Obama's grandmother showcases Swiss design

Journalist Daphne Barak delivered the shawl and turban to Sarah Obama in Kenya

Choosing an outfit for the biggest global bash of the year involves careful planning and - if you're Barack Obama's grandmother – a little help from a Swiss designer.

This content was published on January 19, 2009 minutes

When Obama's Kenyan paternal grandmother Sarah Obama was invited to attend the presidential inauguration in Washington, she picked three colourful traditional dresses. But she hadn't counted on the cold January weather.

Daphne Barak, a United States television journalist following her preparations for the journey, said she would need some warm accessories and suggested enlisting the help of the Lugano designer Alessandra Roggero, known for dressing women for unique occasions.

"We saw Alessandra's fabrics and I said they are beautiful, let's bet on her," Barak told swissinfo.

"We wanted something handmade, something different." The 87-year-old "Granny Sarah", as she is known, agreed.

Roggero has been designing clothes since the age of 17 and now creates haute couture for fashion houses and high-flyers. Through the intermediary of journalist Barak, she was commissioned to make an elegant and "regal" shawl and turban that could be used several times during Granny Sarah's visit to the US capital.


Unusually for Roggero, she did not meet her client and instead liaised via Barak and family members in Kenya to choose colours.

They finally decided on two fabrics measuring six metres long each, sourced from Germany and France, to make up a two-sided shawl. One piece of silk was designed to go with the African dresses and another in gold lamé had velvet African designs. It was lined with borders of material made in Switzerland. A ceremonial-style gold chain was also prepared.

"It is two pieces in one," the designer Alessandra Roggero told swissinfo.

"It is made for the cold outdoors, so she will be covered during the ceremony. The other side is very elegant for evening. We wanted to do something good and which would make Granny Sarah feel good and elegant as well."

The designer and her team spent two weeks working around the clock and over Christmas to complete the pieces.

"It was a special commission. We started out working very hard knowing we only had this time available. It arrived at the last moment."

Something precious

She dismissed media speculation that the items cost as much as a BMW car, but admitted they were "precious" which by her definition entails high-end prices.

"It is something precious, expensive, but not as much as a car. It is only a shawl."

A smaller shawl was also prepared for one of Obama's aunts. It was then hand delivered to the Kenyan village by Barak, who arrived by chartered jet bearing the special package.

She said it was an emotional moment for Granny Sarah. "She could not wait. She lost her composure, she ran like a kid," Barak said, adding that she had tears in her eyes when modelling the items for her family.

"Alessandra did a beautiful job. She looked amazing. It's really very impressive."

Barak presented the other shawl to the aunt and designer sunglasses to several uncles who were also making the trip to the US.

Person of the moment

Granny Sarah was invited by the new president to attend the inauguration. Obama last met his paternal step-grandmother, his grandfather's third wife, during a trip to Kenya to rediscover his roots.

She arrived in Washington on the day before the celebrations, armed with traditional gifts, a three-legged stool, a flywhisk and a shield that symbolise leadership in the Luo tribe which Obama's father belonged to.

As well as adorning Granny Sarah's outfit at the inauguration event the Swiss-made shawl is also making an appearance at a lunch the following day being attended by Hillary Clinton and senators.

Back in her Lugano studio, Roggero is keeping one eye on the television as the inauguration events unfold to watch for a glimpse of her now renowned client.

"We are very happy to do something for her," said Roggero. "It was a special experience because she is a very dear person and she is a person of the moment. That's the thing."

swissinfo, Jessica Dacey

St Gallen lace for the First Lady

Swiss material also figured on the outfit worn by First Lady Michelle Obama at her husband's presidential inauguration and parade.

Lace on the Isabel Toledo yellow-green ensemble was sourced from St Gallen embroidery specialists Forster Rohner. The designer bought 13.8 metres of lace from the company's New York showroom in December. The firm said they were overjoyed to have contributed to the First Lady's outfit, a matching coat, dress, shoes and leather gloves.

St Gallen has an international reputation for top-quality lace and embroidery.

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Barack Obama family history

Barack Obama is being sworn in as President of the United States on January 20.

He is the son of Ann Dunham, an American anthropologist who died in 1995, and Barack Obama Senior, a Kenyan government economist who died in 1982.

Obama has a half-sister Maya Kassandra from Ann Dunham's second marriage to Lolo Soetoro. Obama developed a close relationship with his Hawaiian-based maternal grandparents Madelyn and Stanley Dunham after moving to the island from Indonesia.

He has several half-brothers and sisters in Kenya: Malik, Abo, Auma, George Hussein Onyango and Bernard Obama and Mark and David Ndesandjo. He has three half-uncles Said, Yusuf and Omar Obama and a half-aunt Zeituni Onyango.

His paternal grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama died in 1979. Hussein's second wife, Habiba Akumu Obama, was Obama's paternal grandmother. He later married Sarah Obama, who raised Barack Obama Senior.

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