And what it might tell us about the next four years.
For the First Lady of the United States, fashion has historically proven to be a powerful means of communication — of values, of diplomacy, of how they really feel. And the public has long scrutinized the contents of their wardrobes. (There’s an entire collection in the Smithsonian dedicated primarily to their clothing.) On the eve of a historic inauguration, Dr. Jill Biden’s outfit was suggesting what she might want to achieve with her sartorial choices over the next four years.
The day began in Delaware, where President-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Biden attended a farewell ceremony at the Major Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center. She arrived wearing a striking purple coat with a velvet tie belt and a printed face mask. The designer? Jonathan Cohen.
Well-known within the New York design scene, Cohen is an alum of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, best known for his vibrant florals and use of color. Still, his namesake line is a small operation. By choosing to wear a look from his yet-to-be-released Fall 2021 line, Dr. Biden is elevating not only his name, but also his story — and his message — to a global level.
Cohen is Mexican-American, and his background has a strong influence on his work, both on a thematic and a production level. He’s highly concerned with sustainability, frequently upcycling old fabrics into new product through The Studio. (Dr. Biden’s mask — which is available for purchase on the Jonathan Cohen website — is made using a purple “micro dancing gestural” fabric from a past collection.) His company has a female CEO, Sarah Leff, and the two are vocal about social justice issues and giving back, which they’re able to do through their digital Flower Shop business.
People familiar with the thinking of Dr. Biden’s team suggested to WWD that she was “not interested in conveying a fashion message.” However, the office of the First Lady is wields a lot of influence — we saw as much during Michelle Obama’s time in the White House, when she set out to spotlight then-emerging American design talent, like Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung and Tanya Taylor.
“There has definitely been a significant increase in brand awareness and in sales,” Taylor told Fashionista in 2017. “However, something I didn’t necessarily anticipate was that Mrs. Obama would help us to understand the diversity of age, size and race to which the brand appeals… Mrs. Obama made fashion accessible to the average American, and as a result of her wearing Tanya Taylor, orders on our website have grown. The same goes for celebrity dressing; we were discovered by some stylists thanks to Mrs. Obama.”
Later that evening, President-elect Biden and Dr. Biden arrived in Washington, D.C. They joined Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff at the Lincoln Memorial. It was a somber occasion, honoring the 400,000 American lives lost to Covid-19. And with her look, VP-elect Harris subtly saluted those who have stepped up within their communities to help amid a devastating pandemic, and put the spotlight on Black fashion talent.
Kerby Jean-Raymond is arguably one of the most talked-about, exciting voices in the American fashion industry today, with his work at Pyer Moss consistently driving the conversation. So, when the VP-elect walked out in a custom camel coat with a beautiful wave-like pleat detail by the brand, many in the industry were excited to see him represented at such an important moment in history.
The choice was also significant and appropriate considering how the recently-appointed creative director of Reebok became one of the first designers to mobilize in the face of challenges presented by Covid-19, from sourcing PPE for medical professionals to offering financial relief for minority-and women-owned businesses.
VP-elect Harris will make history when she’s sworn in on Tuesday, as the first woman, the first Black American and the first South Asian American in that position. A person in that office hasn’t necessarily been the subject of fashion scrutiny in the past. Judging by her outfit on the eve of the Inauguration, though, it’s clear she understand what that means — and the impact she can have.