When a royal (or soon-to-be royal) wears an outfit or carries a bag, we’ve come to expect that it will sell out fast. In the lead up to the royal wedding, we’re seeing it happen frequently every time Meghan Markle steps out in the public. But what does it feel like to be a designer, suddenly thrust into the spotlight? How much changes when your creation goes viral, you’re flooded with orders and highlighted in the global press?
You’d think it would be a good thing, right? That it would be every designer’s dream to have large numbers of orders and huge global attention. But the reality is less straightforward.
Since her engagement to Prince Harry was announced, Markle has prompted spikes in sales of M&S jumpers and Finlay & Co sunglasses. Her clothes are scrutinised and analysed for signs of what kind of steps she’s taking as a new member of the royal family, and someone soon to become British. What she wears is never just an afterthought.
As someone who is about to join arguably the most influential family in the world, everyone’s eyes are on Markle. This is not just from the media or the American and British public, or even ‘Suits’ fans. Markle is being stared at from many angles and spoken about across different generations, whether that’s on Twitter or across the kitchen table. There’s influence in that; many people want to be like Markle and yes, dress like her too.
Markle has championed many British home grown designers; spotted with a £495 Strathberry bag in February (it sold out in 11 minutes – and has since quadrupled in price on eBay), and wearing a pair of straight jeans from Welsh brand, Hiut Denim early this year. If you really want the Markle update, increasingly popular American blogs such as What Meghan Wore, Meghan’s Mirror and Meghan’s Fashion keep tabs on the soon-to-be royal.
That long-tail of influence should not come as a surprise – to this day, the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton’s engagement dress is still sought after. That royal blue, silk jersey wrap dress by Issa London, created a shopping storm after Kate wore the dress as she announced her engagement to Prince William. The effect was so great that designer Daniella Helayel found herself overwhelmed with orders - the dress sold out in five minutes and gained ‘countless orders’.
The dress – somewhat unromantically named ‘DJ157’ – helped introduce consumers to Issa, and transformed the company’s sales from £500,000 to £5.6 million in just two years. At its peak, Issa – previously a fairly small fashion brand – was valued at £27m.
However, the sales were so astronomical that Helayel had to find an investor to allow her to scale the business, she told The Daily Mail. In this case, the ‘Kate effect’ proved to be both blessing and curse – while it raised Issa’s popularity, it also eventually triggered managerial changes, and changes of direction for the design house, which eventually closed down in December 2015.
When a young royal wears an item, sales rise but it is always for “the exact item, not the same one in different colours” notes Alisha Motion, Red Magazine’s fashion editor. Having to supply large amounts of stock, often with little warning, can put a small company in a difficult position if they cannot keep up with the unexpected demand.
Hiut Denim and Strathberry are both smaller companies who have been flooded with attention and orders since Markle wore their pieces. Yet they are both brands which have taken this new found attention in their stride, because though they didn’t anticipate any of this and nor did they have the initial stock to fulfil every order immediately, they have similarly moved smartly behind the scenes.
Hiut co-founder David Hieatt speaks of the ever growing waiting list with over 1,000 orders: “Which is massive for us when we can only make 130 pairs of jeans a week”. It’s also forced plans that were scheduled for later in the year to happen now in order to manage the ‘royal effect’. This includes a factory size three times bigger than the one Hiut Denim currently work in and the ability to hire three new workers and more when moving into said factory.
Strathberry’s waiting list also toppled over 1,000 orders and with sales considerably increasing by 200-300%, the business was pushed to expand. As co-founder Leeanne Hundleby explained, for her it wasn’t the stock that was the issue, as luckily the company had enough leather in the workshop in Spain, “The biggest obstacle for us is the time it takes to make every bag (up to 20 hours) and that will always impact on the speed of delivery.”
This is another reason why smaller fashion companies can feel more of an impact when someone like Markle wears their clothes. The quality of their pieces ties in with their story. Strathberry bags cannot be made one a minute, so the quality over quantity mantra must stay, regardless of the amount of the orders piling in. This is why larger stores that are used to producing in bulk, like Marks & Spencers, find it easier to keep up with demand.
But what happens after this moment of global attention when essentially, both a designer and their brand go viral? “Big brands with a cool factor won’t need to push the publicity as much,” Motion argues. “Whereas a smaller and more heritage label will be able to add a respected stamp to their side.”
While Issa London was a recognised brand before getting the royal stamp of approval, post-engagement photos, the design house arguably tried to build on those royal links, with some similar designs. What ended up being lost was the initial reason Issa London was so attractive to a range of women - Helayel’s wrap dresses celebrated women’s curves in 2011 - before the wave of the body positivity movement became a present topic for many.
What was apparent from speaking to the founders of Hiut Denim and Strathberry, was that though they were both grateful for the attention, (Strathberry recently hosted an auction giving thanks to Markle) they didn’t want the royal image to engulf their entire company.
When Markle wore Hiut jeans on a visit to Cardiff in January, it was a singular “lucky and incredible moment”, says co-founder David Hieatt, while also stressing that his brand will continue to look ahead.
Hiut Denim is based in Cardigan in Wales, a place which used to have a world class reputation for denim, until recent years when cheaper labour costs saw production move abroad. The city still feels the loss of 400 jobs. Hieatt, who manufactures all his company’s jeans in Cardigan, is keen to motivate others to help rebuild the city’s textile past.
“When I stand up and say we’ll get our jobs back - people say ‘that’s a nice idea Dave’ but when they see Meghan Markle wear our jeans and it gains global attention they start to believe it themselves. For six weeks, [Cardigan] became a tourist town – and we just need to work on recreating that 52 weeks of the year.”
Hieatt says he won’t be specially preserving the jeans style that Markle wore. The brand will continue to innovate, rather than rely on the royal connection, because: “If you know your formula, everyone else then does too”.
Similarly, when asking co-owners of Strathberry, Leeanne and Guy Hundleby about maintaining a global audience, they both spoke of working “from the heart so we will always maintain our values” and focusing on moving forward as they have exciting collaborations coming up.
A royal wearing your brand can bring fame. But it’s clear through history, it’s what designers do after gaining such recognition that can help shape their future.
For most designers keeping your name in the spotlight is a way to keep those sales high. But if you keep your eyes off the initial prize and focus on why you’re doing what you’re doing, you won’t become lost in the whirlwind, as Hieatt remarks “It’s hard to do one thing well. That’s itself is a lifetime’s work”.