Traditionally, fashion has had a leading role in such an historic moment, but some question whether it should be discussed at all.
Even before supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol last week, voters across the country were reeling from the financial and personal fallout brought on by the coronavirus crisis. As the domestic rollout of vaccinations has sputtered and millions are facing another winter of working from home, the swearing-in of President-elect Joseph Biden Jr. as the 46th President of the United States on Jan. 20 will carry with it a large amount of solemnity.
Keeping things safe, understated — yet celebratory — will be no easy task. Billed as “America United,” the inauguration will have the irony of striving for togetherness while being socially distanced. American designers are usually clamoring to dress the incoming first lady, and that remains the case. But some of the designers who are in the mix were reluctant to speak about any specifics. While secrecy is always part of the big reveal on Inauguration Day, this time around representatives for Jill Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have made it clear they are not interested in conveying a fashion message, according to a few designers and executives, who were asked to submit sketches and designs for both women.
Team Biden and Harris won’t be the only ones upping the star status. Lady Gaga will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Jennifer Lopez will perform, though their designer choices also remain under wraps.
As reported, Ralph Lauren appears to be the front-runner to dress the incoming president with a suit that is being made in the former Hickey Freeman factory in Rochester, N.Y. While his wife has worn Ralph Lauren on key occasions, it seems Jill Biden has other plans for the inaugural. Designers who are said to be in the running to outfit her and/or Harris include Gabriela Hearst, Wes Gordon at Carolina Herrera, Donald Deal, Christian Siriano, Prabal Gurung, LaQuan Smith, Oscar de la Renta and Brandon Maxwell.
More names being bandied about as perhaps dressing members of the first and second families and performers included Joseph Altuzarra, Vera Wang, Tory Burch, Tom Ford, Michael Kors, Christopher John Rogers and Victor Glemaud. Executives at Deal, Herrera, De la Renta, Burch, Ford and Wang declined to comment. Some of the designers were unavailable due to travel or fittings, according to their respective spokespeople.
Members of Biden’s Presidential Inaugural Committee and staffers of the incoming administration did not respond to media requests.
Instead of a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Biden team has been planning a virtual “Parade Across America,” a “Field of Flags” art installation on the National Mall, and a “Celebrating America” prime time special. While there has been speculation about potential virtual dancing, that remains conjecture. The inaugural balls are believed to have been nixed, too. Congressional members will not be doling out 200,000 tickets to constituents, and no crowds will be allowed on the National Mall. Out-of-state supporters won’t be winging it to the Beltway — even Airbnb has blocked and canceled inauguration week reservations in D.C. Wednesday’s gathering is expected to top off with about 1,000 attendees.
Unifying is replacing reveling this time. One of the cornerstone events that is still scheduled is a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Ceremony led by the Bidens with former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who are expected to be accompanied by their respective spouses. A nationwide COVID-19 memorial to commemorate lives lost is planned for Tuesday.
As the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement officials track potential threats of violence, the undercurrent of fashion anticipation that has run through past inaugurations has been squelched. More than a few designers and their teams suggested that now is not the time for fashion, but not everyone agrees.
Reached Wednesday, Hearst declined to comment about the inauguration, as did Deal and a few others. As for the role that fashion has to play in such times of upheaval, Hearst said, “I can only tell you about our factory in Midtown, which is desperate for work. Like many, many industries, they are suffering. Our own town is suffering.”
”Lucky enough” to have been chosen to design a Biden-Harris sweatshirt now being sold by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, Hearst noted that everything is being locally made in New York “at the level of an international couture house.”
Addressing the idea that some believe fashion doesn’t matter now, she said, “To say that to this industry that employs so many people is a bit careless and dismissive. Yes, luxury can be hedonistic or a sensation. But as long as our species has had consciousness, we have been dressing ourselves and communicating through the way we dress. This is how we as humans express ourselves. We travel the world and different nationalities and ethnic groups have a way of dressing and expressing themselves that means something for their culture. Frivolous, hedonistic luxury that doesn’t really add any purpose to the world may be over. But [regarding] things that are made well by factories and hands that need the work, people are being too quick to judge.”
Having submitted options for Jill Biden and Harris, Smith addressed fashion’s role in the inaugural amidst turbulence. “It is a time of great celebration. It feels like a change is going to be made in our country with this presidency. With such sensitive topics and such a crazy year, at the end of the day the inauguration is a celebration. Less is more and elegance is refusal…even when Jackie Kennedy was first lady, they also had their controversial times in the world.”
Others, however, believe the focus should be elsewhere. “This is not where people’s attention is focused upon and nor should it be. We are in the world’s worst pandemic…hospitals are out of space. People are dying horrible deaths alone, saying goodbye alone,” former Vogue editor at large André Leon Talley said.
Despite that, photographer Tyler Mitchell’s cover shot of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris wearing a T-shirt, Donald Deal jacket, jeans and Converse All Stars for the print cover of Vogue’s February issue kicked off a three-day social media controversy about race, respect, appropriateness and artistic license. Hours after the debut, Vogue created a second digital cover and noted that the Harris team selected her attire and self-styled the shoot. Mitchell declined to comment via a representative.
“That print cover reflects the modernity. We must see elegance in a new prism. We’re in 2021 where the focus is not on this perfected sense of elegance. It is not imposed by the brand. Kamala Harris selected her clothes. Her hairdo is how she wears it all the time,” Talley said. “It will inspire young girls to want to become women like Kamala Harris. Young girls, who will be going into junior high school, will be going around in cool Converse Chuck Taylors and trousers. And it will bring back the trouser suit, which has not been on the radar since the Seventies when Yves Saint Laurent made it popular.”
Without question everything will be different this year. In anticipation of potential unrest in the Beltway, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser extended the city’s short-term ban on indoor dining. The city’s emergency measures will remain in effect until Jan. 22. The National Park Service temporarily shuttered the Washington Monument days ago, due to reported credible threats. The Smithsonian and other museums have also temporarily closed their doors. And with a new record for coronavirus cases in the District — about 41.2 cases per 100,000 people — the prospect of any large gatherings, inaugural-related or protester-driven, has set off more alarm bells with local, state and federal officials.
As an indicator of expected lost sales, hotel occupancy for the 2017 inaugural was 95.2 percent, according to Elliott Ferguson, president and chief executive officer of Destination DC. For the week ended Jan. 2, hotel occupancy was 15.5 percent in the District, according to STR, a company that specializes in data benchmarking and analytics for the hospitality industry.
Worth noting is the fact that in 2017, hotels had requirements for minimum stays of multiple nights and the 95.2 percent occupancy represented inaugural visitors and supporters of the Women’s March, among other out-of-towners. Of course, fewer visitors translates to lower retail sales. Tourism officials were unable to confirm reports that the inaugural typically attracts as many as one million people and can generate $1 billion in tourism revenue.
The lack of any formal events is another hit to the already beleaguered retail community. One New York-based Saks Fifth Avenue sales associate, who requested anonymity, recalled working with numerous high-profile attendees for the Trump inauguration four years ago. “We dressed a lot of the women including the ones who went to the party for the vice president [Mike Pence]. They spent a lot of money,” he said. “I haven’t had one person buy a dress from me for the inauguration. But we did really well four years ago. I sold more than a dozen ballgowns [as well as other pieces for attendees of the inaugural weekend].”
Along with $5 celebration magnets, $25 Fanny packs imprinted with “2021 Biden Harris inauguration” and a $155 recycled cotton blanket, online shoppers at the PIC’s online store can find $30 baseball caps imprinted with “Kamala” and a $30 gray T-shirt stamped with “46.” As of Wednesday, a $105 deluxe inauguration party box, equipped with such items as cardboard cutouts of Biden, Harris and the U.S. Capitol, was one of the few items that had sold out.
Like many supporters and staffers who are with the Biden administration, several designers being considered to dress members of the first and second families have only-in-America personal stories of their own. Although Wes Gordon now holds the creative reins at Carolina Herrera, the company’s namesake was born in Venezuela and built her nearly billion-dollar company from the ground up in the U.S. Gurung is another designer whose intercontinental upbringing and global philanthropy is integral to his brand. (He suited up Harris at the Democratic National Convention and helped design a billboard with For Freedoms in a battleground state before Election Day.) Born in Uruguay, Hearst started her own luxury company that emphasizes a slower pace and greater consciousness of what goes into fashion in 2015, after 10 years of working in design Stateside.
Hearst has dressed Jill Biden on several key occasions, including at one of the presidential debates. “Like many of the women who I admire, she has dedicated her life to service,” Hearst said. “For us, it’s always important to dress women or men who have a platform that is used for a higher purpose and a greater good. The main message behind what we are doing is unity, and this is even more relevant now. I think the president-elect and the next first lady can deliver on this. The challenges that we are facing as a nation and as a species — the environmental and economic challenges that we are going to have after COVID-19, we can only deal with them together. Any polarizing energy is only taking us back. If there is one message that needs to gain force and be taken seriously, it is unity.”
Speculating about potential designer choices for Biden, designer Kay Unger said, “Gabriela represents so many things that our country is about. I was on a call where she [helped raise] money for Biden, but mainly in the Spanish-speaking community. Her work in sustainability is remarkable. It’s less about the fact that she is the design director of Chloé and part of LVMH. It’s more about her and the amazing work that she has done.”
Without much detail about what Biden wanted to wear or preferred color schemes, Smith said he had to do a lot of homework to determine what would make the most sense, be the most flattering and stay true to his brand, which is known for unapologetic sexy silhouettes. That was a tall order while still dovetailing with “this iconic moment that she was about to have as first lady,” Smith said. “I did 30 rounds of sketching and submitted 10 to 15 looks. It was really hard, because there was so much to consider.”
Despite how glamorous fur is, that was off-limits for Biden’s attire because it is too politically incorrect. The color black was another pass, since it is not customary at inaugurals, Smith said. “At the end of the day, a woman wants to stand out. It doesn’t matter where she is in her career or in life,” he said. “Creating something that was fresh, young, dashing and sexy was a priority for me. Also, doing my homework and looking at patterns that Dr. Jill Biden has worn in the past,” adding that emerald green was used in the sketches as well as pale lilac boiled wool coats with silk dresses underneath.
Smith also created sketches for the Obama daughters and Harris. The VIP dressing team at Purple PR, the agency that Smith works with, helped to make the connection. Smith’s own team helped to keep his signature business running in New York, where everything is made and produced. “We’re doing our own thing in Long Island City. It’s really refreshing in the climate that we are in. I’m still receiving orders and selling out in the pandemic. There are a lot of businesses that have closed and retailers that have checked out. There are still a significant number of retailers that are supporting my business…there is always a time for celebration despite the crazy times that we’re in right now,” he said.
Different teams have been collaborating with designers for inaugural attire for their respective politicos and relatives, according to individuals who have been involved with the process. Representatives for the event’s performers, as well as ones for Hunter Biden, his wife Melissa Cohen, and Malia and Sasha Obama have also reached out to designers, they said. While Harris has worked with stylist Karla Welch, Jill Biden plans to hire a full-time stylist.
Not new to the world stage, the incoming first lady understands the rules of protocol, given her time residing at the vice president’s manse Number One Observatory Circle. Accustomed to shopping at retail, she previously worked with a personal shopper at Neiman Marcus and was known to shop local in her hometown of Wilmington, Del., at Peter Kate. The latter’s owner Sissy Aerenson did not respond to interview requests. However, in an interview with WWD in the summer, Aerenson described Biden as someone “who is very much her own person and has a great sense of her own style.” Biden has also been known to check price tags, too.
Biden has worn Ralph Lauren for key occasions such as at last summer’s Democratic National Convention. More recently, her chief of staff and in-house team has inquired about wholesale purchases, one source said. While the financial exchange between first ladies and designers has always been murky, First Lady Melania Trump’s stylist Hervé Pierre was known to shop retail — an anomaly for first ladies. Pierre was unavailable to comment.
Planning to attend the inaugural barring any security concerns, actress Vivica A. Fox, a major fundraiser and campaigner for Joe Biden, said, “It is finally his turn. He’s been very patient and he’s been an obedient servant for our country. His moment is being somewhat tainted by the craziness last week. He’s keeping a good spirit, staying positive and adjusting as we all are.”
Well aware of the street closures that are already in place in D.C., Fox said she was still hopeful that she will be able to attend, barring any extreme safety concerns. Fox joined Star Jones in cohosting a virtual private pre-inaugural celebration for Democratic donors for Harris Wednesday afternoon. Attendees paid $50 to be part of the digital festivities, Fox said.
If her trip to D.C. is a go, Fox has had all of her outfits planned for some time. “Oh yes, I’ve got this white Badgley Mischka outfit with this white hat. I’m ready to rock — absolutely,” Fox said. “I’ve got all my blue and whites sitting in my closet.”
Some speculated whether Harris’ niece Meena (who runs the Phenomenal Woman) brand will have any influence on inaugural choices. The same might be said for Biden’s daughter Ashley, whose team has been in touch with various designers. In 2017, the future first daughter launched a line of hoodies and T-shirts through her company Livelihood Inc. It is unclear whether that entity still exists.
In addition to Unger, a few other designers said they were contacted by various members of the Biden team. “Usually it’s whoever is in a lot of ways aggressive about it and sends sketches of how they feel they should look,” Unger said.
While she has dressed Jill Biden directly and indirectly (via retail purchase), Unger also pitched Tipper Gore and the Obama daughters in their White House years. She said, “You would send a package with sketches, photos, inspiration boards and videos of your work. Now you do it through digital communication. I imagine all the designers would be sending sketches and garments. It’s actually pretty overwhelming. That’s why they work with a stylist.”