Let’s Go, Betts! The Kate Comes Back with New Michelle Obama Coffee-Table Tome

screen shot 2011 02 08 at 4 45 25 pm Lets Go, Betts! The Kate Comes Back with New Michelle Obama Coffee Table TomeKate Betts has experienced her share of ups and downs during her years in the fashion world–and honey, we don’t mean hemlines. 

After beginning her career as a hard-charging reporter in WWD‘s Paris bureau and rising to the rank of bureau chief, she was hired by Anna Wintour at Vogue, where she served as fashion news editor, creating the now indispensable Vogue Index. “Anna was always very generous and easy to work with,” she says with a smile, “for me.”

Ms. Betts left Conde Nast to edit Harpers Bazaar, stepping into the role formerly held by the beloved Liz Tilberis and becoming its youngest-ever editor at age 35. Two somewhat rocky years later, she was replaced by Glenda Bailey. She returned to magazine editing in 2004, running a fashion supplement for Time, but the project didn’t survive the media bust.

As bruising as this parabolic ride must have been, Ms. Betts has retained her aura of corporate assurance. A tall, self-possessed blonde, still youthful at 46, she met with The Observer at Pecan in Tribeca determined to focus on the future–namely, the arrival of her first book, Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style, a breezy riff on the First Lady’s sartorial sensibilities published by Clarkson Potter. Sipping a latte, Ms. Betts described Ms. Obama’s style as “retro and quirky”–an intuitive approach rather than a stylist’s imposition. “She wears what she loves,” she said.

Ms. Betts researched and wrote her book in just under ten months. It is a glossy little number–part coffee table book, part hagiography–loaded with photos and sketches of all of the dresses that have made it, and a few that didn’t, into her subject’s wardrobe. (Ms. Obama did not participate in the book.)

“There are so many precise expectations of the First Lady,” Ms. Betts noted. “It’s very, very traditional. She has to perform the hostess duties originally initiated by Dolly Madison. It is a very strange place for a woman as modern as Hillary or Michelle.”

Has Ms. Obama made any fashion blunders? Ms. Betts paused for a moment. “I don’t really care about the beige leggings she wears or the shorts coming off of Air Force One,” she said. “But I am always a little disappointed when she wears a pantsuit, because that’s the Washington uniform.”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Ms. Betts said, Ms. Obama “realized that she couldn’t be a power broker in pinstriped suits. I think that she made a conscious decision to dress as the mom-in-chief. In many ways, she didn’t have a choice. She’s really a career woman, but she had to let that go and embrace the other side. They softened her image.”

Ms. Betts, who famously began her Bazaar job while nine months pregnant with her first child (she is married to the writer Chip Brown), has done a lot of thinking about the famously knotty work-life balance. “When I was editing Bazaar, I thought we should do a story about it, saying that, actually, no, you can’t have it all,” she remembered. “Every woman stormed into my office and said, ‘You can’t say that, it’s sacrilege!’ So we didn’t. Now, women talk very frankly about it. It’s a shift in the culture. Michelle is part of the generation that’s questioning those assumptions.”
 
Ms. Betts’ name still often comes up in connection with major vacancies in the magazine world. She was recently considered a possible successor to Pamela Fiori at Town & Country (a position assumed by Steven Drucker last April and now held by Jay Fielden). But for the moment, she seems to be happy to be home for her children, who are 11 and 6.  “You need to spend more time with them as they get older and help them with their homework,” she said.

dprince@observer.com