Between Tr*mp, Br*xit, and the dreaded C-word, 2020 was, for lack of a better phrase, a total shitshow. Yet, through the darkness, the glimmer of a beacon of hope shone far in the distance as president Joe Biden and vice president Kamala Harris emerged victorious from the gruelling mudslinging battle that was the recent US election. Months crawled by after the premature celebrations with a mind-numbing web of lies, deceit, and failed lawsuits that stalled any hope, until finally January 2021 brought around the Inauguration. We finally dared to breathe the greatest sigh of relief. Among moments that were moving (Amanda Gorman making history as youngest poet to speak, with her emotive recital of “The Hill We Climb”) and meme-worthy (senator Bernie Sanders seemingly asleep in a chair in a pair of home- made mittens) emerged an unexpected breakout star – VP Harris’s stepdaughter Ella Emhoff.
Somewhat unassuming in quaint round spectacles, her head framed with a poof of curly locks, she stood quietly statuesque in a tartan coat from Miu Miu’s AW20 collection; just the right amount of glamour (a smatter- ing of golden topaz crystals delicately falling from the shoulders) and whimsy (a campy Pilgrimesque collar). Triumphantly herself in an environment notoriously re- served, publications excitedly claimed that ‘Gen Z had entered the Whitehouse!’ Her supposed eyebrow waggling at former vice president Mike Pence (which Harris tells Oprah was actually at her instead) instantly immortalised her as a meme. More discerning eyes poised to roll, but her representation optimistically brings hope to an increasingly disengaged generation of young people tired of constantly being lied to and disregarded.
Months later, connecting with Ella via Zoom (do conversations happen anywhere else these days?) she’s just as quietly magnetic and unassuming, wearing a blue knit cardigan of her own design. “It’s honestly been so hectic,” she admits about the time that has passed since the Inauguration. “I’m pretty much done with my thesis at this point, so I’ve finished my mini collection and I’ve finished my paper. Now that it’s almost done, I’m able to integrate more modelling back into my schedule which is obviously much more fun.” Much like the rest of the world, the 21-year-old, who currently lives in Brooklyn (obviously), has spent the past year navigating the unchartered territory of surviving a global pandemic, all whilst juggling her final year at prestigious fashion school Parsons and the demands of becoming fashion’s newest darling over- night. In breakneck speed she was signed to IMG, later starring in Proenza Schouler’s AW21 collection, and a handful of fashion editorials.
“It definitely came from my mom, she’s a big fashion girl,” Ella says of the spark that first ignited her interest in design. “I would always go through her closet and pick out different things, clumping around in her heels. I felt very comfortable in my expression as a kid, but it did lend itself to just wearing adidas track pants and hoodies. Still, I did always have a passion for fashion.” However, it was transplanting herself from LA to NYC – where “doing whatever the fuck you want is really encouraged”, she quips – that led her to finding herself. “I feel more and more comfortable to wear what I want and do my hair how I want, I feel free and it’s because of going to Parsons. You’re just constantly surround- ed by people creating new designs, ideas, and styling techniques. So, in the end, you’re kind of influenced by everyone, which is really refreshing.”
From the outside (or, rather, as far as you can see on Instagram), Ella is just like any other Bushwickdwelling art school student. Scrolling her feed is exactly what you’d expect: a mix of lo-fi shots of the model and designer’s colourful knit designs, cute selfies in said designs proudly brandishing her armpit hair (scandalous!), or of her litter of dogs. All pretty normal considered, even the chic snap at Proenza doesn’t seem that out of place given the city’s penchant for street casting. While some baked banana bread and others turned their hands to DIY, Ella got serious (or, as serious as you can get) about knitting during lockdown. “I’ve ac-
their hands to DIY, Ella got serious (or, as serious as you can get) about knitting during lockdown. “I’ve actually been knitting since I was 8 years old, not to the degree that I’m doing now, but that was the start,” she shares. “It’s this really relaxing and therapeutic activity and being able to create clothing out of something as simple as yarn is really attractive to me. I love the overall softness, comfort, and catharticness of it.” Initially offering custom commissions via her Instagram account – which blew up from 50k to 300k post-Inauguration and now sits at nearly 400k – she sadly, but unsurprisingly, halted that. A small offering of knits on shopping site Mall, were snatched up eagerly by adoring fans.
With 2020’s quietness supposedly inspiring GenZ to ditch digital life and embrace Cottage core (a romanticised interpretation of rural agricultural life) Ella is just one in a galvanised generation serious about sustainability. “I think this time was beneficial for the knitting community,” she jokes. Slightly more seriously, Ella hopes the world will take a breath and examine their environmental impacts post-pandemic. “All of this excess has got to be addressed, things like disposable masks have become obvious recently, but we can’t go on like this.”
It’s easy to see that Ella is – in the best possible way – a fashion nerd. “My roommate and I will have breakfast and watch all the runway shows,” she ex- plains. “We look really closely at the looks, but also the consistency of the brand as a whole, how it has or hasn’t changed.” She lights up while gushing over crafty NYC label Collina Strada, or her adoration for the London-based sister duo behind Chopova Lowena, and explains how experimental art shion brand Puppets and puppets is predicting the future. “People are really going for it with the things that they’re creating and I think it’s all in a push for post-pandemic fashion which I think is going to be a really big insurgence of people just dressing up,” she muses. “I’ve heard a lot of people saying it’s going to be like the roaring 20s and these are the brands that I would love to see people wearing.”
However, Ella isn’t just viewing the industry with rose-tinted glasses, instead reflecting on how it can be improved and more urgently needs to change. “The more you think about it, the more you want to be part of the change – I want to do things that are slower and more sustainable. But, I’ve also been ex-
posed to the downsides of slow fashion, the inaccessibility and the cost, which I think isn’t always highlighted. Ultimately, I hope in our near future that we will be able to figure it out.”
It’s a responsibility that she feels not only as some- body interested in design, but even more so with her newfound platform. “Sustainability is one of those things that I’ve always been interested and outspoken about, so it feels almost like my duty to do so. If people are looking at me and giving me attention, I might as well show up for things that I care about and are necessary and dire.”
The designer’s recent announcement of an up- coming collaboration with sustainable New Yorker Batsheva Hay makes sense then, though she’s not ruling out fashion’s big hitters either. “Batsheva is definitely one of the people I was so excited to work with because I feel like we have very similar styles and create what we want because we like it, not worrying what other people think. It’s going to be amazing to work with big houses, but I’m super eager to work with small designers and people along the same lines as myself, just beginning their careers.”
Surely, Ella is just too good to be true? En vogue, head screwed on, with keys to the Whitehouse. It would be salacious to share that she’s a diva or canned, but neither are true, she’s just very normal. Midway through the interview, Ella’s precariously balanced laptop simultaneously topples off the sofa and ejects her from the Zoom. When she re-enters, we properly laugh about it. “My roommates and close New York circle are very grounding because I’ve known them for years, some since high school,” she explains. “Throughout all of this craziness, they’ve been making things so normal in such a refreshing way that I definitely see them as my biggest support system – other than my family!”
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gods and their insatiable appetite for newness, it’s clearly working and Ella plans on continuing down the path to see where it takes her. “I’m so young still, but everything is really exciting. Whenever I get stressed about the future or what I’m doing with my brand, I have to ground myself and think ‘this is just the beginning’. At the end of the day, I’ve always got my ride or dies who will go through all the bullshit and craziness and just watch fashion shows or be goofy.”