As I write this story about Ella Emhoff, four young women walk by dressed like Ella Emhoff. They gaze at downtown Manhattan through round owlish glasses. They stomp across the street in work boots and giant nubby sweaters, worn as minidresses with nothing underneath. It’s the vibe of a Ravenclaw realizing she should finally flirt with someone—and the echo of Emhoff’s own runway look at Miu Miu’s recent show. And it is, by Emhoff’s own admission, “just the weirdest thing.”
That’s because before the 22-year-old became the center star in everyone’s Street Style Bingo card, she was just an art school student figuring out her first post-college job. It changed when a lot of things did, on the morning of President Biden’s inauguration. Emhoff—the stepdaughter of Vice President Kamala Harris—wore a bejeweled Miu Miu coat and suddenly became an indie fashion star. Within days, Emhoff had an IMG Models contract, a bunch of fake Twitter spoofs, and a moniker as “the first lady of Bushwick.”
It only got weirder from there. In the past month, Emhoff has sat with Demi Moore in Stella McCartney’s front row, become the face of her adidas by Stella McCartney line, modeled Look 20 in Balenciaga’s recent collection, and hung with Timothée Chalamet at the Met Gala—again wearing Stella McCartney. “I don’t want to say I was nervous about all of it,” Emhoff laughs, “But… I mean, of course I was!”
Here’s what the Paris Fashion Week fixture has to say about her eight months of stardom, the tenuous links between activism and shopping, and what she’s hoarding right now.
You just became the face of adidas by Stella McCartney, but a lot of brands are hoping for your attention. Why work with her specifically?
Because she’s one of the biggest leaders in this push for sustainability. She was on the ground first doing it, and she’s not only creating sustainable products, but new materials [like mushroom leather]… She’s not just focusing on her own brand, but also the industry itself… I think that for actual change to happen, it’s not just one person or one smaller group of people. It’s getting everyone to do it. And Stella’s really good at pushing for industry change, and also, her style is great. It’s fun but also sophisticated. You actually want to wear it, not just because it’s sustainable, but because it’s cool… I think they really nailed that cross section.
You’ve modeled for several brands now. How do you balance a job based on looks with your own values about inclusion and taking care of the planet?
These are very good questions! I think being a model, it’s a little different from what the job was even ten years ago. I think modeling now is not just about modeling, but it’s about creating space for people who do other things, whether it be art, activism, writing, any type of creation. And I get really excited when I’m able to do things that, and work with brands that actually let me not only be the model, but actually share my own thoughts and have [conversations] like this where I can talk about sustainability and activism in general. And I feel like especially with this [Adidas] campaign, so McCartney chose a great team of people who aren’t necessarily models, but they’re artists. They’re writers. They’re actually have something to say. That’s what gets me so excited about the whole industry. I see my peers, especially people coming from New York who aren’t “models,” but they’ll use their own image to amplify their work and their ideals.
Do you have any thoughts about the positives and the drawbacks of fashion as a medium for change?
And I guess more broadly, what I’m wondering is, do you think positive capitalism is possible?
Yeah! You know, I hadn’t heard that term before you asked about it, but the more I was thinking about it, the more it was like starting to make sense. It’s definitely aligned with how we live in a society where consumption is something that has just become inherent. It’s hard to get by without consuming all these products… but all these products create so much waste, in general! And those detrimental effects on the earth make it even harder to live. So I think a lot of brands should be taking notes on ways that you can actually flip that narrative.
By asking, can we make consumption almost a way to reverse the damage that has been done? Can we make clothes out of recycled plastics and deadstock fabric, and turn them into things that actually remove some of the damage that the fashion world initially created? Without perpetuating a stigma that fashion or dressing up is “bad.”
Dressing up is great!
I think so, too! People love to wear cool things. People like to see what designers are imagining, and how that fits into their own life, you know? Style is powerful and it can really strengthen someone’s mood or identity. We don’t want to just chuck fashion, right? But if we hold brands accountable to help reverse the damage, instead of digging us into more of a hole, that turns fashion into a solution as well as something we love.
You’re a designer, too. How has working with designers like Stella and Miu Miu changed the way you work?
It’s made me obsessed with researching materials, especially the recycled cashmere [Stella McCartney] has been working on. I try and source my yarns as sustainably as possible, whether it’s by going to outlets that are going to just throw away all their yarn, or working with other brands to get their excess yarn, or using yarn that I’ve had since I was a child. It’s made me think more resourcefully on the ways that I want to package things… It’s made me ask myself, “Is this cool and is this helpful?” It’s been a big influence.
Wait, you still have art supplies from when you were a kid?
Yes. When it comes to art supplies, I am such a hoarder. In fact, if you’re an artist and you need yarn, look, I give so much yarn to other artists! But I also have materials I’ve been saving since I was literally a child, and when the opportunity finally comes up and I know it’s right for a project, I’m so relieved. I’m like, “Thank god I held onto this,” you know? So I have a hard time not hoarding, because sometimes, it’s useful!
Did you get to hoard your Met Gala outfit?
I sadly had to give it back! And it’s so funny, because I would totally wear those pants just out and about, and then I’d wear the body suit for a fun night out. It’s all things that I could easily see myself wearing. So I was I was a little bummed.
What about your prom dresses?
I was honestly thinking about that the other day. Because for my junior prom, I wore something that I would wear now. I went to a vintage store and found this $30 dress from the ‘60s that looked like a cupcake. It was the first dress I saw. I was like, “Yeah, great, done.” And I felt so good and so confident in that dress, and so comfortable. It was perfect. And then senior year, I bought a “cool” dress. It was very sparkly and sexy and uncomfortable. I immediately regretted it when I wore it outside…. You know, I was [at my parents’] home recently cleaning out my closet, and I found that prom dress. It was really shocking to me that it was part of my fashion history, because I knew it wasn’t right for me. But I also knew I should want to wear it. And now it’s just in the back of my closet as this weird reminder.
You’re keeping it?
I’m saving it! Whether I like it or not, it’s part of my life. If I remake it into something else, great. And if I don’t, it’ll be something that I can use to teach my children or grandchildren what not to wear down the line. It’ll have some purpose.
Your name has become shorthand for a certain kind of downtown, art-centric style. We could say, “That’s so Ella Emhoff,” and someone would know exactly what we meant. How do you feel about becoming a style influence?
That’s been really funny, because growing up, I never saw myself as someone stylish, at all! Obviously, I loved fashion and cared a lot about it. But I was really into doing my own thing and being really comfortable in my own body, you know? I never saw myself as a “fashion person.” [Laughing] And I don’t know if my classmates did either! So now…
It feels a little strange?
So strange. But it also makes me feel really good, because I was able to stick with my true instincts when it came to style, and it actually I paid off! But if I had to describe my style right now, it’s not even a way of dressing. It’s just wearing clothes that you feel good in, not really being influenced by what other people want you to be wearing. And also, not getting boxed in by what you used to wear, or what people think you would be wearing. Lately, I’ve been thinking, “Wait, maybe I do want to wear a giant skirt with a tiny little top! Who knew?” Because it’s not the actual clothes you’re wearing. It’s the confidence you have, and the ability to live your life, in those clothes.
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