Make It

Michelle Obama's Stylist: I Graduated From College and Was Lost—How I Found a Career I Love

Photo credit: Maya Fuhr, https://www.mayafuhr.com, https://www.instagram.com/mayafuhr/,https://m.facebook.com/maya.fuhr

Michelle Obama's stylist, Meredith Koop, has worked with the former first lady for over a decade. It's an incredible job that gives Koop a sense of purpose and joy.

Not only has Koop helped turn Obama into a fashion icon, she's also helped boost the careers of lesser known designers (like ByChari's "vote" necklace, Shiffon's adjustable pinkie ring and Sergio Hudson's matching overcoat and suit at President Joe Biden's inauguration), which Koop calls "truly the biggest honor of my work."

While Koop, 39, now has a career she is passionate about, it wasn't that long ago that she had no idea where she was going professionally. Though she didn't follow a traditional path, hard work, a willingness to seize opportunity and a commitment to her own well being have put her in a prime spot in her career.

Koop, who graduated from Vanderbilt University, has no background or pedigree in fashion. "Not at all. No fashion courses whatsoever," she says.

In fact, her original career goal was to be a professional dancer, but she wasn't good enough. "I wanted to be a back-up dancer for pop and hip hop artists," Koop says. (Being a dancer "would've been so awesome," says Koop. "But oh well, I still like to dance!")

So after college, while living with her older sister in Chicago, Koop replied to a job listing at a high-end women's boutique.

"I went in for an interview and was not offered a job," she says. But "once I saw how beautiful the store was, I desperately wanted to work there. I begged — and had to prove myself."

It was working as a sales associate at that store — Ikram, named for its owner, stylist Ikram Goldman — that Koop first worked with Obama in 2007. Goldman was a "wardrobe advisor" for Obama while then-Senator Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, according to The New York Times.

"I have had some great luck in my life," Koop tells CNBC Make It.

Indeed, when Obama became first lady in 2009, Goldman, who needed to stay in Chicago for her store, moved Koop to Washington D.C. to help. By 2010, Koop was creating Obama's look herself, the Times reports.

Koop says she was prepared when the stars aligned. "I had learned how to like show up — which is 70% of anything is just showing up — and then I had learned how to work hard."

"It sounds so cliché but it is true, in every job ... I tried to outwork people and I tried to show up in a different way," Koop says.

Today, the former First Lady is still Koop's client.

"Together, we've prepared for every sort of event — from afternoons in T-shirts and gloves in a garden with middle schoolers to evenings in formal ball gowns with heads of state," Obama told the Times about Koop.

"Over the years, I've come to depend on Meredith for far more than wardrobe.... She's been a friend and mentor to our daughters. And she's given us all a sense of comfort and home, no matter where in the world we might be," Obama said.

And the truth is, for Koop, the line between career and her personal life is blurred. Koop, who struggled with addiction and other issues and a teen and young woman, has learned to prioritize her physical and mental health, which in turn helps her be successful professionally.

"If you're not showing up for yourself in your personal life ... your longevity [in your career] is not going to be there. You're not going to be able to do a marathon. You might be able to do a great sprint for a couple years and you might really kill it — but it's very rare that a person can really ignore their mental and physical health and make it."  

These days, Koop is charting her next steps.

"I've spent a lot of times shaping narratives and telling stories through clothing and fashion," Koop says. "For my next chapter, I'm interested in telling stories through different mediums both written and visual. I'm in the process of developing books and a streaming series."

See also: 

This 36-year-old's jewelry business started as a side hustle — now her 'vote' necklace has gone viral thanks to Michelle Obama 

How a 20-year-old college student launched a jewelry company whose rings are worn by Michelle Obama

How Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman used writing to overcome a speech impediment

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