, not loud, not in your face,” she said.

She has applied a similar standard to her latest move, the introduction of a ready-to-wear line, Guild of Hands, cut and stitched in her studio and available online. She and Andrew Walker, her husband and business partner, are courting a wider clientele with pieces that include an hourglass-curved silk and wool blazer, a waterproof silk moiré trench coat and a silk velvet evening dress shimmering with tiny glass beads.

Most are variations on the custom designs Ms. Rilling, 43, creates for marquee personalities — Jennifer Lawrence, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, the fashion entrepreneur Lauren Santo Domingo and the artists Marilyn Minter and Laurie Simmons among them — who value her subdued style and place a premium on privacy.

Looks from Ms. Rilling's new Guild of Hands ready-to-wear line. Credit…Photographs via Guild of Hands

Few count more on her discretion than Michelle Obama. Ms. Rilling, who was introduced to the first lady by the editors at Vogue, went on to become her personal tailor, working without fanfare to alter, and often whip up from scratch, styles that don’t shout “look at me.”

“Not many people knew that I worked for her,” Ms. Rilling said. Relatively few know even now that she confected the delicately pleated gown, its colors intensifying from dusty pink to flame, that Mrs. Obama wore for the unveiling of her White House portrait.

Joining forces with Meredith Koop, Mrs. Obama’s longtime stylist, Ms. Rilling later fashioned portions of the wardrobe for the former first lady’s “Becoming” book tour. Late last year, as she promoted her book “The Light We Carry,” Mrs. Obama underwent something of a metamorphosis, switching out her corporate sheaths, tailored coats and high-heeled pumps for the relative ease of a denim pantsuit, a zebra print shirtdress and an array of Ms. Rilling’s subtly racy, one-shoulder bodysuits.

“She has become more casual, more adventurous, more approachable,” Ms. Rilling said. And perhaps more at home with the personal and collaborative nature of the fitting process. Ms. Rilling is, after all, taking the measure not just of a client’s waistline but of her needs and mood.

Mrs. Obama is appreciative. “It’s been a joy to work with Christy over the years,” she said in a statement. “She has a remarkable intuition for making me feel my best.”

Initially known as a tailor, Ms. Rilling traveled extensively with Vogue’s fashion team in the mid-aughts, shears and dressmaker pins at the ready, to help prep the magazine’s cover shoots. She soon expanded her skill set, tailoring pajamas, fashioning elaborately sculptured hats and stitching up red carpet gowns.

In 2019, she formally introduced her first custom collection, an 11-piece line of day and evening looks matched to bustiers, slips and other fragile underpinnings. Having been “in everyone’s closet since I started this business, I feel like I have an idea of what women want,” she told Vogue at the time. “People love sleeves, people love pockets, people love length.”

Her collection, now as it often was then, is engineered from luxury fabrics — waterproof silk moiré, dip-dyed chiffon, macramé — sourced from European and American mills, some tweaked, redyed or embellished by Ms. Rilling for a fragile, not-easy-to-replicate look.

There are discreetly placed details: antique glass beading, flat braiding and, on the practical side, a generous seam allowance, a touch rarely offered off the rack.

The line, opulent but muted, arrives at an opportune time, chiming with a conservative fashion moment as such influential labels as Gucci, Jil Sander and Proenza Schouler retreat in their fall 2023 collections to the relative safety of a camel coat, a well-cut blazer or a mid-calf leather skirt.

In many ways, Ms. Rilling’s custom designs serve as the template for her new ready-to-wear, which will range in price from $1,200 for a silk blouse to $12,000 for an embroidered silk faille gown. “Nothing will be rushed,” Mr. Walker said. “There is no production line. There is one set of hands on each garment from beginning to completion.”

The clothes are intended as keepers, Ms. Rilling said: “The ideas is that you can wear them time after time and not look back on your photo 10 years down the line, moaning, ‘Ugh, I looked so trendy.”

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