Squandering a royal style opportunity

Image of Vanessa Friedman

Recently, a woman in the midst of a career change came to see me. This former banker, who took time off to get married and have children, was on the verge of beginning a new life in the high-end fragrance business. Her launch product is a limited edition perfume called “Tiara” that will sell for $1,200 and features particularly glitzy packaging: nestling inside a white resin box is a glass vial shaped like a cupcake, “crowned” by a special silvery top studded with sapphire blue Swarovski ovals. The look was, she said, inspired by the late Princess Diana’s engagement ring, as now worn by the Duchess of Cambridge.

“I was living in London a year ago,” she explained, “and you just couldn’t get away from that wedding.” Admittedly, there was some creative licence being employed to turn the ring into a tiara but I got the point.

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of “that wedding” or one year to the day since Kate Middleton became a fully-fledged fashion icon, inspiring products such as the perfume above and causing those of us on this side of the pond to wake up at the ungodly hour of 5am to find out who made the dress. The ensuing 12 months have been so closely watched, Time magazine recently chose not only the Duchess, but Alexander McQueen’s creative director Sarah Burton, aka the maker of the dress, as two of the 100 most influential people in the world. As they said of Kate and her sister Pippa: “Other women aim to dress like them, to emulate their easy athleticism and their more problematic slenderness.”

Which raises the question: what, exactly, are they emulating (besides the skinniness)? What exactly does the Duchess stand for, sartorially speaking?

Not much.

There’s no question she has been good for certain designers. When the Duchess sports a design, especially a High Street design, it sells out – and so do the many copies it inspires.

Woe betide any designer who isn’t ready for the retail storm that follows a purchase, as Links of London found out when it hadn’t anticipated the craze for the topaz earrings Kate wore in her engagement picture, and customers ended up going elsewhere to satisfy their demand (Links estimated it lost about £8.2m of business).

You could say she has influenced the market but, even here, I’m not sure that’s true: you have to create a long-term shift in consumption patterns for this to be true, and that has not happened: a Reiss dress will disappear from shop floors after a Kate sighting, or an Issa number, but Reiss itself is not seeing an explosive change in its customer base over time. Besides, moving specific products is not the same thing as influencing style. And as far as this goes, I think the Duchess has been a disappointment. I think she has squandered an opportunity.

Her job, after all, as a princess-in-waiting and the current royal fairy tale of choice, is to represent an idea: of possibility (commoner marries up!) and modernity (she’s young and with-it!). And because she really isn’t supposed to speak, her job is to look that part. Her job is to define – visually, which is to say, with clothes and hair and make-up – what monarchy means to the new generation. And while her clothes have been entirely appropriate and often very nice, they have also been inconclusive. She looks great but unremarkable.

Before you take umbrage at this, consider: if you were asked to dress like the Duchess, what would you wear? Something with a waist/belt. Maybe a trench coat for day, or a draped jersey number. A little hat. Something long for evening, perhaps with a bit of sparkle or lace. Nothing too revealing. Nothing too glitzy. Tasteful.

Is that an influential way of dressing? No. It’s the refined version of middle-of-the-road. It’s wholly non-controversial. It’s dull. Do we really need a generation of “appropriate” young women?

Granted, the Duchess’s position is such that creating controversy is clearly a mistake, and I am not suggesting that she should go all Balmain safety-pinned-ultra-mini on us (even if that brand was British, and she could). But within the realm of acceptable there are many possibilities that could be explored to a more effective end, as assorted other women in the public eye have demonstrated.

Michelle Obama, for example, has carved out a style for herself that includes concepts such as sleeveless, pattern, and using a mix of young American and foreign designers. She has rendered all those things acceptable in a way they had previously never been in a First Lady. She expanded our understanding of how someone in that role could look, not to mention what they could do to promote local business, thus turning the age of voyeurism and information to their advantage.

Carla Bruni, meanwhile, before she transformed herself into an “everyday mom” for re-election purposes, transformed herself into the Jackie Kennedy of France, from her little Dior suits and shifts to the pillbox hat – Jackie K having been another First Lady who used fashion to redefine the image of her office (and she did when First Ladies, like the Duchess, were meant to be mostly seen and not heard).

Perhaps the best model, however, is the Queen herself, whose trademark style is as clear and unvarying as the head-to-toe colours she wears: box handbag, car coat, neat dress, matching hat and gloves. It’s a look developed largely in collaboration with Hardy Amies to meet the new exigencies of modern media – you can see and identify the Queen wherever she is, in whatever kind of a crowd – and has since been carried on by numerous designers, including Angela Kelly, who was behind the Queen’s daffodil yellow outfit for her grandson’s wedding.

This strategy of working closely with a designer to create a signature was also employed by Jackie Kennedy (with Oleg Cassini) and is one that the Duchess could have easily adopted, collaborating with Sarah Burton to re-imagine not just her wedding dress but her entire wardrobe going forward. The two clearly have a good working relationship and could have used the gown as a template for a new sort of royal style.

You get the sense the Duchess considered this – there is a lot of McQueen on display – but was worried about being seen as too partial to one designer and, instead, chose to play the fashion field. The result has been to dilute the effect of her choices. One year into her marriage, her influence remains an abstraction. We should expect more.


More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

For a slideshow of Kate’s looks from the past year, go to www.ft.com/luxury360

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