Lee Clower for The New York Times
Published: December 7, 2011
TO most people, there is only one “O” as far as icons from Chicago are concerned. But when Mikki Taylor, the former beauty editor at Essence, speaks of “O,” there is no doubt whom she is talking about.
“Mrs. O. doesn’t fall for every little trend,” Ms. Taylor said. “And she leads her life the same way.”
As a magazine editor, Ms. Taylor spent the last 30 years helping to set the bar for black beauty and fashion. Now she has trained her eye on Michelle Obama, arguably the most style-conscious first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy (later to be another famous “O”), in her new book, “Commander in Chic” (Atria Books).
Subtitled, “Every woman’s guide to managing her style like a first lady,” the book is not so much a how-to guide as it is an inspirational look book filled with perky little prescriptions that Ms. Taylor calls “Mikki-isms.” A typical pointer: “Your hair should be so fly that it looks as though you have a pro on speed dial.”
Ms. Taylor comes across the same way in person, chipper and full of life. She’s like the cool aunt whose style gene and closet you pray is passed down.
Having style is not about spending a lot of money and endless shopping, she said on a recent Thursday. “It’s about establishing your dress code. True style is not something you put on.”
Ms. Taylor, who was having lunch at Bar Americain in Midtown, wore a knee-length maroon-and-peach lace frock from Plenty by Tracy Reese, which she accessorized with a gold cuff. Her hair was slicked back, as she has worn it for 20 years.
To her, being fashionable is not about chasing the latest trend, but figuring out one’s personal style and releasing it. That, Ms. Taylor added, is part of what makes the first lady’s style so appealing.
“Mrs. Obama makes her look work for her no matter what’s in or out,” she said.
Ms. Taylor first met the entire Obama family when the president was a senator. She styled them in their Chicago home for the photograph that became the September 2008 cover of Essence.
Not paying any attention to designer tags, Ms. Taylor put Mrs. Obama in a simple sleeveless deep-purple sheath dress from Mrs. Obama’s personal wardrobe.
Purple, she thought, complemented Mrs. Obama’s skin tone and is the color of royalty. The family was photographed seated at the bottom of the stairs.
“That cover is the cover that I’m most proud of in my career,” she said. “It’s the Obama family, it’s prior to the election and it’s one of the shots that was seen around the world.”
Respect for Ms. Taylor from the fashion industry was highlighted at a party for her book last month. Its hosts were Soledad O’Brien of CNN and Ms. Reese, and it was held at Ms. Reese’s store in the meatpacking district. Guests, representing fashion, television and music, included Marvet Britto, Darryl McDaniels from Run-DMC and VH1’s Janell Snowden.
But what many may not know about Ms. Taylor is that her knack for taste lies in her roots. Born in Newark, she was heavily influenced by her mother, Modina Davis Watson, a makeup artist and wardrobe stylist to the jazz singer Sarah Vaughan. Her mother’s circle included Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Quincy Jones.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, her mother traveled by ocean liner to Europe and often returned with dolls and makeup.
“I’m still playing with my dolls, in a way,” said Ms. Taylor, who refused to give her age.
Before landing at Essence in 1980, she worked in the fashion industry as a model, publicist and production manager at Elie Tahari (when it was Tahari Limited). Someone told her about a lifestyle magazine that catered to black women, and that it needed someone to cover fashion merchandising. Ms. Taylor jumped at the chance. A year later, when Susan Taylor (no relation) rose to editor in chief, she named Ms. Taylor as beauty editor. Both moves were defining moments for the magazine.
In 1986, Mikki Taylor carved out a new position for herself, cover editor, in which she conceptualized the look, subject and mood of every Essence cover.
“I wanted Essence to have a distinctive style so that you knew it was an Essence cover no matter what part of it you saw on a newsstand, even if the banner was covered up,” she said.
In 2010, Ms. Taylor decided to step down from her day-to-day duties at the magazine (she retains the title editor at large), and is focused on her branding and image-building company, Mikki Taylor Enterprises. She is also working on a third book (about skin care), as well as a nail polish line.
When she is not working, she enjoys cooking for her husband, a retired educator; her three adult children and the family dog at the family’s home in New Jersey. She is also diligent about staying fit, just like the first lady.
The book devotes an entire chapter to exercise and health, filled with photos of Mrs. Obama jogging, tending to the White House garden and, of course, Mikki-ism like “Don’t kid yourself: when it comes to mastering good health, it helps to be a little vain.”
“If she can carve out time for it in her busy life, the rest of us can try,” Ms. Taylor said of Mrs. Obama. “Imagine trying to hold it down 365 days a year. That’s Mrs. O.”