LONDON — Kate Middleton is set to be Britain’s next princess. Will she become a new royal style icon too?
This story first appeared in the November 17, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
It’s anyone’s guess what fashion journey Prince William’s fiancée will take, or how her style will evolve over the coming years. Right now, Middleton is in a position similar to that of the young Lady Di, who was far from a fashion plate at the start of her marriage to Prince Charles — and eons away from the va-va-Versace styles of her final years.
At least for now, Middleton, with her long, wavy, chocolate-brown hair and sapphire eyes, is an unapologetic classic dresser — a tweed-and-flat-boots or jersey-wrap-dress-and-discreet-jewelry kind of gal. Think updated Sloane Ranger, right in the mold of Diana.
A “commoner,” in lovely British parlance, she eschews big designer labels in favor of jeans and cowboy boots and decidedly ladylike clothes from labels including Issa, BCBG Max Azria, Collette Dinnigan and Diane von Furstenberg. Her high street picks include Jigsaw, Whistles and Kew — all labels that offer safe, watered-down versions of seasonal trends. She’s also a fan of the tailored jackets from English designer Katherine Hooker and the practical carryalls from Longchamp and Bric’s.
Middleton has her hair and grooming done at Richard Ward in Sloane Square — a favorite of Chelsea socialites and TV presenters — and wears hats by Philip Treacy, although far from the Isabella Blow stripe.
There is clearly no daring here, with zero attempt to call attention to herself — which should suit Middleton just fine in her new life as a Royal Air Force wife, initially living in rural north Wales, where her future husband will be based, and socializing with the other couples on the base. It’s the life the duo is used to, since they met in the wilds of Scotland at the University of St. Andrews.
“She doesn’t really make too many mistakes or go out of her way to be edgy,” said Bruce Oldfield, who made clothes for Princess Diana and who continues to dress generations of society ladies and their daughters.
“Her style is young, modern, quite classic,” he said, quickly adding that the role of a newly married young royal isn’t to be a trendsetter. “Remember that Diana took on that mantle rather reluctantly. The role of style icon was thrust upon her — she was not on a mission to become one.”
London socialite and interior designer Nicky Haslam said Middleton has the “conservative elegance” of Britain’s stylish First Lady Samantha Cameron, which is in keeping with Middleton’s laid-back attitude. “Kate isn’t hidebound by any of the accepted norms of how to behave. She behaves like herself, and she behaves in an elegant way,” he said.
One Middleton quality Haslam said he’s pleased about is her height. “We finally have two nice tall people in the royal family, after so many short ones. Kate and William are two giants,” he said. Middleton is 5 feet 10 inches, and William is 6 feet 3 inches.
And with her willowy figure and tall good looks, designers say Middleton could clearly pull off some bolder silhouettes. “If I was going to dress her, I’d put her in more sharply tailored clothing. Her clothes are all a bit soft,” said Giles Deacon. “And I’d put her in some nice rich jewel tones — she could carry those colors off as well. She tends to wear lots of pale colors.”
Julien Macdonald said Middleton should try to dress her age. “She’s a young girl, and we need to see that come out more. British fashion is on the cutting edge, and there are so many great designers here. She should be reflecting British style for the world to see,” said Macdonald, adding he’s a big fan. “She is just what the country needs in the current climate.”
One designer who declined to comment much on Middleton is the woman who could potentially make her wedding dress — Brazilian-born, London-based Daniella Helayel, founder and designer of the Issa collection, which shows during London Fashion Week. “We’re very happy with the news of the engagement, and we’re happy she’s chosen to wear Issa until now,” Helayel told WWD. “She’s a lovely girl.”
Earlier this month, the Mail on Sunday newspaper reported that Middleton had spent a lot of time at the Issa studio in Chelsea, having a closetful of dresses and jackets made for what could possibly be upcoming engagement celebrations.
Then again, Oldfield, who has recently opened a separate studio creating custom-made bridal gowns, could be another contender. He dresses Middleton’s peers, including decorator Nina Campbell’s daughter Alice Deen, who’s getting married next week.
Burberry’s Christopher Bailey might be another candidate for the dress — or indeed any future ones. The designer declined to comment. Burberry, a royal warrant holder, has been supplying Princes William and Harry with clothing since they were kids and also dresses Prince Charles.
For now, at least, Middleton is likely to stick to the Brits — although that doesn’t mean foreign designers won’t flock to dress her eventually. Middleton earned high marks from Marchesa’s Georgina Chapman, who by chance graduated from Marlborough College, as did Middleton, though at a different time. “Kate is sort of the ultimate English rose. She’s very beautiful, very English — classic and sophisticated,” Chapman said. “She has a very royal attitude already in terms of the way she puts herself together and carries herself in public. She is the future queen, so she will be a style icon, and as a young member of the royal family she will be influential,” she said.
Lela Rose said Middleton has the “daunting” task of dressing for what will be no doubt be a grand wedding. “I do think, on her wedding day, she is not going to be able to push the envelope in terms of how far out of the norm she can dress. This is an event that has so much meaning to so many people. Kate is very modern and traditional, but blending the two will not be the easiest thing to do,” Rose said. “I can see her wearing something modern with clean lines, small details and a little embellishment. But the dress will also have to fit the setting.
“What’s appealing to everyone is she looks so nice and normal,” Rose said. “We’re so used to all this Hollywood hysteria that her normalcy is in itself refreshing.”
In keeping with his bride-to-be’s low-key style, William chose not to splash out on a new rock, but instead gave her his late mother’s sapphire engagement ring from Garrard. The ring, which cost 28,000 pounds, or $65,000, back in 1981, is an 18-carat oval blue sapphire, surrounded by 14 small diamonds in a white gold setting. It ignited a trend for similar engagement rings for years after Prince Charles bought it for Diana.
“It was my way of making sure my mother didn’t miss out on today,” the prince told the press on Tuesday, following a photo call at St. James’ Palace, the official residence of the British monarch and the seat of the royal court.
“My mother was very special to me, and now Kate is special to me. It is a way of bringing the two of them together,” he said.
And if the global press has its way, Middleton will follow in Diana’s footsteps as the trendsetting fashion icon who married a future king.