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With Kamala Harris and Jill Biden, Fashion Means Something Again

They started sending their messages even before the inauguration.

Overlooking the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on Inauguration Eve, now-Vice President Kamala Harris and now-First Lady Jill Biden stood in observation alongside President Joe Biden and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. The moment was not about fashion — it was actually about honoring and remembering the more than 400,000 people who died from the coronavirus pandemic.

But they still took the opportunity to send a message with what they were wearing. Harris wore a pale pink coat with a pleated back by Pyer Moss, designed by Kerby Jean-Raymond, whose fashion shows and philanthropy alike send bold messages about social justice, both in and outside of fashion.

Biden had on a purple overcoat by Jonathan Cohen, an independent New York designer who has been using upcycled fabrics in his creations, a practice that seems to finally be resonating with a larger portion of the fashion industry and its consumers. “To play a small part in such a historic moment left me completely speechless,” Cohen told FN post-Inauguration Day. “It was incredible to see so many of my peers highlighted, so many that I admire and know. They also introduced me to new brands I did not know of. I am very proud to stand alongside them.”

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From left: Emhoff and Harris, in a Pyer Moss coat, with the Bidens. Jill Biden is wearing a coat by Jonathan Cohen.
CREDIT: AP Images

Throughout the inaugural activities the next day, the two women of the White House — one there by tradition, one finally by election — made a series of sartorial statements. Harris wore a dress and coat by Christopher John Rogers, a New York designer won won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award in 2019 and whose vibrantly colorful designs have been at the forefront of a flourishing golden era for Black fashion. She brought her lucky pearls with her, too, this time wearing a necklace by jeweler Wilfredo Rosado, a Puerto Rican designer who has long been admired in the fashion world (he’s an Andy Warhol protegé and spent years working with Armani and Versace).

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Harris in a coat by Sergio Hudson and pearl earrings by L.A. designer Irene Neuwirth, whose creations were often seen on Michelle Obama when she was in the White House.

Later in the evening, Harris wore a black evening coat by Sergio Hudson, a Black designer who held his first runway show at New York Fashion Week in February 2020, just before the pandemic changed both life and fashion. Earlier in the day, one of Hudson’s looks from that very collection was seen on former first lady Michelle Obama: a cashmere coat, alpaca sweater and pants, plus one of his signature belts. “It was like winning an Academy Award when I saw her walk out in that outfit,” Hudson told FN. And seeing Harris in his coat later that night? “Throughout the process I thought about my mother, my sister, my niece, my daughters — all who are African American women standing on the shoulders of this amazing, strong woman that is wearing the clothes I designed. It is the epitome of humbling.”

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Harris being sworn in as vice president, wearing a dress and coat by Christopher John Rogers, with a pearl necklace by Wilfredo Rosado.
CREDIT: AP Images

First Lady Jill Biden’s Inauguration Day outfits told a parallel narrative, emphasizing women designers, more specifically independent ones. At the swearing in, she wore a coat and dress by Markarian, a small New York label founded by Alexandra O’Neill that has has slowly but surely built up a following who are loyal to the brand’s romantic shapes, bespoke-level attention to detail and sustainability-of-craftsmanship ethos. Her earrings were by Monique Péan, a jewelry designer who has bucked the celebrity red carpet path to focus her architectural- and geological-inspired designs on a smaller but more loyal clientele of intellectually-minded women. She also campaigned for Biden, designing face masks that were delicately hand-embroidered with the word “Unity.”

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The swearing in of President Joe Biden. First Lady Jill Biden wore a dress and matching coat by New York brand Markarian, founded by designer Alexandra O’Neill. She also wore earrings by jewelry designer Monique Péan.
CREDIT: AP Images

As she and President Biden looked out from the White House balcony on Wednesday evening, the first lady was in Gabriela Hearst, one of her favorite designers, wearing a cream colored double breasted overcoat embroidered with flowers from all 50 states (there was also a matching mask). In 2020, the Uruguayan-American designer won the CFDA award for Womenswear Designer of the Year for her painstakingly crafted, strong-but-still-feminine designs and is now the new creative director for French luxury brand Chloé.

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President Biden with First Lady Jill Biden, who is wearing a floral embroidered coat and matching mask by Gabriela Hearst, along with pearl earrings by jewelry designer Irene Neuwirth.
CREDIT: AP Images

Harris and Biden have distinctly and decidedly set the tone for a new chapter of fashion. And not just American fashion — though it certainly needs it. The past four years have been a drought for the stateside industry, as designers found themselves in an impossible political situation:  If one willingly dressed First Lady Melania Trump, they were likely to be shunned by some of their peers and consumers. Conversely, they may have lost some customers by not dressing the first lady.

For her part, Trump dressed herself as she had done before she arrived at the White House: with a personal stylist, her own funds and a style philosophy that seemed to focus on the surface look, not the story of a designer. She favored brands by European luxury labels, a choice that made its own statement and seemed to go squarely against her husband’s America-first mentality. Her last look, as she left the White House on Wednesday, summed it up:  Her Chanel jacket was impeccable. As was her dress from favorite brand Dolce & Gabbana, a choice that made its own singular statement given its history of racist, sexist and homophobic messaging. Her Christian Louboutin stilettos were still, after four years, impossibly high, slick and painfully beautiful. Her crocodile Hermès Birkin — a bag that regularly goes for somewhere in the six figures — was the literal icing on a “let them eat cake” outfit that summarized a Marie Antoinette attitude to what first lady fashion means to Americans.

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Former president Donald Trump leaving the White House with wife Melania, who wore an all-black look from some of her favorite designers: Chanel jacket, Dolce & Gabbana skirt and her signature Christian Louboutin stilettos.
CREDIT: AP Images

The fashion choices of Biden and Harris effectively pick up where Michelle Obama left off. In her time in the White House, she promoted not just the long legacy of American fashion through the lens of a first lady, but a sense of attainable but still glamorous fashion, wearing everyone from Prabal Gurung to J.Crew. The new vice president and first lady are now taking the messaging further, highlighting conversations on diversity, sustainability and support of independent and emerging talent that have already been underway in the industry.

“This administration already has shown tremendous support for new and emerging American diverse talent and companies. We are designers, but we also run businesses that support the American economy,” Cohen said when asked how the administration might support the industry. “Many of us work and support local factories and artisans in New York and around the country. By buying into a designer’s collection, you are also supporting an entire eco system. Seeing Biden and Harris in American made brands speaks volumes to this.”

The effects of Biden’s and Harris’s conscious fashion choices do not have to be exclusively American, though. The choice to lift up Black and brown designers and to promote women designers could become not just hallmarks of New York Fashion Week but those that could become more prevalent in Milan and Paris. Across the world there are independent designers, all of whom have been bearing the biggest burden of the pandemic (many are already out of business). The ideas of sustainability, in eco-friendly materials, in recycling and upcycling, in producing less and saving more, in reconsidering seasons, are all universal. (It’s also worth noting that the lack of of American footwear designers, of Black footwear designers, of women footwear designers and of independent footwear designers likely pushed both women to choose European brands.)

As the U.S. builds back its reputation and hopefully the unity Biden espouses, the global fashion industry might also look to the leadership and conscious fashion messaging from the new vice president and first lady on how to rebuild its own nation.

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