Winds of hope blew into Maryland early this year with the historic inauguration of Wes Moore as its first African American Governor. With the hallowed Bible of Frederick Douglass elevating his hand, the newly elected Governor swore to “bear true allegiance” to the state and its Constitution thereof. Then, surrounded by dignitaries and introduced by Oprah Winfrey, Moore gave his inaugural speech outside a building built with the labor of enslaved Africans.
As the Governor shared his inspiring vision for Marylanders, his wife did not go unnoticed. First Lady Dawn Flythe Moore stood by her husband’s side, stunning in winter white. Wearing a Jody Davis waist-belted cape paired with a matching long-sleeved dress, Mrs. Moore was magnetizing. “I really love the way Dawn Moore, our First Lady, is looking,” Oprah commented. “It is sophisticated, it is elegant, and it’s also so now.”
The adornment of Black women is neither frivolous nor trivial, especially when the woman stands at the crux of history. Seen through the scope of its ancestral narrative, the gravity of the inaugural moment was not insignificant. The Annapolis site of the swearing-in of Maryland’s first Black Governor was once an unfortunate but essential port in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Just blocks away lay a dock marked by centuries of terror—a place where husbands were torn from their wives and mothers were violently separated from their children and sold into chattel slavery. And there, on this resplendent occasion, stood Maryland’s first Black, First Family. Delicately draped in cashmere, First Lady Moore’s regal beauty was more than a look. It was a statement.
Jody Davis, the creative mastermind behind the design, has known First Lady Moore for eleven years. She said her favorite thing about the look was the significance of the moment in which it was worn. “When I saw the first lady coming down the steps, that was when it all came together for me,” Davis said. “She looked so beautiful.” Since the dawning of the monochromatic cape seen ‘round the world, the name of the Baltimore-based designer has been hanging on the tips of some very influential tongues. Oprah was one of many onlookers whose curiosity she peaked. “I’m going to be looking up Jody Davis,” Oprah said.
ESSENCE spoke with Ms. Davis to learn the story behind the iconic look, how she cultivated a faithful base of A-list clients and the creative process that brings it all to fruition.
The reviews on First Lady Dawn Moore’s inaugural look have been incredible. What has been your reaction to the favorable response you’ve gotten to “the cape?”
You know, it’s strange. I have been asked that question a lot. Jody, how do you feel? What did you think? You know, that type of thing—and all I can say is, it feels as if I had nothing to do with it. I know I made the pattern, I know I made the sample, I know I sourced the fabric, I know I did all of that. But when I saw The First Lady come down those steps with a Jody piece on, it was as if Jody had nothing to do with it.
When or how did you find out Mrs. Moore had chosen you as the designer for her inauguration ceremony dress? Well, I’ve known the First Lady for some time now. She has quite a number of Jody pieces in her wardrobe. So, we already had a good collaborative relationship. I saw her and her husband at church, and I was saying to them, “You know, everybody’s excited. We think you guys are going to win.” She didn’t want to say anything to jinx it, so I just said, “Well, listen, after the win, we’ve got to talk.” And so after the win, she set up an appointment to come here [The Jody Davis Design boutique].
The first thing I did was close the blinds, and we jumped up and down with excitement. And then we talked about what she wanted to wear—What is our look? How does she want to look? After brainstorming, I went back and forth in my mind for a couple of days before I started draping the look. We were on a tight deadline, so timing was of the essence. Next, I went to New York to source the fabrics. If I had more time, I would’ve sought materials in Paris or Italy, but I was able to find this beautiful white cashmere in New York. It was perfect.
I understand that you got the look and feel so perfect that The First Lady asked you to design her daughter’s dress. Did I hear that right? Yes. While I was out there [in New York] shopping for fabrics, she [First Lady Dawn Moore] texted and asked me if I would also design a look for her daughter Mia. I don’t typically do stuff for the younger generation, so I told her, “You’re going to have to help me here.” And she did. The First Lady spoke with Mia about what kind of looks she wanted. From there, I found some fabric I loved for Mia’s dress and coat. When I got back here, The First Lady brought me one of her dresses to ensure I got the size pretty close. When Mia came to try on the dress and the coat, she started dancing—which is always my cue that a client loves a look. It was such a relief. I’m told it’s now her favorite look.
You have been quietly designing for the Black elite of Baltimore, Maryland, Virginia, and DC for the past 25 years. How were you able to develop and maintain such a loyal client base? Interestingly enough, I found my niche around, say, in 2013, when I did the ESSENCE festival. I had a very good family friend who did the ESSENCE Festival every year, and she said, “Jody, next year, you need to be there.” She described an environment full of Black women and Black vendors. I had already started manufacturing by then, so I was able to get a booth, and I set it up at ESSENCE, and that’s where things began to take off.
I have clients that I’m still shipping stuff to across the country that I met at the ESSENCE Festival. From there, it’s grown by word of mouth. I started to build my base with C-suite executives all around the country.
When women put the dresses on, they like the way they fit because I drape my garments, and it fits the woman’s body tastefully with class, style, and femininity. And often, when women have a special event—say, a speaking engagement or a business meeting- they will wear a Jody dress, so it just makes me feel good that my dresses help them show up confidently.
I spoke with one of your executive clients, Edelman CEO Lisa Osborne Ross. She echoed something similar to the miraculous creative process you described earlier. Here’s what she said:
Getting to know Jody coincided with my ascent on the corporate ladder and through its glass ceilings. I’ve often said to Jody, when I see a particular use of color or pattern or fabric, “What inspires you? What part of your brain told you to create that?” She often demurs and looks upward and around—I imagine to the heavens and the spirits that visit her.
Lisa is wonderful. And it is like that with all of my clients. It’s a thing I can’t explain. When I start work, I ask God to touch my hands, and beautiful creations come. It is really as if I had nothing to do with it once it’s all said and done.
Ms. Davis, you’ve accomplished so much, and your designs are beloved by so many. You’ve been incredibly effective at carving your niche. What advice would you give to up-and-coming designers who are still cultivating their path?
You know, no two paths are alike. The thing is, you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s probably for the best. And so, you have to take the leap toward your passion. And when you do, you’re going to have ebbs and flows, ups and downs, wins and lessons. You can expect it. And when they come, you have to face those challenges head-on. You have to take one step, then the next, and then the next. There’s always going to be another step. I’m thankful to continue to get older and wiser because you learn to take it all in stride.