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What do Downton Abbey, the London 2012 Olympics and The Duchess of Cambridge have in common? They're all quintessentially English, rooted in tradition and impossible to ignore. But these days, Brand Britain's most prolific export is neither an addictive television series nor the flashy Games, but rather, an attractive young woman with a knack for subtle propriety. That she happens to be newly minted royalty surely helps. Restoring a kind of glamour that borders on conservative next to the razzle-dazzle of red carpet fixtures, she has emerged as a one-woman style phenomenon.
Indeed, Kate the Great has captivated onlookers the world over with her remarkably appealing look. Toeing the line between inclusive fast-fashion brands (what the English refer to as "high street") and aspirational designer labels only furthers her influence. Even more unique may be her place in our current celebrity-saturated, famous-for-a-fleeting-moment culture. Unlike One Direction, The Duchess is here to stay. Her fame will only burn brighter, her leverage grow even broader. And trust us, what's good for Her Highness is even better for fashion.
Also see: FLARE's Royal Style Guide
Unlike Princess Diana, whose early Sloane Ranger style (think: long tweed skirts and schoolmarm bow blouses) was criticized for its upper-crusty undertones, Kate immediately mastered the art of dressing for public life. "She has yet to put a foot wrong," attests royal expert Alison Eastwood, editor-in-chief of Hello Canada. "Kate's very savvy about how she uses fashion to convey her message," she says, adding that we've seen her style evolve from a university student to a married royal now flying the flag for British design.
Also see: Kate's Jubilee Looks
If Kate's wardrobe is anything to go by (or go out and buy), today's thoroughly English essentials include: a lace dress (she's worn Erdem and Temperley London), a nip-waist blazer (Joseph bouclé jackets, L.K. Bennett peplum styles and even a nod to the Commonwealth in Canada's own Smythe), printed pencil skirts and silk blouses (Topshop and Whistles are go-tos), day-to-night draped dresses (crepe Roksanda Ilincic or silk jersey Issa London looks), structured handbags (Mulberry or Anya Hindmarch), a sweeping evening number (Jenny Packham's embellished creations and Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen's dramatic styles) and ladylike pointed-toe stilettos (Rupert Sanderson and Tabitha Simmons mark a serious style step-up from her worn-to-death basic-beige L.K. Bennett Sledge pumps). An enviable wardrobe to be sure, but there is authenticity to Kate's closet that enamours followers.
Also see: Kate Middleton's Top 3 Beauty Looks
"She is largely untouchable—no one else in the world can occupy that position because everyone has a stylist," says insider footwear designer Rupert Sanderson (whose Malone heels she often wears) on Kate's self-taught style savvy. Yes, it's true. The Duchess has eschewed a wardrobe consultant (though she does indulge in a travelling hairstylist) in favour of dressing herself. "Consequently, she is wearing something purely of her own volition and it's incredibly powerful. You know that it hasn't been scuttled to her by some wily PR—there is a certain purity to it," Sanderson says.
That purity quickly translates to pounds sterling. "Sales just go off the scales from the most unlikely sources," he confirms. "We are a small business, but we sell out of every style she wears and it's global." In fact, retail experts estimate that her clout has translated to $1.6 billion in overall sales to date.
Clearly, for today's designers, there is no greater coup than having Kate sport your work, be it an intricately beaded Matthew Williamson dress for a London film premiere or red Zara jeans for gingerly practising her field hockey drive with Team GB. "She is an amazing, stylish woman, so I was very thrilled to have her wear [my shoes] and love that she champions new designers," says buzzy footwear designer and Vogue contributing editor Tabitha Simmons, whose grey Dela pumps were worn by The Duchess during her trip to Canada last summer. "It was really a massive honour."
One of Kate's (and her sister Pippa's) favourite designers, Alice Temperley—who has been dressing her since she was still a Middleton-in-waiting—further attests to her impact. "When she wears something, everybody goes online to find it," Temperley says of sites (such as whatkatewore.com and katemiddletonstyle.org) which catalogue her every outfit.
Of course, while Reiss was able to offer reissues of the $340 blush pleated shift she wore to welcome the Obamas to Buckingham Palace (subsequently crashing the retailer's e-shop), Temperley's demi-couture creations can't just be mass-produced to meet demand. "We don't have huge amounts of stock, so it doesn't normally mean instant sales for us," she explains. "But certainly there is a lot of interest." While many of Kate's Temperley looks are one-of-a-kind pieces, she also wears items from the lower-priced Alice by Temperley line, such as the rodeo chemise chosen for the Calgary Stampede. "She knows what she likes and she mixes things up brilliantly," says Temperley. "As an ambassador, I couldn't really ask for more."
While cashing in on Kate doesn't always produce immediate sales, Nicholas Mellamphy, creative director of The Room at the Bay, where many of her preferred labels are carried, sees the bigger picture. "What she does is legitimize a brand to many more people," he says. And while he doesn't specifically buy Kate-endorsed pieces, Mellamphy will select styles from lines such as Erdem, Roland Mouret and Roksanda Ilincic that strike a similar style chord for the store's high profile clientele. "I have noticed that progressively each collection has a 'Kate' dress—a few years ago it was the 'Michelle' [Obama]—and you know that that dress represents so many hopes!" Even if state dinners and jubilee tours aren't on your calendar, you can still experience some royal fashion fairy dust.
As Kate's official visits and public duties continue, we would love to see her dip into London's pool of more daring talent. Perhaps an embroidered look from Christopher Kane for leading a parade, an Elizabethan gown from Giles for a charity gala, a pencil-crayon print dress from Mary Katrantzou for a school opening, or a Peter Pilotto aquatic style for attending an environmental summit.
Eastwood concurs that the dream of dressing Kate will continue to see designers reinventing the royal wheel. "She's definitely influencing the design community. Not just at the high-end, but also at the high-street level," she says, summing up her scope. "If Kate likes it, so will a billion other girls."
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