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‘Someone Needs to Take a Stand Like That.’ The Creator of Kamala Harris’ Inauguration Night Dress on Supporting Black Designers

6 minute read

The politically savvy understand that fashion tells a story, and at the 2021 Presidential Inauguration on Wednesday, the wardrobe choices of Vice President Kamala Harris and First Lady Jill Biden reinforced the values and hope of the new Administration. Their clothing confirmed a return to the time-honored tradition of supporting American designers and reflected an understanding that what they wear holds meaning.

While President Joe Biden wore a suit, coat and mask by veteran designer Ralph Lauren to his swearing-in ceremony, both the First Lady and Vice President made a point of selecting young, up-and-coming American creatives for their inauguration outfits, with Harris choosing to primarily wear Black designers. There was a certain sense of poignancy when Harris, the first female, Black and Asian American vice president, appeared at the memorial honoring those lost to COVID-19 on Jan. 19 in a camel coat by Kerby Jean-Raymond for Pyer Moss. Jean-Raymond is a Haitian-American designer who turned his New York City headquarters into a PPE distribution site and provided relief for BIPOC and women-owned small businesses that were affected by the pandemic.

COVID-19 Memorial Service Held In Washington On The Eve Of Biden's Inauguration
Douglas Emhoff, Kamala Harris, Jill Biden and Joe Biden attended a memorial service to honor the nearly 400,000 American victims of the coronavirus pandemic at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on Jan. 19, 2021 in Washington, D.C.Getty Images—2021 Getty Images

Likewise, the symbolism was clear when Biden chose a purple coat and dress by designer Jonathan Cohen to attend the COVID-19 memorial service, and when former First Lady Michelle Obama, a veritable master of fashion diplomacy, arrived at the swearing-in ceremony in a plum-colored suit by designer Sergio Hudson. Purple has long connoted bipartisan unity and the color hearkens to the early suffragette movement.

Hudson, who also designed Harris’ elegant black sequined cocktail dress and tuxedo-style overcoat for the evening television special, said that being a part of this historic event was a dream fulfilled. “You always dream and hope as an American designer that your design could end up here,” Hudson told TIME. “But to see it come to pass, it’s just a moment.”

Joe Biden Sworn In As 46th President Of The United States At U.S. Capitol Inauguration Ceremony
Barack Obama and Michelle Obama arrived at the Inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021 in Washington, D.C.Getty Images—2021 Getty Images

The values of the Biden administration were subtly conveyed through sartorial choices; at the swearing-in ceremony, the First Lady wore a vibrant blue coat and dress by Markarian, a 3-year-old clothing brand designed and made entirely in New York City—seen as a nod to the administration’s investment in American business. Markarian is also made-to-order, a sustainable, minimal-waste policy that parallels Biden’s commitment to confronting climate change. The President doubled down on that imperative during his first day in office, recommitting the country to the Paris Agreement and canceling the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Joe Biden Sworn In As 46th President Of The United States At U.S. Capitol Inauguration Ceremony
Joe Biden and Jill Biden, with Kamala Harris, arrived at the East Front of the U.S. Capitol for Biden's Inauguration ceremony.Getty Images—2021 Getty Images

This careful use of fashion to project political values, as well as the selection of American designers, represent a return to tradition—and a stark departure from the fashion choices of the Trump administration. Former President Donald Trump wore Italian suits from Brioni, a move that critics said undermined his message of creating more jobs for Americans. And former First Lady Melania Trump opted for a showy display of European design houses and luxury brands, rather than publicly supporting American designers in the tradition of First Ladies past.

As the new Administration takes office, so does a new era of American fashion. To usher in this new stage, TIME spoke with Hudson and Alexandra O’Neill, the designer behind Markarian, about their designs and the future of fashion.

TIME: What did it mean to you to have your designs be a part of this historic moment?

O’Neill: It feels very surreal. I am beyond excited and proud and humbled to have been such a small part of such a historic moment. It’s truly just crazy.

Hudson: I have Black daughters, so to see the first female Vice President and to see the first Black female Vice President, it means much more to me than I can describe in words. It was an honor to just be part of it and to be able to tell my daughters that you can do this, because she did it.

When you were designing these looks, was it a collaborative process with Vice President Harris and First Lady Biden?

Hudson: We worked closely with the [Harris] team. They didn’t stifle me or my creativity. My aesthetic kind of met what they wanted.

O’Neill: [Biden’s] team was really lovely to work with and made everything very seamless and easy for us. We tried to be very thoughtful about what we were putting together—I wanted to make sure we had a really well-made, beautiful and classic look for Dr. Biden. We did pick the color blue because it symbolizes loyalty, confidence and stability, and that’s a nice message to get across on a day such as yesterday.

From a fashion perspective, the inauguration felt like a celebration of young American designers. What does it mean to you to be a symbol of the new guard?

O’Neill: It’s such an honor to have that kind of support behind us. Dr. Biden recognizes the power she has with her choices and how meaningful that can be to an emerging designer and American designers in general.

Hudson: For so long, African American designers were left out of the young American designer category, and I feel like this administration has taken note of that and is trying to turn that around. It was reflected in what you saw: Vice President Harris wearing Black designers during the Inauguration is amazing. Someone needs to take a stand like that; someone needs to say that young Black designers can stand toe to toe with every other brand out there.

Joe Biden Takes Oath Of Office In Capital Under Lockdown
Kamala Harris addresses the nation during a "Celebrating America" event at the Lincoln Memorial following the 59th presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.Joshua Roberts—Pool/Getty Images

Many American designers refused to dress former First Lady Melania Trump. What do you think this new era means for designers?

Hudson: I am hoping it will be more inclusive and not so “clubby” or “clique-ish.” I’m just hoping that talent can stand on its own.

O’Neill: Choosing an American designer, especially one that makes everything in America, supports not only that designer but also the number of jobs that come along with that, like the many different people within the garment district. That’s a really powerful thing, as well.

What makes you hopeful for the future of fashion and for the country?

O’Neill: I’m hopeful to have a really positive outlook for the foreseeable future—that is something that a lot of people can look forward to.

Hudson: It’s America. There’s always a chance to turn things around and a chance to make things new. To me, it is amazing to grow up as the descendant of slaves and to be able to dress the Vice President of the United States. In the same country that used to enslave us, now we have a Black Vice President.

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com