Forget the romance, for many in the fashion industry, Kate Middleton’s fairy tale is a financial one. During her transition from “Waity Katie” to blushing bride, the soon-to-be-royal’s impact on sales and what we wear has intensified. This will culminate with the revelation of the Dress, complete with intense press coverage and soaring sales for its still-secret creator. But is hers a sustainable commercial influence, à la Michelle Obama, whose every sartorial move is still breathlessly chronicled by no fewer than 10 blogs, or will it fade with time? For British designers, to whom Middleton is bound by national loyalty, the answer is crucial.
When Middleton wore an Issa blue silk dress to announce her engagement, it sold out on Net-a-Porter, while pre-collection sales for the same label’s 2011 autumn/winter range went up by 45 per cent on the previous year, and a Burberry trench she wore last month sold out online within a day. And when the high-street chain Reiss re-released the white Nanette dress Middleton wore for her official engagement picture, the dress sold at the rate of one every minute. That sort of boost can transform a brand’s bottom line.
Yet David Yermack, professor of finance and business at New York University’s Stern School who studied the effect of Michelle Obama’s fashion choices for a forthcoming paper, “The Michelle Mark-up”, doesn’t believe Middleton can create an enduring phenomenon. “This obsession with Kate Middleton’s wardrobe will be episodic,” he says, pointing out that Middleton’s wardrobe has been in the public eye since 2003 when she started dating Prince William. “I don’t think she can morph into a fashion icon when everyone knows her so well.” By comparison, Obama burst upon the scene, taking people by surprise.
Yermack studied the stock price of companies whose clothes Obama wore – 29 brands in total. “The stock price gains persist days after the outfit is worn. In some cases, [they] even trend slightly higher three weeks later,” he says, noting that the market valuation of Richemont, the group behind Azzedine Alaïa’s label, rose by $1.1bn after Obama wore an Alaïa dress.
Other fashion pundits, however, think Middleton can do something similar. Valerie Steele, director of the Fashion Institute of Technology museum in New York, says Middleton might have “a tremendous influence. People are primed to look at what the princess is wearing.” However, Steele believes her fashion sense is still undefined. “She’s young ... it’s only now she will have a very visible role,” says Steele. “We need to see how she’ll grow into that.”
Julie Gilhart, consultant and former fashion director at Barneys New York, agrees. “She’s a beautiful girl but still developing her style. Kate may not have the global impact Michelle Obama has.”
Lars von Bennigsen, chief executive of Temperley London, believes Middleton will be “rather understated, independent and will not look to stand in the limelight nor fight to be recognised as a fashion icon.”
Mary Tomer, whose Mrs-O.org blog follows Obama’s every fashion move and attracts 10,000 daily visits, thinks there will be a “Katie effect”. “Just as Michelle Obama sold out J Crew cardigans, Middleton is selling out Reiss dresses,” she says, adding that the interest in Obama shows no signs of slowing: in February, a $24.99 polka dot H&M dress Obama wore for an interview on NBC’s The Today Show sold out within hours at H&M stores across the US. Tomer says: “There is an obvious parallel in how the public interest is playing out in the media and at retail.”
Simon Doonan, creative ambassador-at-large for Barneys, thinks Middleton could be the next Michelle Obama. Doonan would like to see Middleton continue to embrace British brands, but he says her largest contribution might be moderating the “super slutty trend” for young women. “It has been fairly out of control on both sides of the Atlantic,” Doonan says. “I think Kate will make girls think twice before dressing in a sexually available way.”
Steele thinks there’s hope, however, for a more racy Kate, as Lady Diana started out demure, and “then she looked va-va-voom, in Versace”.