Ashley Biden is taping this conversation.
A publicist’s iPhone silently whirs away on the small, stylishly distressed cocktail table in the Hamilton Hotel’s swanky new bar, Society. We are here on Monday morning to discuss the staff uniforms Biden designed for the newly remodeled, rebranded hotel that had its formal unveiling the following evening along with drinks, a raw bar and a congratulatory hug from her mother, Jill Biden. As uniforms go, they are not particularly controversial. They are, in fact, quite nice: black suiting with linings printed with Washington streets and landmarks. White blouses have long, sweeping black scarf ties that can be knotted in a variety of ways so the staff can show off a little personal flair. There are also skinny faux-leather four-in-hands and an elegant black overcoat for the doormen when the weather turns cold.
The uniforms are an offshoot of Biden’s brand Livelihood, which she founded in 2017, with a goal of supporting criminal justice reform, improving childhood education and ameliorating economic disparities. In its fully formed version — which is a long way off — Livelihood will donate 10 percent of its sales to community organizations in designated Zip codes, the first of which are Riverside in Wilmington, Del., and Anacostia. It’s a do-gooder, made-in-America brand that has set for itself the high bar of being more than just a fashion label.
But there also is the presidential campaign, in which her father, former vice president Joe Biden, is leading in the polls for the Democratic nomination. Ashley has not technically joined the campaign — not yet. But that doesn’t really matter. Once campaigns start rolling, they’re like a snowball picking up pretty much everything in its path. There already have been stories asking questions about the status of her brand, how much money has been raised, where it has gone. Fair probing. Family members don’t choose to join campaigns. They are the campaign. The only thing to do is acknowledge this truth. Make peace with it.
And hit record.
“I’m going to make mistakes,” Ashley Biden says about building her brand. “I know there’s going to be that scrutiny. And right now, for me, it’s about building the team … a solid team that can help me make sure that all the ducks are in a row and that the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted.”
Biden established Livelihood after the death of her older brother Beau from brain cancer in 2015. Its logo, an arrow piercing a stylized LH, is a reference to how “we have to sometimes be pulled all the way down to shoot forward. He was my bow. His cancer brought me to my knees,” Biden says. “I had no choice but to shoot forward, keep going, keep aiming at my own dreams.”
To date, Livelihood’s only product has been a hoodie. Biden really likes hoodies and was in search of one that was perfectly comfortable but sleek enough to dress up with heels. This is how a lot of fashion brands start: The Row began as Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen’s hunt for the perfect white T-shirt and is now their full clothing and accessories line. So far, Livelihood is more of a dream than a fully functioning company. But it has Biden. And for a while, it had a lot of buzz.
Livelihood debuted in New York in 2017 as a pilot program with Gilt, the e-commerce site best known for affordable deals on designer merchandise. Joe and Jill Biden attended a party celebrating the collaboration during Fashion Week. The 3,400 hoodies that Biden designed and Gilt produced sold out, and Gilt donated $25,000 to the Livelihood Fund at the Delaware Community Foundation, Biden says.
The Hamilton Hotel made a $15,000 donation. And fundraising brought in another $10,000. None of that has been distributed.
“Once I get up to about $150,000,” Biden says, she’ll make an announcement about the beneficiaries. “I ran a nonprofit for so many years, and I know $50,000, in terms of economic development, within that community is not enough.”
Since the launch, she’s been working on the next collection — which might include blazers and really should include them because Blazer is her middle name. (It’s a family one.) She’s also working to find funding to build the business.
Biden, 38, does not have a design degree. She was approached by the Hamilton Hotel because it was looking for someone with an aesthetic point of view and a connection to Washington. The hotel also has a “Veep” suite on the 12th floor filled with props — such as the Oval Office desk — from the HBO show. So there you go.
Biden has a master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania. She spent seven years as executive director of the Delaware Center for Justice but recently resigned, she says, to focus on Livelihood. She speaks the language of social workers and progressives, acknowledging her own privilege — the kind that comes with her famous last name, as well as her skin color. Livelihood is a platform and eventually a website for discussing all the things that ail our society.
“I just want people to know about economic inequality. I want them to [know] the history of it,” says Biden, who offers a brief explanation of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in the 1600s. The upheaval helped deepen the racial divide, connecting whiteness with rights and privileges, and blackness with slavery, disenfranchisement and poverty.
“I believe that is the start of why poor, white individuals vote outside their economic interests,” and instead along social or racial lines, Biden says. “What are the policy reforms that are needed to change this? Everything from campaign finance reform to minimum wage to income tax benefits.”
Biden is talking about Livelihood and the brand’s outreach, but she could just as well be center stage at a political town hall. “These issues have always been really important to me. It’s what I do and what I’m passionate about,” Biden says. “My career is about policy reform.”
Biden remembers politicking with her father when she was a child: visiting different schools and wondering why some looked so tidy and inviting while others looked so forlorn. She’s been in countless parades, heard a zillion speeches, heard it all. Ready for it all.
“It’s a year and a half. Anything can happen,” Biden says. “When we get closer, I’ll get much more involved.”
The one thing she won’t do, however, is make Livelihood x Joe Biden campaign hoodies. “I’m trying to keep it, you know, bipartisan.”