The virtual Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night was a show of female force, with Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi in their suffragette white pantsuits passing the torch to a leader for the next generation, vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, who eschewed traditional red-white-and-blue for a purple pantsuit that made a statement all its own.
Before speaking about her late mother Shyamala, Harris was introduced via video by the strong women of her family — her stepdaughter Ella Emhoff; her sister Maya, and her niece Meena Harris, who said of her role model, “Now that I’m a mom, you are showing my daughters and so many girls around the world who look like them what’s possible and what it’s like to move through the world as fierce, formidable, phenomenal women.”
A lawyer, children’s book author and activist, San Francisco-based Meena Harris is pretty fierce herself. She founded the Phenomenal Woman action campaign and clothing brand out of the Women’s March in 2017, starting with a single gray “Phenomenal Woman” T-shirt, which quickly gained traction thanks to exposure from Stanford college pal Issa Rae, America Ferrera and others.
Since then Harris has grown the brand from a women’s organization fund-raising project into a significant business. Proceeds from sales of Phenomenal Latina T-shirts, Harriet Tubman leggings, Ruth Bader Ginsberg swimsuits, and “We’re Gonna Win” sweatshirts featuring the names of Sojourner Truth, Shirley Chisholm and Kamala, among others, benefit a range of nonprofits including the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, Families Belong Together and Black Lives Matter. Phenomenal Woman has stockists in seven states and an e-commerce site.
“Meena’s incredible,” said Emily Holt, owner of the Hero Shop in San Francisco, which stocks the line. “I mean, you think she’s a peer because she’s a similar age or you see her in the city or you’re e-mailing with her about sending some Phenomenal Woman T-shirts to Hero Shop and then — blammo — she’s put a full-page ad in The New York Times listing 1,600 men in support of Christine Blasey Ford within, I think, 24 hours of Ford’s testimony. It’s like, oh yeah, no, she’s in a totally different stratosphere. And thank God. Her energy and passion propel her to champion, in an active and immediate way, the things we all want to support but in ways we never even fathomed.”
Harris has collaborated with several brands in the fashion space, including Argent, Birdie’s and InStyle magazine, which she partnered with to launch her recent “Ambitious” pink sweatshirt. For the Biden/Harris campaign, she designed a shirt with her friend, poet Cleo Wade, featuring a childhood photo of her aunt and the slogan, “The First but Not the Last.”
Here, in an edited and condensed conversation, WWD caught up with Harris on Thursday to chat about her interest in fashion, the origin story of her brand, how it’s evolving, and her ambition to grow Phenomenal Woman into a content marketing agency and lifestyle brand she dubs, “Nike for Good.”
WWD: Are you are still on cloud nine from last night? The video introduction with the Harris women was wonderful.
Meena Harris: Thank you, everything feels so joyful and I’m just trying to stay with that as long as I can.
WWD: How long have you been interested in fashion?
M.H.: I’m inherently not a stylish person…if you go back and look at old pictures, or even from not that long ago, I needed help. But thanks to friends like [stylist] Karla [Welch], who said, “Let me help you.” But the one thing I can claim is I know a good thing when I see it…I am obsessed with that world and it’s so fun to toe dip. But in the same way I’ve struggled with calling myself an entrepreneur and my own insecurities of owning that, and society and men who make you doubt that, it’s the same thing with being a designer. I do have a good eye for what will capture the interest of an audience in terms of colorways or placement or how we message something. It’s really the intersection of product development, product design and brand messaging. I’ve become such a nerd diving into that space and love it so much. By the way, I’m still not willing to call myself a designer, but I’ve revealed to you it’s my dream!
WWD: Is your brand a product of a Bay Area aesthetic or political action tradition?
M.H.: I take pride in being a Bay Area native, I take pride in supporting brands that have meaning behind them — Birdies, Argent, Levi’s, which I haven’t worked with but I revere. The Gap. But it’s funny, the Bay Area is not known for its fashion. But I have also spent so many years in D.C., I thought San Francisco was bad, but that was next level! But it’s been interesting coming back to this new generation of d-to-c brands coming out of San Francisco, which is awesome. That was exhilarating to me as an entrepreneur.
WWD: You started Phenomenal Woman in 2017. You were inspired by the Maya Angelou poem, but were you also responding to the presidential election and the Women’s March?
M.H.: Oh no question. The first thing I actually did was start a pantsuit drive. Having been involved with the Facebook group, Pantsuit Nation, and been closely involved with the 2016 election — my mom, Maya Harris, was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton — we went to New York for election night. I had my new pantsuit, and my baby there in a white suffragette outfit, then it turned into something much different, which was providing moral support for my mother and grieving over the loss. Back in San Francisco, I was taking my pantsuit to the dry cleaner, and cleansing myself of it all, when I realized the Facebook Group was four million strong, and what if we donated as many of those suits as possible to Dress for Success for homeless and jobless women to help them.
WWD: The Phenomenal Woman shirt came after that, in the wake of all the headlines about women “failing to break the glass ceiling.”
M.H.: Yes, my mom said, “Can you really take on another shirt?” [This wasn’t the first slogan shirt Harris had made.] My dad said, “It seems too self-referential.” I didn’t listen to either of them! I started with our original Phenomenal Woman gray T-shirt as a vehicle to raise money and awareness for women’s organizations. Early days, all these people asked if I could make different colors, and at the time, because I had a full-time job, I couldn’t figure out how to manage inventory. But it ended up being a good brand decision, because when you see the gray shirt, you know it’s a Phenomenal Woman shirt. It created a community and identity around that. It was the right call.
WWD: How did you build your network of Hollywood ambassadors?
M.H.: It was leaning on friends of mine who had always been supportive, including of a previous shirt I made with the words, “I’m an entrepreneur, b—-h.” Issa Rae is a friend from college and America Ferrera through my activist work. I asked if they would wear another one of my crazy shirts and they said yes and gave me validation to go to other folks.
WWD: What’s the business model of the brand, and do product sales drive the advocacy work you are able to do?
M.H.: It’s more than product. We just launched PhenomenalMedia.org because there is so much we want to do on the fund-raising sides not through shirts. We have a “Phenomenal Indigenous” shirt, for example, and I have come to understand a lot of issues around native communities and would love to do more around storytelling, content and messaging for mass audiences around that. We did a campaign with a “Phenomenal Farmworker” shirt — we didn’t sell the shirt, it was purely an advertising campaign promoting an emergency relief fund, using the power and influence of our platform to raise awareness to our audience, and lending that to the organization doing the work. So it’s the intersection of civic engagement, political advocacy, product, content marketing and advertising.
WWD: More and more brands are incorporating a social action mission into their DNA. Toms was one of the first years ago, and another called Trouble that launched just this week to coincide with the women’s suffrage anniversary. What’s your POV on the category?
M.H.: Toms was definitely a model that inspired me early on. Why not tie product to social impact? Not only can businesses be leaders, but consumers are demanding this. People have become more interested in leadership, what does the chief executive officer believe in, and part of that is because of the work of activists. We saw that during the Black Lives Matter movement. You are out here making the statement, but how do you treat your workers, how many Black people are on your board? My mission is to challenge other businesses to do the same thing we are.
WWD: You mentioned lifting women up as part of your work. The relationship between fashion and feminism and politics is complicated. It’s come up even in our office, and we are a fashion publication, whether we should be writing about what Kamala is wearing. What’s your take on clothing as a political messaging tool, even when it doesn’t have a slogan?
M.H.: It’s tricky when you are only concerned about what a woman is wearing and not the substance of her speech. But there is nothing more personal and personal-political than your self expression and what you’re wearing and your fashion choices — whether it has a literal message on it or not. It’s about finding that power and confidence where you can, that’s an act of feminism. The pantsuit was historically subversive for women to wear, for example. And when I was a law clerk in Washington, D.C., there were lots of judges who still required their clerks to wear skirts. That’s not that far off.…But there still is that bias, that maybe you want to be subversive and wear a pantsuit but maybe not a bright colored one. You see it with the reaction to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her red lipstick and hoops, which is frankly racist. I could imagine a world in which Kamala wore a red pantsuit and lipstick and what people would say about that. So there’s work to do.
WWD: On the other hand, clothing — like everything else in our lives — is more politicized than ever, with mask-wearing, for example, and some schools and workplaces impinging on people’s freedom to wear what they want. Your brand got involved in one such issue with Kai Jackson, a seventh-grade teacher in Bakersfield, Calif., who was fired for wearing a Phenomenally Black T-shirt to school. What’s the status of that? You wrote letters in support of her?
M.H.: It’s back to the idea of brands being involved. We could have said sorry, here’s another shirt to support you. But we could also help her, even just by drawing attention to it. We along with the ACLU and NAACP have written a demand letter and her complaint is still pending.
WWD: Have you seen a lift in sales recently with the election approaching?
M.H.: Yes, we recently relaunched “Phenomenally Asian” and “Phenomenally Black” shirts. And we launched a Black Lives Matter collection. The casual, comfortable at-home clothing trend has been good for us.
WWD: What do you have coming up for the next few months?
M.H.: Where we have value is responding in the moment, being able to engage our audience around issues through our platform and merchandise, so I’m sure there is stuff that will come up. I also want to work on building our Ambitious Woman collection and messaging. The strategy I can control, and the number-one focus in terms of the election is voting. And the ambition stuff is tied to that. The idea of Kamala being on a ticket for ambitious women is something we should engage with more.
WWD: How big is your team?
M.H.: It’s just me and a business partner!
WWD: You wholesale to select stores, do you want to do that more?
M.H.: Yes, we do.
WWD: Any dream collaboration or category you’d like for Phenomenal Woman to get into?
M.H.: Tons. Number one, a Phenomenal Woman bra, which would be like wearing the Superman T-shirt under your suit. And ath-leisure for girls — girls is a category that resonates because of my children’s book, and we’d put that under the same vertical. Cute, basic, stuff that’s as durable as the stuff made for boys. Athleta is one of the few that has committed to it.
WWD: What’s your ambition — could this one day be a big clothing brand? And would you ever make a pantsuit?
M.H.: No question. I’m looking at a potential pantsuit partnership now. My dream is to be Nike, Nike for Good! The lifestyle and aspiration we’re creating is about giving a damn and social justice and civic engagement.