When Prince William and Kate step off the Canadian Forces jet in Ottawa this week, the global fashion industry will be watching. Their laser-like scrutiny will not stem from any interest in relations between the royal family and its Commonwealth subjects, but from a far more practical concern: what is she wearing? And how can we capitalize on it?
Welcome to the incredible brand power of Kate: a young woman who can set a global trend on a whim, and a future queen who, in the world of fashion, is already an established kingmaker in her own right.
The industry-bending nature of Kate’s appeal has grown exponentially since plans for the royal nuptials were announced last fall. Back then, all eyes were on the ring, a priceless diamond-encircled sapphire, which once belonged to the late Princess Di. But while Kate flashed her new rock for the cameras, designers and retailers were rushing to knock off her outfit—a royal blue wrap dress by the then-little-known label Issa. The discount fashion retailer Peacocks produced a $22 copy, as did the grocery chain Tesco, which were reported to have sold out of their version in a matter of hours. The ring itself was replicated in every form, from gumball-machine plastic to a $50 “Princess” cocktail ring by Martine Wester.
When the newlywed duke and duchess of Cambridge met the Obamas at Buckingham Palace in May, commentators swooned over Kate’s tanned legs and svelte post-honeymoon figure. While Michelle Obama, a clothes horse in her own right, turned up in a pink bolero jacket and pouffy prom look, Kate stole the show in a slim bandage-style dress from the popular British label Reiss. The response was instantaneous: as demand jumped by 500 per cent, the Reiss website crashed. Tesco filled the market gap by immediately knocking off yet another discount version, now available for a cool $48.
More recently, Kate’s “new look” attracted more attention than the Queen’s horse (ranked a favourite) at the Epsom Derby. While the horse lost, Kate was unanimously declared the royal box winner in a simple white dress (another Reiss) under an ivory tweed jacket, nude platform heels and a 1940s updo under an elegant taupe fascinator.
Jan Marchant, buying director at Tesco, made no bones about playing the copycat. “Our customers love Kate’s look,” she gushed in a statement to the press. “She is now a true style icon and flying the flag for British fashion. Our similar dress is expected to sell out fast. Many women want to emulate her elegant look and we are delighted to offer Kate-inspired pieces at affordable prices.”
Kate’s accessibility and simplicity is what sets her apart from other famous royal fashion plates before her. Unlike Princess Di or Prince William’s cousins, princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, Kate doesn’t favour pricey haute couture or complicated design. Her tastes run toward simple, conservative and reasonably priced clothes. Ironically, this fashion-neutral stance is precisely what makes her such a compelling trendsetter: she is the girl who could have anything but instead opts for what most everybody can afford—and manages to look just that much better in it. A people’s princess in skinny jeans and mock-croc ballet flats.
Greg Kureluk, a software developer in Edmonton, runs Katemiddleton.com, a site devoted to all the movements and fashion choices of the world’s most scrutinized royal. The project, which he says he started “on a lark,” saw daily traffic of 8,000 to 10,000 hits from 85 countries during the royal wedding week. He expects the numbers will be even higher once the Canadian royal tour gets under way on June 30. Interest in Kate, he says, is mostly driven by her fashion choices. “She’s such a young royal, she hasn’t found her path yet in terms of charity work, so the interest is mostly in what she wears,” he said. “Even my wife is trying to copy the stuff she wears.”
And with so many international media coming along on the Canadian tour—241 had already registered when the itinerary was released—worldwide interest in Kate’s fashion choices will be high. Indeed, the trendsetting New York magazine has a “Kate Middleton Look Book” slide show examining each outfit’s details. And that has meant a lot of interest in the British brands that factor so heavily in Kate’s tastemaking. A cream Burberry trench and a black Libélula coat sold out across Britain after she was photographed in them. And a red pillar box Luisa Spagnoli skirt suit she wore on a visit to St. Andrews with Prince William quickly disappeared from the shops as well. “We have reordered 100 suits—that’s [$80,000] worth of stock,” a store clerk told the press at the time. “Since Kate wore the suit, we have been inundated.”
The new duchess’s penchant for seamlessly combining high-end elegance and street-level trends is in step with the current market. On her wedding day she channelled Grace Kelly in an Alexander McQueen dress that seemed to swathe the whole world in a romantic cloud of lace. (The dress, along with the veil, tiara, diamond earrings and wedding shoes, will be on display at Buckingham Palace from July 23 to Oct. 3.) But underneath it all, she had on White Gardenia Petals, a floral scent by the little-known British brand Illuminum that retails for just $110. Within days of an unnamed royal official revealing the name of the perfume, stock was sold out across the country, with some retailers reporting a two-week waiting list. As fashion pundits pointed out, the phenomenon has brought a whole new meaning to the tabloid term “Waity Katie.”
And it’s not just regular folk who are anxious to emulate the understated elegance of Kate. Chelsy Davy, the 25-year-old South African on-again, off-again girlfriend of Prince Harry, was recently spotted shopping in Kate’s favoured retail territory: London’s swish King’s Road. As Davy tried on a pair of demure black L.K. Bennett wedges, onlookers might have felt a sense of déjà vu. They were, after all, similar to the shoes Kate—Chelsy’s maybe future sister-in-law—had just been photographed in before and after her wedding. Just call it the retail equivalent of diving for the bridal bouquet.