On the eve of the inauguration, First Lady Jill Biden appeared at the National Mall for a coronavirus memorial in a full ensemble, complete with dress and mask, by independent designer Jonathan Cohen.
The outfit signalled a return to fashion diplomacy: Biden was joined by Kamala Harris in a coat by designer Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, and the following day both Harris and Michelle Obama wore Sergio Hudson.
The selections marked a return to form for an industry that largely avoided any contact with the White House over the past four years: fashion coverage of the previous administration was rarely positive, epitomised by Melania Trump donning a coat with the words “I really don’t care, do u?” on the back.
With a new administration, the halo effect in both sales and press that accompanied the designers of the Obama administration may follow a new set of designers in the coming years.
For Cohen, the moment catapulted the brand into a level of fame few designers are granted. His label, which he launched in 2011 with co-founder Sarah Leff, has achieved all of the hallmarks of a successful brand: a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund alumnus, regular fashion week scheduling and celebrity cosigns.
Biden’s mask and coat telegraphed his brand and spoke to a larger moment of transition between administrations: the mask and coat lining were upcycled from past collections, while their purple colour represented a union between Republican red and Democratic blue.
“It was a very exciting honour,” said Cohen. “I thought it was a really good telling of what the administration could be.”
For the next crop of designers selected to dress the administration — from Biden and Harris to their children and grandchildren — the following years will grant exposure that no marketing or public relations teams can provide.
However, how these brands choose to handle the success, and the business decisions that come with it, remains to be seen.
Michelle Obama turned a cohort of New York designers into household names a decade ago, including Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung and Thakoon Panichgul. Several capitalised on their sudden fame, expanding their distribution and launching diffusion lines.
“It was wonderful for our business,” said designer Narcisco Rodriguez, whose clothes Obama wore frequently, from election night in 2008 to her final speech as first lady. “It was a profound change… it wasn’t just the industry that took notice, it was the country and the world.”
But though Rodriguez found success, the Obama stamp of approval didn’t shield him from the industry’s wider troubles, from the 2009 recession to the pandemic. He has put a pause on seasonal runway collections, though his fragrance collections continues to sell well.
Other designers said it was difficult to measure the effects of an Obama endorsement — and that’s ok.
It’s hard to quantify in dollars and cents
“It’s hard to quantify in dollars and cents,” said Maria Cornejo, one of the environmentally friendly-designers championed by Obama throughout the years. “My advice to anybody is to concentrate on the actual thing, not the press. At the end of the day we are creating desire, we’re creating a product.”
Cornejo said she welcomed the attention, it was difficult to predict when the first lady would wear one of her pieces. Sometimes, Obama wore clothes that weren’t yet available for the public to purchase.
“[Items] weren’t necessarily available at stores,” said Thakoon Panichgul, who dressed the first lady for Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance at the DNC convention in 2008. “It was more brand building at that point.”
Panichgul has returned to his label in various iterations over the years, from his 2016 relaunch with backing from billionaire Silas Chou to a 2019 rebrand with direct-to-consumer label Naadam.
It was more brand building at that point
Much like in the early Obama years, the economic climate for today’s independent designers is bleak. The pandemic and recession has closed stores and forced some brands to shut down. An Obama, Harris or Biden endorsement won’t be enough to counter all that.
Cohen’s business also felt the effects of the pandemic. Last year when news of lockdowns spread, he chose to not produce a fall collection, bracing instead for a rough year. The brand chose to collaborate with local brands, producing digital flower bouquets and launching accessories like flip-flops and masks.
“That’s how we’ve been able to survive this year,” said Cohen, by reassessing ready to wear and “really being able to hold onto any financial means that we could.”
Even with the momentum from Biden’s selection, Leff and Cohen are looking towards a path of measured, and hopefully more sustainable growth, than the rapid expansion expected for brands in the past.
“I think it’s about looking at the moment, but not thinking you have to stretch it out so big that it collapses,” said Cohen.