Meeting the moment.
That’s what the new vanguard of American designers thrust into the fashion spotlight during events surrounding President Joe Biden’s inauguration has been trying to do since their businesses changed overnight on Jan. 20.
For the diverse group of young talent, the race is on to capitalize on the media attention, satisfy customer demand for even a small piece of their brands, and get ready for the fall 2021 season, which officially starts this week — all while managing the harsh realities of working during a pandemic that has devastated the apparel sector and sidelined many of fashion’s bigger names this New York runway season (Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Marc Jacobs and Tory Burch among them).
“We got the call from Dr. [Jill] Biden’s team at the end of December, and from then to the Monday before the inauguration when I delivered the dress, we completely dedicated ourselves to making it,” said Markarian designer Alexandra O’Neill, who with her three employees custom made the velvet-trimmed ocean blue coat, dress and mask the first lady wore to the ceremony.
“I was designing her look and our fall collection simultaneously so there are elements they share.…We have a coat that’s similar but in a toned-down fabric with a skirt. And she had this really beautiful scalloped detail on her dress, and we have some different scalloped details in the collection. I can’t believe it came together so quickly,” she said of the lineup she will present Feb. 14 on IMG’s NYFW.com site.
Los Angeles designer Sergio Hudson has lost count of the number of his signature belts he’s sold on his website since former First Lady Michelle Obama burned up the internet in his aubergine super hero-sleek suit and belt on Inauguration Day. (He also dressed Vice President Kamala Harris in a black sequin cocktail dress and full-length tuxedo coat for the star-packed “Celebrating America” event that night.)
“We sold out but people wouldn’t accept it,” he said of the $295 cinchers he’s been making since a 2019 collection that was inspired by 1970s glam. “So we put them up for pre-order — and we needed to, because we don’t have any investment from anyone.”
“There’s an argument to be made that the inauguration was a fashion week in and of itself,” said IMG’s director of designer relations Noah Kozlowski of the hours Christopher John Rogers, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Gabriela Hearst and other American designers put into creating memorable style moments not only for the president, first lady, vice president and second gentleman, but for their families as well.
“And we have found creative ways for many designers to still participate even after doing all of that work,” he said of IMG’s weeklong, mostly digital New York Fashion Week event, where on Feb. 16 Hudson will present images of the spring 2021 collection he couldn’t afford to show last year, as a place-holder while he’s finishing fall.
While the designers’ struggles are familiar to those who understand the less glamorous side of fashion, their varied approaches to growth and to showing during fashion week point to how the industry’s once hard-and-fast rules have changed with the contraction of the media and retail establishments that once determined them.
“It was great that we could react and put the coat and dress up for preorder on our website immediately — and we did get orders,” designer Jonathan Cohen said of how his pandemic-fueled investment in his website allowed him to immediately offer for sale Biden’s unity purple wrap coat and dress, worn for her arrival in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19.
“All the less expensive lifestyle items on the website, like the hand-drawn digital greeting cards, the masks, the up-cycled products made of our fabric remnants, those are selling for people who couldn’t afford the $3,500 coat,” he added, noting average orders have been in the $150 to $200 range.
Cohen will present his fall 2021 collection to buyers over the next two weeks, but won’t show it to the press or public until May, when his first delivery arrives on his website. “We want to be more fluid in how we present our collections,” said the designer, who has been in business nine years, adding that he will mark fashion week by participating in a Feb. 11 panel discussion about sustainability on the CFDA’s Runway360 digital platform.
Designers are aware that financial success for those who get tapped to dress the first lady (or vice president, in this historic case) for the inauguration is not a guarantee. But Thom Browne, who dressed Obama in 2013, credits her with jump-starting his women’s business, and is now backed by Italian conglomerate Ermenegildo Zegna. Jason Wu, who designed inauguration night looks for Obama in both 2009 and 2013, shifted his business strategy in 2019, broadening his offerings to include lower-price items, and is showing his fall contemporary collection on the runway Feb. 14 instead of his luxury line.
At the time, he said he regretted spending a lot of money on runway shows early in his career, advice more designers seem to be heeding as the focus shifts from impressing gatekeepers to engaging more directly with customers — and ensuring they can buy what they see when they see it.
WWD visited with O’Neill and Cohen in New York, and Hudson in L.A., to see how they are basking in and building on their time in the inauguration spotlight.
For O’Neill, dressing the first lady as well as Natalie, 16, and Finnegan Biden, 21, was a multigenerational goldmine for her thee-year-old feminine, whimsical and wearable brand, which is all made-to-order.
“I still kind of can’t believe it. We almost doubled our social media following, had a huge surge of interest on our website and from retailers,” she said. “The ocean blue masks, we’ve sold quite a few. There was also a surge of interest in the Biden girls’ dresses because they were already available and it was possible to purchase those.” (Markarian gained 30,000 social media followers and mask sales increased 115 percent.)
Coming off the big event, and going into fall, it was a challenge to get everything ready. But quarantine did offer some inspiration. “I looked to Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis,’ which I started rereading a couple months ago. I thought it was relevant because of the changes we are going through personally and across the globe,” she said. “Ovid was making the point that through art and creation you can find salvation or an outlet. That for me was especially true. I found solace creating this collection through all the chaos.”
That will translate to a bit of classical Roman romance, with draped pieces contrasted with more structured column silhouettes, as well as plenty of gold jewelry and jeweled hair picks.
“Even if things change, people have been trained to dress for comfort. So I have our more fantastical bejeweled pieces — one velvet dress is completely Swarovski crystal-encrusted with floral fireworks and dangling chains — mixed with fancy PJs and things people can incorporate into an at-home lifestyle,” she said, adding that her bestselling piece, carried over from season to season, is a corset dress.
O’Neill is self-funded, and business is “not going as badly as it could be,” she said, laughing. “We were well positioned going into the pandemic luckily, and the fact we make everything to order, and everything in New York has been incredibly helpful.”
All of her wholesale is cut to order, too — but that business has been difficult. “We do have retailers who have been supportive and great to work with, but it’s taken a huge hit,” she said, singling out Moda Operandi and Bergdorf Goodman as loyal partners.
To broaden her direct-to-consumer offerings during the pandemic, she launched jewelry, a category she will be continuing. O’Neill is also interested in shoes and fragrance.
A silver lining has been her bridal business, so much so that this year she is dropping pre-collections altogether and launching a separate bridal collection instead. “That’s been carrying us through. A lot of girls had to change their wedding plans so they are looking for dresses more befitting a backyard ceremony, or civil ceremony or at-home Zoom wedding,” she said, explaining that she’s been taking private appointments at her studio (one a day) or video calls with clients.
While New York fashion has historically been defined by sportswear giants, O’Neill believes this could be the dawn of a new day, when smaller labels, made locally, are as much a part of the character.
“Fashion is changing so much — for the better. People are trying to find more sustainable options; it’s becoming more inclusive and a kinder environment, so that’s something to be hopeful and positive about,” she said, adding, “Success for me really is a happy client.”
“This is the little closet I have worked in for two years,” Hudson said of his storage space-turned-studio in Boyle Heights, east of downtown L.A., crammed with rolls of fabric, bins of trim, a sewing machine and a dress form made to Beyoncé’s exact measurements. (Fun tidbit: He used the same one to fit Harris’ tuxedo look.)
“The reality is, I’m an up-and-coming designer and we work in spaces like this,” said Hudson, who started his Made in L.A. label in 2014, had his first show in New York in February 2020, and has seen success dressing Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Amy Poehler and more in his modern body-conscious gowns and sportswear, despite not yet being stocked by any major retailers.
“One of the tricks is you find fabric that looks like it doesn’t stretch but it does, and make sure it has some weight to it. It gives you what Spanx would,” said the admirer of Azzedine Alaïa, Thierry Mugler and Gianni Versace. “I also use heavier weight lining that stretches as well to slim the body. And then you always bring attention to the waist, which is why I love a belt.”
Hudson had already made clothes for Obama before his inauguration triumph. “Meredith Koop, her stylist, started following me on Instagram, so I DM’d her and said I would love to dress Mrs. Obama. Not a month later she was reaching out to me,” he said of the relationship. “She is really underrated as a stylist because Mrs. Obama, she likes to look nice but it’s not her number-one priority, but Meredith crafted a style for her. It’s her work and Michelle’s confidence. Even during the inauguration, it was how she carried herself that sold it.”
Working with Harris’ team for the evening look, he used his signature suiting and tailoring in a different way. “The bad part about it was it was an inauguration gown to the floor and an opera coat of bridal satin. Then the insurrection happened, and it didn’t feel right for the moment, so we made the tuxedo coat to go over the dress, which they cut into a cocktail length,” he said.
The looks epitomize his brand of glam, he said. “What I did for Mrs. Obama and the VP is me; it’s what I do, so it wasn’t really a step outside my norm. Michelle’s look was direct from my collection. The dress the VP wore under that coat was my sequin signature dress. I’m an American sportswear designer, it’s what I do.”
Since January, Hudson has been getting so many e-commerce orders, he moved his fulfillment to his business partner’s apartment. Soon he will be leaving the “little closet” in Boyle Heights for a studio on Spring Street in L.A.’s Fashion District.
“We dress celebrities all the time, when you’re an L.A.-based designer that’s the norm because it’s easy for them to get to us,” he said. “But this…it was a change overnight. I’m still in awe. The people you admire forever reach out and ask to have a meeting. It’s been different. It’s nice to be noticed.”
The first two days after the inauguration, Hudson was stuck in an Airbnb in Atlanta, where he was shooting his spring collection to release next week. “I was doing nothing but press, I didn’t even order anything to eat because it was only me, and you can’t tell ‘Good Morning America’ ‘Hold on, let me get my food!'”
Being recognized was a lift after being forced to scale back during the back half of 2020, when he decided to sell a basics collection on his website, including his signature black pencil skirts, sequin dresses and belts.
“We are doing a full-out fall, which I was already doing, but now the pressure is on,” he said of the collection he plans to show in March.
Hudson is interested in speaking to financial investors, but cautious. “You need that financial push, you need the assurance for retailers you have financing behind you so that if they send you an order, you won’t go out of business,” he said. “But I have a mentor in the industry, Joseph Altuzarra, who told me don’t take anything before you need it. And I want to make sure I stick to his advice because he has been a jewel to me.” The two were connected through the Harlem Fashion Row’s Icon 360 Fund, and Hudson ended up being one of 17 recipients of the $1 million grant awarded in September.
“I’m a hard-working guy, and my team is, too, so we grind it out. I feel like when you hear everyday about people going out of business in fashion, I can’t imagine it. Most designers don’t know the craft of making clothing. I could never go out of business because even if I have to downsize to me, I can still put out a collection.”
Hudson’s dreams are big, and could even involve a move to New York if the time was right. “My goal is to have a legacy brand like Ralph, Donna and Calvin, to be one of those juggernauts not just because I want to be rich and famous, but because I want to be a beacon for my people,” he said, naming handbags, shoes and jewelry as categories he’d like to go into, in addition to home, which he launched early this year with Nefertiti embroidered pillows and PJs. “At least in America, the industry is opening up and realizing we have to be more inclusive.”
For Cohen, a Mexican American designer whose parents emigrated from Mexico City to Southern California before he was born, being part of the Biden inauguration festivities hit close to home.
“I wasn’t expecting how much it would mean to the Mexican community. Just hearing them talk on the news about it there, my family was texting me about it. From the get go, Mexico felt embraced again,” he said of how Jill Biden’s choice to support his brand resonated beyond him. “It is already going to help business relationships with American companies.”
The first image the first lady posted on her official FLOTUS Instagram account was of Cohen’s unity purple look. “It reminded me why I got into fashion, not just because I love the craft, but it can really send a powerful message,” he said.
Originally from San Diego, Cohen started his business in New York nine years ago, and like most has had to pivot during the pandemic.
“When we started, we were in my apartment — and now we’re back in it,” he said, laughing. “We had a studio, then in June, we said let’s save every penny.”
Peloton moved aside, and the first lady’s ensemble on a dress form in front of him, Cohen has been working on a table made from upcycled boat siding, which is appropriate for a designer who has made sustainability a priority. “Our remnants really saved us this year. We didn’t have to produce any textiles, we just used what we had,” he said, explaining that for the fall collection, he even sourced some deadstock from his friends at Carolina Herrera.
The fall collection will have nods to the Biden ensemble, because Cohen was designing it when he shared sketches with the first lady’s team.
“Originally, purple was in my mind for the collection anyway because of everything going on and I was thinking of suffragettes and what purple means,” he said. “That wrap coat, we had done blazers like it that had gotten good attention, and I thought we should naturally evolve into a coat. After the first lady wore it, we thought we should also offer it in other fabrics and that it could become a great signature.”
Last year, he began investing in and growing his website, opening a “flower shop” with hand-drawn bouquets he made himself to buy and send as digital cards, as well as other more affordable items, including fabric brooches and masks, which sold briskly after the inauguration.
“It was great practice for when our whole ready-to-wear collection is on our e-commerce platform and how we sell these expensive pieces to people we haven’t met,” he said of the inauguration hustle. “It’s been good for sales, but also from top to bottom.”
He’s encouraged by Biden’s agenda — on Mexico, on climate change, on bringing manufacturing back. “It was nice to see an administration not just talk about these things but promote them. They can wear whatever they want, but to support young talent.…I hope these conversations continue, and people understand these fashion brands are businesses, run by real people.”
As for how he sees the landscape of New York fashion changing, he said, “We are learning we don’t have to be these juggernauts right away, and can take time to focus on our businesses and look at them realistically and where they are at. We have been in business nine years, and I don’t know how I would have handled this before now. We have gone through a lot and were able to be leveled and practical with the moment,” he said.
He wants to continue the slow-and-steady approach, even in the midst of the newfound attention. “We’re not thinking now we have to go open a store and go back to doing runways — we won’t be shifting our business model,” Cohen said. “What we have realized is we are telling our story. We are not stuck in anyone else’s right or wrong. Fashion moves quickly, you can’t get wrapped up in what it was.”
Updated 2:40 p.m. to correct information about Jason Wu’s brand, which sells luxury as well as contemporary clothing.