Fashion might be wrong on Kate Middleton — and underestimating Michelle Obama.
A new study of the attitudes of women in the U.S. and U.K. not only calls into question validity of the “Kate Middleton Effect,” but found the Duchess of Cambridge has the same fashion influence as reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, Kate Beckinsale and Paris Hilton.
This story first appeared in the November 4, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Women are instead gravitating to figures they see as more independent, such as America’s First Lady, who is seen as 11 times more influential in style, according to the study by Jeetendr Sehdev, a celebrity branding expert and University of Southern California marketing professor. Women also cited Taylor Swift and Sienna Miller as style influencers.
Sehdev isn’t buying the theory that Middleton’s fashion choices drive shoppers to stores en masse — although some estimate the Kate Effect at 1 billion pounds, or $1.6 billion, worth of economic activity. Based on his reading of her influence, Sehdev said her impact would be closer to just a fifth of that, or 200 million pounds.
“Her influence is not what it’s being made to be and, in the eyes of the modern woman in both the U.S. and the U.K., she’s not heralded in that way,” Sehdev said.
“Does she even deserve the title of style icon? The answer is no, because she doesn’t measure on the criteria of the style icon,” Sehdev said.
Everyone might have their own definition of style icon, but Sehdev’s take is drawn from his research with 3,500 women in the U.S. and 1,500 in the U.K. and covers five key attributes:
• A definitive sense of style.
• A sense of confidence.
• A certain timelessness that can keep modern.
• A fierce independence.
• A dose of provocativeness.
Middleton has that certain timelessness, according to 68 percent of the women surveyed, but falls short in the other areas.
Obama, for instance, is considered to be five times more daring in her fashion sense than Middleton and 75 percent of the women surveyed admired the First Lady for her sartorial risk-taking.
That’s not to say Middleton is unpopular.
The survey showed women found her to be very likable, but also very safe and less independent than Obama and others. Sixty-seven percent of the women surveyed did not think Middleton chooses her own outfits.
“It seems like she’s kind of being dressed or is dressing for a nation,” Sehdev said, summing up the sentiment of the women surveyed (she is, of course, truly dressing for a nation, since Middleton one day will be Queen Catherine).
Middleton’s look is also moving from High Street to high end, which will make her style resonate less with the masses, he said.
Her 2011 wedding to the future King of England, Prince William, was a supercharged, global event that brought the majesty of any big royal event to the Twitterverse. But even then, on Middleton’s big day, she managed to slip out of the fashion spotlight, which shifted quickly to her sister Pippa’s form-fitting dress.
With her dream wedding, Middleton might look as if she’s in the midst of a fairy tale, but Sehdev said she’s being positioned very specifically within the fashion superstructure. The study grew out of a trip he took to the U.K., where Middleton “was literally on every single magazine cover at the terminal at the airport. It became very clear to me that it was a very deliberate p.r. positioning.”
When it comes to transmitting style influence, it’s not just about the look, but how it’s worn and how it fits into at least the perception of one’s personality.
“Style icons today have to be enormously sexy and they have to have a great sense of style and fashion and flair and individuality and they also have to be dressing for themselves and not others,” Sehdev said.
Obama fits the bill, according to the survey.
“First and foremost, she seems to be dressing for herself,” Sehdev said. “She’s seen taking far more risks. She seems to have a much stronger sense of independence. She’s nobody’s right hand, she’s a person unto herself and that really scores highly when it comes to how that translates to fashion.”
Obama also has more of a multicultural appeal, with the study showing she has 13 times more fashion influence over black, Latino and Asian women than Middleton.
In short, Obama is more of the complete fashion package.
“Michelle is a lot older [than Middleton] and yet these sorts of characteristics are resonating more with today’s woman,” he said. “It’s not about being the perfect princess anymore.”