Meghan knows how to bump up her ratings in the fashion world
Ever since Diana was branded a fashaholic, royalty has been cautious, but the Duchess of Sussex is changing that
Awards rarely throw up any major surprises, but the Duchess of Sussex’s appearance at Monday night’s fashion shindig to present Clare Waight Keller, author of her Givenchy wedding dress, with British Womenswear Designer of the Year was a genuine marmalade-dropping moment.
As the duchess – in a black velvet, one-shoulder, floor-length Givenchy gown – glided on to the stage, she was greeted with rockstar-worthy applause and actual screams of excitement.
At a fashion event where everyone affects to have been there and done that, the yelps of joy were astonishing in themselves.
It’s worth saying the fashion industry has always had a slightly conflicted view of the Duchess of Cambridge, who despite not being particularly interested in high fashion, consistently tops the public’s poll of best-dressed women.
Meghan, on the other hand, is so clearly eager to embrace – and be embraced by – high fashion that the industry almost universally loves her.
The fact that she chose to attend the awards – an evening that, until 10 years ago, was mainly graced by actors from Hollyoaks and primarily funded by high-street chains – will flatter the industry and help cement the awards as the major event in the global fashion calendar.
Take that, Dame Anna Wintour and your Met Ball, with its freakish dress code.
The warmth in the Royal Albert Hall partly explains why the duchess, with what looked like only a few token nerves, paused briefly, cradling her burgeoning bump with a pronounced two-arm swaddle, to acknowledge the scale of the evening, or maybe for dramatic effect, before remarking how nice it was “to see so many familiar faces. Many of you I’ve known for a long while and a lot of you I’ve been able to meet in the last year.”
What? Who has she been meeting – apart from Clare Waight Keller, who revealed on stage that she had seen the duchess only last week?
Has Meghan been interviewing the editors of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue before weighing up which cover she’ll eventually grace? Has she visited the Mert and Marcus studios, the edgy duo who won the Isabella Blow Award for creativity for groundbreaking fashion shoots? Debatable, but the subtext is: this duchess is not intimidated by anyone (even the sneeriest fashionista) and fully intends to get her head around the complex codes of the fashion world and use them to maximum advantage.
It’s all in marked contrast to the Duchess of Cambridge’s more traditional sartorial habits.
When I interviewed Carole Middleton recently, she asked me if I thought fashion was important; she clearly hadn’t thought of the industry in terms of “empowering or supporting women”, as Meghan does. She’s far more concerned with finding a flattering outfit that won’t cost an arm and a leg.
I suspect her daughters take a similar approach, although Kate has noticeably raised her game since Meghan joined the Firm.
Without wanting to fuel an age-old debate about the state of the women’s relationship, the Duchess of Sussex’s relaxed, knowing vibe, completely in sync with the tone of the evening is from a different world than the Duchess of Cambridge, who has always distanced herself from anything that could come across as elitist (except the monarchy).
It’s easy to see how the differences between the two provide royal observers with plenty of ammunition.
Much of this plays out in the arena of their wardrobes. Kate was propelled into the royal story as a biddable young undergraduate, anxious to play by the rules, while Meghan arrived with her own script.
Ever since the latter revealed Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was her “everything style goals” (she said this before she became engaged, but the quotes were inevitably freighted with much more significance as time went on) we knew that she planned to do royal dressing her way – with a strong international-fashion-glamour flavour.
What was interesting about Monday’s speech – delivered without notes or autocue – was that it referenced many of fashion’s buzzwords on social inclusion and empowerment.
“As all of you in this room know,” said the duchess (note the flattery and tone of complicity; this is someone who understands how fashion likes to view itself), “we have a deep connection to what we wear. Sometimes it’s personal, sometimes it’s emotional but for me [it] is rooted in really being able to understand [that] it’s about supporting and empowering each other, especially as women.”
Her mere presence at a ceremony that unashamedly celebrates high-end creativity (gone are the days when the awards assiduously nominated high-street brands) is notable.
Ever since Diana, Princess of Wales, was branded a fashaholic in the 1980s and lambasted for overspending, British royalty has been careful to display an appropriate level of frugality – whatever appropriate means, as Prince Charles might say.
Actually, he doesn’t seem to have got the frugal memo, but he’s a man, so no one’s scrutinising how many Savile Row suits he orders a year.
Unlike her sister-in-law, however, the Duchess of Sussex doesn’t seem to have read it either. Or if she did, she tore it up.
Since parachuting into the royal arena a year ago, Meghan has identified fashion’s current preoccupations with diversity and kindness and meshed them with her own agenda of helping women across the world.
“I read an article recently,” she said (cue more speculation: which publications is she reading?), “that said: ‘The culture of fashion is shifting. It used to be cool to be cruel. Now it’s cool to be kind.’ To that point,” she continued, “I feel especially proud to announce tonight’s winner, who is a British designer leading on the global stage with vision and creativity, but also with incredible kindness.”
She was talking about Clare Waight Keller, who does indeed seem to be kind as well as exceptionally self-effacing.
And in making her patronage of Waight Keller (and by extension Givenchy) about supporting a hardworking woman at the top of a tough industry, the duchess may just have outwitted critics who complain about the very high prices of her clothes.
Only time will tell.
– © The Daily Telegraph