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Harris’s Designer Joins Panel on Politics and Fashion

November 23, 2020 by Kate Michael
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — From the moment Vice President-elect Kamala Harris walked out onto the stage in Delaware for her victory speech, more than just her words were making a political statement.

Dressed in a white pantsuit from Carolina Herrera, analysts immediately began to suggest that she was both offering a nod to women’s equality as well as supporting a female immigrant-funded label. And thus began Harris’s role in fashion diplomacy, like so many politicians and political wives before her. 

Whether or not there was a deeper meaning in Harris’s wardrobe selection, it is true that fashion plays a role in so many aspects of our lives, including sustainability, social equity, culture, and global business. 

The Meridian International Center convened a panel of fashion experts — including Wes Gordon, creative director of Carolina Herrera who made the now-famous white pantsuit — to discuss the role of fashion in diplomacy as well as the current state of the industry. 

“I sat watching that night so proud and excited… The cherry on the top of the cake was that she marked this entire moment wearing Carolina Herrera,” said Gordon, who calls himself a “superfan” of Vice President-elect Harris and said seeing her wearing his work was “magical for me.”

“The House of Herrera has a long history of dressing first ladies, but never before this sartorial task. I’m as excited as I’ve ever been,” he said. 

And while he didn’t divulge whether the choice was as intentional as pundits wanted it to be, he did admit that the bow blouse and white pantsuit provided a powerful visual and emotional message. 

“It was more than a suit, it reminds [us] of all that has happened in history,” said Abrima Erwiah, co-founder and co-creative director of Studio One Eighty Nine, who believes a politician’s wardrobe is certainly about politics past and future. “Fashion does make change… and [Harris’s suit] gave power to everybody.” 

“Fashion is now a political, environmental, and social statement. It just is,” added Mara Hoffman, founder of her eponymous fashion line. “We’re in a space now, especially in fashion, that what you wear expresses your values. There are so many layers to a piece of clothing. What, and who, we wear matters, and our choices are signaling to the rest of the world, particularly in a situation like [Harris’s white suit].”

And while everyone is paying attention to what political women, and increasingly men, wear, its strategic role in diplomacy is growing. Politicos and their spouses have been known to send powerful messages through clothing, their choice of designer, and even where it is made. From Michelle Obama elevating the profile of young up-and-coming designers to Jill Biden matching her masks to her outfit, sartorial choices are highly deliberate. In short, fashion matters. 

“How [Harris] chooses to operate within… fashion is something that everyone is going to be watching,” said Aurora James, founder of Brother Vellies. “We are in a unique time where the nation is not only redefining what a vice president will look like, but also what the words classic and luxury mean from a fashion perspective.”

“People in the public eye, and role models for so many, are showing us how to be… and that includes how to dress,” said James. “My big hope is that she wears the [famous] suit again. I’m more interested to see how a woman builds and maintains a wardrobe.” 

James, equally focused on fashion sustainability and social justice, also predicts that Harris will join her 15% Pledge and commit to dedicating 15% of her purchasing power or wardrobe to Black-owned brands in the fight for economic equality. 

With the entire business of fashion affected by the pandemic, Gordon is just hoping that political women-to-watch will focus on supporting American fashion. 

The fashion industry “is having a terrible time right now,” according to Anderson, who makes Carolina Herrera clothing in New York City’s Garment District. “Using every opportunity they can to promote proudly American-made clothing is an important and powerful message.” 

Though “Made in America is not all made in America,” countered Erwiah. “I hope with this new administration, we’re conscious and aware of what is going on as Americans and how it can be used in diplomacy and politics. It’s all connected. We map interconnection with our clothing.”

So, the politics of fashion can be a bit contentious. And — despite the roaring approval of Harris’s white pantsuit — so, it seems, can dressing the higher ups in office be a blessing and a … bit harder to describe.

“Fashion… [is] not a frivolous thing, it’s a superpower,” said Gordon. “Michelle Obama’s impact on designers, and by default, the industry and jobs, was enormous.” 

The panelists unanimously agreed that having politicians and first ladies wear their clothing was a boon. Hoffman even admitted that the resulting exposure for her as a designer was a “very very big deal” that impacted sales as well as her psyche. 

Yet in the next breath, when asked about clothing Melania Trump, she suggested she would not want exposure from a politician or political wife that didn’t align with her beliefs, despite sales. “I want to stay as far away from that as possible.” 

“When [Melania Trump] has worn Carolina Herrera we’ve seen an uptick in sales, no question,” Gordon admitted. “That spotlight still has visibility in that role, in that office.” Diplomatically, he said the House of Herrera wants “everyone” to buy Carolina Herrera clothes and feel great in them.

According to New York Times chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman, who moderated the discussion, “Politics and fashion is complicated… but also fabulous.”

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