Creating a campaign wardrobe for Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard was my Empire State of Mind moment.
A Life-Changing Encounter
In September 2019 , I bumped into a presidential candidate on the streets of New York City. Hawaiian Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard was turning right to enter the Salomon Tower Building to interview President Modi, and I tapped her shoulder without knowing what was to follow. The first thing I did was giving her a hug and tell her, “You go, sister!” And the next thing I knew, she was asking me to design a selection of outfits for her campaign.
At the time, Tulsi was running alongside several other women, including Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris, in the race for the Democratic nomination, and it did not seem too far fetched to imagine that November 2020 might see the election of the first Madam President of the United States.
So even though I had an already-packed agenda, I squeezed in almost 20 flights in 17 days, between African, Europe and the US, to make it happen. As the founder of an ethical fashion brand, Maakola, I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to use ethical fashion to reflect a change of leadership that prioritizes the wellbeing of people and the planet ahead of partisan politics and profit. This was a chance to dress a woman who is one of us: a bold woman fighting for her principles and beliefs. But it was also an unmissable opportunity to explore — and shape — how the first female president of America should dress.
The Creative Process
The creative process started with learning more about Tulsi’s life and values. She was less well known than some of her other rivals for the nomination, and so I wanted to introduce the candidate to people who were not yet familiar with her, as well as presenting a vision of what the first Madam President might look like.
Until now, the popular notion of a president in the U.S. has been directly linked to men. So I looked at the American presidents of the past to see what I could learn from their outfits, before creating a fresh approach for a unique candidate: an army veteran and the youngest legislator ever elected in Hawaii’s history, as well as the youngest woman ever elected to a U.S. state legislature.
I wanted to create something elegant and minimal. It wasn’t going to be the classic power suit. Instead, I had in mind something that would communicate her personality through its strength and simplicity. Something, too, that would speak of more than our shared sense of style. Women of the same generation and both part of the World Economic Forum. Tulsi and I also share a commitment to ethical and sustainable production, and we want to be able to feel good about what we wear.
Tulsi Gabbard is a champion of renewable energy — in her words, “Reaching 100 percent renewable energy as quickly as possible is required to save our planet from the worst effects of climate change.” — and to this end she introduced the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, or OFF Act, in Congress in 2017. It’s something Maakola, my fashion brand, believes in too.
A Race Against Time
One way to feel good about the clothes we wear is to recognize the talent of the people who worked on them — and here, too, Tulsi and I were aligned.
Producing these four outfits was a race against time, stretched over three continents: Africa, Europe and the US. The first two sets where sewn with extreme dedication by the Atelier Barleduc, located outside of Venice, Italy, while the last two were made in Ghana by two different tailors, Adjoa Yeboah and Abu. Back in the US, Rosa Dodier worked with me on the final fittings in New Hampshire. We had somehow managed to create all four outfits in a week, and as Rosa and I sewed the final stitches, we were running on adrenaline, thrilled that the energy of five women across three continents was finally coming together.
In total, I designed more than 40 different outfit sets that combine blazers with pants and skirts. Of these, Tulsi eventually chose two.
Both outfits came in off-white, Tulsi’s signature color. It’s a shade that matches her outspoken nature and allows her to stand out. One set of outfits was made of wool, and the other a lighter weight cady. What they both shared was an understated design, and an absence of visible buttons, belts or pockets to maintain the sense of clean simplicity.
The first blazer takes inspiration from a man’s suit, with a defined structure and important shoulders to evoke a military look. This is balanced with a V-neckline to highlight Tulsi’s openness to dialog, and an elegant longer length. I was also careful not to seal Tulsi’s torso. Instead, this double crepe jacket leaves space for comfortable movement.
The second jacket is made from cady, a more delicate and lightweight fabric. The V line is very simple, with two cut-outs on the cleavage, and an internal button at waist level. This blazer is hip length with a vent at the back just like its counterpart, but is distinguished by the simple lines and a sophisticated collar made with the shimmering reverse side of the fabric.
The Race For The Nomination
Of course, we all know how it ended. A man, Joe Biden, eventually won the Democratic nomination, and will run for the presidency in November 2020. But I will never forget the time I spent on the campaign trail with Tulsi, who was the last woman to drop out of the race.
After the fitting in New Hampshire I spent 30 hours with her team doing town halls and fundraising events, and later in the month I joined her at the Democratic Debate in Atlanta. Seeing her up close made it clear that there is no distinction between the values she promotes publicly and the way they lives her life in private. That authenticity is what our generation demands of all our leaders now.
Everyone in the team had a different role, but we all supported each other with kindness. We hit the road for several hours, played the ukulele, sang, and had food in a parking lot under the moon. Away from the public light, Tulsi was a sister first. She brought me dinner when I was too tired to realize that I was hungry, and we trained together with her sister. And then, just like that, I left for Senegal and Tulsi and her team went back to Washington DC.