Heir to the fashion throne: Meghan Markle has inherited Diana's crown as the industry's favourite royal
After wowing the audience with a surprise appearance at the British Fashion Awards, the new duchess has inherited Diana’s crown as the industry’s favourite royal, writes Lisa Armstrong
Awards rarely throw up any major surprises, but the Meghan Markle’s appearance on the stage of London’s Royal Albert Hall on Monday night to present Clare Waight Keller, author of her Givenchy wedding dress in May, with British Womenswear Designer of the Year, was a genuine marmalade-dropper.
As the duchess, in a black velvet one-shoulder floor-length Givenchy gown glided on to the stage, (seemingly pretty much in her element) she was greeted with rock star worthy applause and actual screams of excitement, upstaging all the preceding presenters, from Vivienne Westwood and Robert Pattison to Saoirse Ronan and Rosamund Pike.
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 that the fashion industry has always had a slightly conflicted view of Kate Middleton 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, the industry almost universally loves her. The fact that she chose to attend the Fashion Awards — an evening that until 10 years ago was mainly graced by presenters 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, Anna Wintour and your Met Ball, with its freakish dress codes.
The warmth in the hall partly explains why Meghan, 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 Meghan only last week (we can probably deduce the two have been planning more Givenchy outfits), 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 studios of Mert and Marcus, the edgy duo who won the Isabella Blow Award for their groundbreaking fashion shoots? Debatable, but the subtext is: she is not intimidated by anyone, (even the most exacting, sneeriest fashionista), and fully intends to get her head around the complex codes of the fashion world and use them to maximum advantage on the world stage.
It’s all in marked contrast to Kate’s more traditional sartorial habits. When I interviewed Kate’s mother, Carole, recently, she asked me whether 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 both her daughters take a similar approach to getting dressed, although Kate has noticeably raised her game since Meghan joined The Firm.
Without wanting to fuel the debate about the state of two women’s relationship, the Meghan’s relaxed, knowing vibe is from a different world than Kate, who has always distanced herself from anything that could come across as elitist (apart from the monarchy itself).
It’s easy to see how the evident differences between the women provide royal observers with plenty of ammunition to stoke the feud narrative.
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 everything by the royal book, Meghan arrived with her own script. Ever since the latter revealed that Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was her “everything style goals” (she said this a while before she became engaged to Prince Harry 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 her speech at the awards — delivered without notes or autocue; the only presenter on stage to do so — was that while it was relatively brief, it referenced many of fashion’s current buzzwords and memes about social inclusion and empowerment.
“As all of you in this room know,” said Meghan (note the flattery and tone of complicity), “we have a deep connection to what we wear. Sometimes it’s very personal, sometimes it’s emotional but, for me, this connection 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 the high end creativity is notable. Ever since Princess Diana was branded a fashaholic back in the 80s and lambasted for overspending, British royals of every rank have been careful to display an appropriate level of frugality.
In marked contrast to her sister-in-law however, Meghan doesn’t seem to have read the memo either. Or if she did, she promptly tore it up.
Since parachuting into the royal arena a year ago, she has identified fashion’s current preoccupations with diversity and kindness and meshed them with her own agenda of helping disadvantaged women across the world. “I read an article recently,” she said, “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, 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, which is why, when I met her for the first time 11 months ago, I knew that we’d be working very closely together.”
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 of Givenchy) about supporting a hard-working woman at the top of a tough industry, Meghan may just have outwitted critics who complain about the very high prices of those Givenchy clothes. Time will tell.