As Kamala Harris makes history as the first Black, South Asian and female vice president, fashion leaders hope her style choices will make a statement — especially one that promotes American designers.
“I think she has a duty to uplift American fashion because by doing so, she adds value to it,” said Antoine Gregory, founder of Black Fashion Fair, an online platform that aims to bolster Black designers who have often been ignored or erased from history. “People who are in fashion place a higher value on European design. A lot of American designers don't get the same acknowledgment, the same type of press or the same type of visibility.”
And unlike multibillion dollar conglomerates in Europe, many American designers are small business owners who have been struck hard by COVID-19, Gregory points out. The fashion stylist and nine-year industry veteran said he hopes to see Harris’ style reflect the Biden administration’s platform of supporting vulnerable small businesses, especially those owned by people of color.
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“Ann Lowe, who designed Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress, never got credit for that. What should have been a moment that was the height of someone's career at that time, she was completely written out of. Black and brown designers have always been a part of the greater fashion landscape, but they have always been left out,” Gregory said.
But Harris wouldn't be the first woman of the White House to use her role to elevate young, ethnically diverse American designers.
“I think that it’s an attempt to unify America, not unlike the way Michelle Obama did where she worked to champion American designers and brands," said fashion and race historian Kimberly Jenkins. "I think she’ll want to celebrate the abundance of diverse talent that needs support. The United States is a tapestry of cultures and heritage, and I think she will want to celebrate that.”
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Jenkins, an assistant professor of fashion studies at Ryerson University, noted that the role of vice president is much different than that of a first lady, and people should not conflate the two. While she doesn’t expect Harris to wear her signature Converse sneakers at the inauguration, Jenkins predicts the vice president will remain true to clothing choices she feels most authentic in.
“Styling decisions need to be collaborative," Jenkins said. "While we see Vice President-elect Harris now in this very critical position, she is out on the front lines, which is very different than a first lady. For better or for worse, Black women are often looked to, to be strong for everyone else, much like what we saw with Stacey Abrams. We just expect them to be strong without nurturing them.”
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Jenkins expects Harris to favor sober colors and sharp suiting throughout her term, prioritizing a practical, comfortable and protective wardrobe.
Neha Prakash, the senior news and culture editor at Marie Claire, thinks Harris could incorporate her South Asian heritage into her style by wearing statement jewelry pieces from designers such as Stella Simona.
“There's a lot of second and third-generation designers who are incorporating the things they love about Eastern fashion and trends into Western clothing and fusing those two types of heritages. What’s kind of amazing about the vice president-elect is that she also is kind of the coming together of two cultures,” said Prakash, citing Harris' mother and father who immigrated to the U.S. from India and Jamaica respectively.
Designers Niki and Ritika Shamdasani created their brand Sani in 2017 to increase the visibility of South Asian craftsmanship and techniques. In February 2020, the two sisters from North Carolina clinched a deal with Rent The Runway and became the first South Asian-inspired brand available on the clothing rental app.
“There are so many examples of Western fashion loving South Asian influence, from the embroidery to the beading to the cuts. We are inherently a part of the U.S. style canon that exists,” said 27-year-old Niki Shamdasani.
“There are so many non-South Asians whose understanding of our fashion is just centered around the sari when the sari is one style of many," she continued. "It would be a dream to dress her for a more traditional Indian event, like Diwali, but then also make an anarkali for her for the inaugural ball or a state dinner where she would be bringing South Asian fashion to a new context.”
Recalling the uproar over former President Barack Obama’s tan suit, Ritika Shamdasani, 19, noted that White House style tends to lean more conservative, and that women are held to an even higher standard when dressing. The sophomore at North Carolina State University said that she hopes the vice president’s choices will be seen as an amplification of her values — and expand the perception of what an American leader looks like.
Regardless of which designers she wears, Harris has an opportunity to use her clothing to share a message.
“I just hope that she chooses things that fit into her story, and I hope Black designers are (part of that). She comes from a very rich background, and the strongest thing that you can do is pull from it. The images from the inauguration are going to be in history books, so this is an opportunity for a Black designer to live on way past whatever they decide their career will be,” Gregory said.
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