“You think I look insane, but I’m the most normal-looking girl in Bushwick.” So declared the comedian Chloe Fineman, parodying Ella Emhoff at a Passover Seder, on the March 27 episode of Saturday Night Live. “Momala’s serving matzo while I’m serving looks.” The Twittersphere, feeling terribly seen, went berserk: “Bushwick just exploded,” reported one user.
The profile of the 21-year-old stepdaughter of Vice President Kamala Harris has been rising steadily since the presidential inauguration, when the Brooklyn-based college student raised eyebrows with the kind of frumpy clothes and granny glasses more predictably seen on members of the Greatest Generation. (The crystal-shouldered tartan coat was Miu Miu, and the ruffled burgundy taffeta gown was Batsheva, but still.) S.N.L.’s anointment made it clear: Ella Emhoff has staked her place in the national conversation. But what are we to make of her?
Although now a leading proponent of Napoleon Dynamite chic, Emhoff is a relative newbie to hipster New York. She grew up on the west side of Los Angeles and attended Wildwood, a progressive private school that counts Rumer Willis, Amandla Stenberg, and Zoe Kazan among its alumni. Emhoff’s father, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, was an entertainment lawyer at the large corporate firm DLA Piper in a previous life, and her mother, Kerstin Emhoff, is a film producer known mostly for shorts and documentaries.
A leading proponent of Napoleon Dynamite chic.
Ella was a relatively minor figure on the campaign trail, known mostly for the fact that she and her older brother, Cole, refer to their father as “Douglas,” “Doug,” or “Dougie.” Perhaps that’s because she was chronically upstaged by Meena Harris, the media-savvy and entrepreneurial niece of Kamala Harris, who was already a bit of an Internet personality thanks to her stint at Uber and her Phenomenal brand, which hawks T-shirts with empowering slogans that reflect various social-activism moments. (In February, around the time of a press blitz for her second children’s book, Ambitious Girl, Meena Harris was strongly chastised by the Biden administration for trading on her proximity to her aunt.)
But now Emhoff is the star. A senior at Parsons School of Design, she studies fine art with a focus on textiles. Her inauguration look was enough to solicit the interest of IMG Models, which promptly signed her to its development board. “Ella communicates this moment in time. There’s a cheekiness and a joy she exudes,” Ivan Bart—the president of IMG Models, who also represents Gigi Hadid and Hailey Bieber—rather grandly told The New York Times. When he saw her at the swearing-in, he thought, “Wow, she’s communicating fashion.”
Within weeks, Emhoff was modeling an ironically Jessica Rabbit–esque pleather trench and Seussian spectacles for Proenza Schouler’s fall ’21 lookbook—“Seemed like everyone was kind of talking about her,” explained designer Jack McCollough—and gracing the cover of a magazine called Dust. For that, she wore a sweater of her own design, embroidered with a bow-tie-wearing teddy bear and the phrase “Vegan Diet w/ Mom.”
In fact, the launch of her five-item knitwear collection—which looked suspiciously like a senior-thesis project—garnered 12 paragraphs in the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times. The pieces, including the bluntly named “Flower Boob Sweater Vest,” quickly sold out. Her weekend strolls around town are now of interest to the Daily Mail, and her rumored new boyfriend, Sam Hine, the equally eccentrically dressed senior associate style editor of GQ, is buzzed about by “Page Six.”
On Instagram, where Emhoff has 396,000 followers, she’s a welcome—if a bit comedic—antidote to the hyper-sexual, Kardashian-inspired aesthetic of Juvedermed lips, sink shots, and Vaseline-on-the-lens filters espoused by so many in her demographic. Yes, Emhoff’s account is heavy on the selfies—generational hazard—but her knitwear is usually front and center. Her expressions hew toward the plaintive and pensive rather than the “Come hither.” And one shot of her in a checkerboard triangle-bikini top reveals that she has a French attitude toward armpit hair and several tattoos, including a cow on her left bicep and a rabbit on her sternum, near her breasts.
New York It Girls are not always anointed by logic. More often, they seem to just … be there, perfectly embodying the vibes of the era. When Chloë Sevigny first emerged, in the mid-90s, it was due to a small role in Larry Clark’s film Kids, which was newsworthy mostly due to its NC-17 rating. Nobody at Don Hill’s seemed to notice that she was a bourgeois prep-schooler from Darien, Connecticut. A decade later, an ambitious party-goer named Olivia Palermo rose to prominence over a much-publicized turf war with reigning social queen Lauren Santo Domingo. Most recently, grifter Anna Delvey charmed and confounded le tout Lower Manhattan by pretending to be a philanthropically minded German heiress. (It all ended in jail time but also a Netflix deal.)
Now Emhoff—the woman who enjoys making clothes from what look like your great-grandmother’s hand-knit tea cozies, while trying to look like she’s just another struggling Bushwick kid, when in reality she’s got a trust fund—is the one to watch. In just a few months, she’ll graduate from Parsons. Will IMG find a backer for her first full-fledged fashion collection? And maybe simultaneously land her the cover of Paper or an endorsement deal with Vans? Meanwhile, in Washington power circles, a beautiful and accomplished but terribly conventional social worker named Ashley Biden remains relatively under the radar. Might we suggest learning to crochet?
Ashley Baker is the Style Editor for Air Mail