December’s annual Fashion Awards may have been attended by some of the industry’s most influential figures, such as Kate Moss, Edward Enninful, Kendall Jenner and the Beckhams, but it was Meghan, Duchess of Sussex who stole the show. Arriving as a surprise on stage to present the creator of her wedding dress, Clare Waight Keller, the award for best womenswear designer, it was an appropriate end-of-year headline given that 2018 witnessed the “Meghan effect” take hold.
The fashion industry is familiar with an “effect”. The Kardashians, the Beckhams and Meghan’s in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge, have had it appended to their names as a testament to the power they yield to put a trend or fashion label on the map. But while Meghan has on occasion shown the same penchant for high-fashion brands such as Alexander McQueen, Gucci and Prada, with her newfound influence the duchess has made supporting little-known, ethical and independent fashion labels her calling card, which have in turn been able to capitalise on the publicity.
Naturally, the highest-profile items have been pieces that get the most exposure, such as accessories and outerwear. As etiquette expert Jo Bryant says, “the royal family have to think a little differently and spend a lot of time on official visits in coats, so we will find her outerwear not only in the spotlight, but also impeccably tailored and chosen with great care”. In other words, if Meghan chooses to wear your coat, your Christmases have come at once. For little-known Canadian label Mackage, Christmas came in March, when Meghan wore its sand-hued Mai coat on her first joint official engagement in Belfast. Within 24 hours, the brand clocked up 1.6bn media impressions and gained 2,000 Instagram followers, reported Kantar Consulting, whose analysts coined the phrase “the Markle Sparkle”.
Bags are also hot property. When she carried a bag by Edinburgh-based Strathberry on her first outing with Prince Harry in Nottingham in December 2017, it helped double the five-year-old brand’s year-on-year North America revenues and led it to launch a dedicated website in Japan following a massive increase in attention the region. “The exposure and the attention we received after that was incredible,” says founder Guy Hundleby, who counted more than 2,000 articles internationally about the brand in the months after the outing. This October, he was able to open the brand’s first boutique in the prestigious Burlington Arcade in London. “We’re about to turn over £12m, which is up from £6m the year before … [Meghan] was a fantastic catalyst for growth.”
Elsewhere, carefully chosen accessories have benefited too. The style of Finlay & Co sunglasses that she wore to the 2017 Invictus Games accounts for 80% of the brand’s total sales, while web traffic from the US has doubled from 20% to 40% year on year.
Even Meghan’s mishaps have proven profitable. When she was in Australia in October, she wore a red dress by one of her favourite labels, Self Portrait, and left the swing tag on, securing her a front-page spot on tabloids all over the world. According to the brand’s founder, Han Chong, all publicity is good publicity when it comes to the duchess. “When she stepped out in the dress with the tag on, it generated 1.5bn impressions in two days in the US alone,” laughs Chong. “Of the whole tour, that piece [got the most attention] because of the tag. Everyone covered it – even places like CNN, which don’t usually cover [fashion] stuff [like this]. I think it’s good. People loved it because it felt real.”
She seems to be particularly keen for brands with a charitable or philanthropic brand ethos to benefit from her endorsement. The black jeans she wore on tour in Australia were made by Outland, which supports women who have been rescued from sex trafficking in Cambodia by training them as seamstresses. The brand confirmed a more than 2,000% increase in global online sales after the tour.
Similarly, Meghan carried a bag by DeMellier, the brand which for every bag purchased funds a set of vaccines and treatments administered through SOS Children’s Villages’ programmes in countries such as Somalia and Zambia. “There is no question that it gave us a fantastic boost in terms of brand awareness and helped enhance everything we were doing,” says the founder and designer Mireia Llusia-Lindh.
The Meghan effect isn’t solely limited to accessible fashion labels. The boat-neck Givenchy wedding dress designed by Waight-Keller made a household name of the previously low-key designer and resulted in her scooping her award on 10 December. Meanwhile, the Stella McCartney gown that the new duchess changed into for the evening wedding reception secured her and Prince Harry the top spot on British GQ’s annual best-dressed couple list. [But unsurprisingly, says Coye Nokes of the strategy consulting firm OC&C, the brands which have benefited most from Meghan’s support “are often more affordable brands that are more accessible to consumers”.
Keen observers will note that the “accessible icon” tag that the Meghan effect seemingly relies upon is somewhat ironic given that by virtue of becoming a duchess she had to make herself anything but. Unlike her fellow influential Fashion Award attendees, whose millions of social media followers are ready to click on an affiliate shopping link, coverage of the duchess’s wardrobe choices is limited to the press since she deleted her personal social media accounts in January. Bryant says this adaptation to royal protocol, however, is only to her gain. “[It] immediately enhances the sense of mystique and secrecy that keeps us intrigued about the royal family and, in turn, the excitement around what Meghan will wear.”
As for how 2019 will play out, watch out world: the Meghan effect is taking on maternity wear. “Meghan’s style is evolving, and it is a fascinating fashion choreography,” says Bryant. “Now she is a member of the royal family, she needs to strike a balance between dressing for her role, attracting the right sort of attention, and ensuring her personal style is still evident.”