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Nathalie Atkinson: Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau waved Canada’s fashion flag on a global stage

Whatever else the trip to the White House accomplished, Canada's three-day visit and state dinner offered diplomatic pomp and high visibility for Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau's fashion quotient, all of it Can-Con. Washington rolled out the political red carpet, from the tarmac arrival Wednesday afternoon to the official welcome ceremony on the White House's South Lawn Thursday morning to the formal state dinner (a top diplomatic honour, and Canada's first in 19 years) for 200 guests in the East Room later that day. While press coverage and social media interest came from all corners, Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau waved the country's fashion flag on a global scale, leading up to the big reveal the "what" and more pressingly, "who is she wearing" of the dinner gown reached fever pitch.

The answer, finally, in a pose with the Obamas outside the White House before making their way into the gala: a streamlined cap-sleeved gown in vivid violet, with a keyhole neckline and coral beading bodice detailing by Lucian Matis, the same Toronto-based designer whose striking dress Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau wore earlier in the day. "The visit and state dinner is a great venue for us to showcase our country generally," says Bob Kirke, executive director of the Canadian Apparel Federation. "It won't change the industry, but she has a choice. Remember, she could go in wearing Valentino!"

For her part, first lady Michelle Obama–remember her?–made it a repeat of a sort, too, by wearing a strapless, draped and full-skirted midnight blue dress in a sprigged floral jacquard pattern by Jason Wu, the young Canadian-raised talent who gained instant international fame when he designed the white chiffon gown Obama wore to the first Inaugural Ball.

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That's how welcoming the Obama administration has been to the Trudeau government: even the first lady donned Canadian for the occasion (this, even before later calling Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau her "soul mate" that morning). Like Jacqueline Kennedy before her (who, in a rare deviation from her go-to designer Oleg Cassini, wore a dress by Guy Douvier, a Paris couturier working in Christian Dior's New York unit, for a French state dinner), Ms. Obama also occasionally deploys subtle but meaningful sartorial diplomacy: Naeem Khan for the first state dinner with Manmohan Singh, former prime minister of India, and Korean-American designer Doo-Ri Chung to welcome former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak.

For earlier engagements on Thursday, Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau shrewdly took a page from Ms. Obama's own political playbook by wearing a tailored day dress – a way of looking polished without looking corporate. The fitted dress, also by Matis (a former Project Runway Canada contestant) in eye-catching Canadian flag red (waving the flag, literally) with fuchsia silk appliqué floral patterns boldly stood out among the dark suits and even Ms. Obama's own dress. The dark green patterned stretch jacquard was a custom piece by another Canadian, rising New York-based designer Tanya Taylor.

Matis, reached on Thursday evening, it was a whirlwind day fielding calls and doing interviews – even before getting to the state dinner look. "I knew about the evening look," he admitted, "but I had no idea about the day dress she would wear too and saw it this morning like everybody else. It's surreal – I'm speechless!" He likens Thursday's level of attention to every bit of press and runways show he's done since starting his label in 2007, "all added up together." Matis created the gown, in a shade of purple he calls orchid, "with simplicity and elegance of cut in mind, but mixed with texture and opulent detailing. I thought about how vibrant the colours would be, against a red carpet – when I design, I imagine the entire stage for a dress."

For anyone counting, should Matis get another surprise at tomorrow's departure, it might be cause for Trudeau and Obama to continue their ongoing beer-and-hockey banter and call it a hat trick.

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