The day after marrying Prince William, Catherine, the newly minted Duchess of Cambridge, stepped out in a breezy, light blue Zara dress under a black blazer. She looked happy, fresh and naturally stylish in an affordable, mass market piece. I had to have it. Then I had to have others. Since that first purchase back in 2011, I’ve bought dozens of duchess-adjacent items and spent upwards of a thousand dollars. In the process, I’ve learned the ins and outs of brands I had never heard of before their royal connection — Sebago, Reiss, Azuni, Birdies, Jaeger, Aquatalia, Rothy’s.
And I’m not alone. Women’s Wear Daily recently described the British royal family as “moving more merchandise than ever,” contributing an estimated £1.8 billion to the U.K. economy through tourism, royal warrants and “informal endorsements.” The clothing and accessories Kate wears sell out minutes after the retailers are identified, and bidding wars soon pop up on eBay. Meghan Markle’s appearance on the scene has only boosted this very big business. As Princess Diana biographer Andrew Morton noted in Meghan: A Hollywood Princess, “Everything from the coat, dress, and boots she wore for her engagements to her eye shadow, nail polish, and sweaters… was copied, imitated, advertised, and sold.”
By now, I can spot a duchess-worn piece from across the room. Recently, a friend came over for a dinner party wearing Rothy’s The Point ballet flats in black. They looked great on her. They looked comfortable. They’re made from recycled water bottles! Perfect for a casual outing or for strolling on the beach, like HRH The Duchess of Sussex (née Meghan Markle) had done a few months earlier while in Australia for her first royal tour. That’s when I first spotted them, and they’ve been circling my online cart ever since. Now, here they were in my living room, in all their pointed-toe glory, and I had only one question for my friend: “Did you buy those after seeing them on Meghan?”
Despite my close encounter, I haven’t bought the shoes yet, but I’ve been thinking about them a lot. As Meghan’s eco-friendly flats continue to entice me, I’ve been wondering why I’m so captivated by her and Kate’s fashion choices. Why do I keep buying things they’ve been photographed wearing? Why do we buy any of the things we buy? And why did I think an almost two-inches-wide rhinestone necklace was something I needed to pay three times the retail value for on eBay?
Because here’s the thing: I’ve never considered myself a Kate Middleton super fan. I never watched Meghan on Suits. But when they became duchesses, it was all so magical, and they seemed so lovely and beautiful and WAIT A MINUTE, the duchess shops at Zara?! I can shop at Zara. Today, the British royal family is as much a “brand” as any other celebrity-fronted empire: not truly attainable, but accessible enough to convince you to drop $50 on a fast fashion dress — or $150 on chic shoes. And I keep buying what they’re selling, even though deep down I know that’s actually fantasy, not apparel. I’ll never be a duchess, but I can dress like one sometimes. I never know what to wear, but the royals do. The duchesses have all the resources and access in the world, so if a giant rhinestone necklace from Zara works for one of them, it’ll work for me… right?
Both women display an intentionality toward dressing, whether it’s donning socially conscious brands or mixing designer wear with mall wear. I like to think that me following their style is a kind of glamorous, albeit vicarious, form of window shopping. Meghan steps out in sustainable flats, and I’m reminded that “fast fashion” isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. She breezes through an airport in a crinkled linen blouse, and wow, that looks way better than my standard yoga pants and sweatshirt. Their influence is a little royal push outside my comfort zone, a view of what could be.
Of course, “what could be” doesn’t always work in reality. Take the rhinestone necklace. On Kate, paired with a long-sleeved Roland Mouret gown at a film premiere in 2013, it added a pop of glam. On me, no movie premiere in sight, it was too big and too gaudy. And that post-wedding blue Zara dress? Sigh. Not all dresses flatter all figures. I never wore it. But the travel-ready J.Crew “Perfect Shirt” (Meghan, 2017) is surprisingly comfortable. The black Nike golf jacket (Kate, 2011) is great for running errands. And then there’s the Longchamp Large Le Pliage Tote, a bag Kate has carried in various forms over the years, most often in black. Mine’s blue. I like it better.
The more duchess-inspired pieces I’ve picked up, the more I’ve had to confront an annoying, shouldn’t-be-surprising hard truth: Personal style is just that — personal. I have a stronger sense these days of what I like and don’t like, what works and what doesn’t. Many things that have worked on Kate and Meghan haven’t worked for me… But a number of them have. And the duchess connection has added some panache, an extra bit of shopping fun.
As for those Rothy’s, I can’t decide. Should I buy them? Do I like them irrespective of Meghan Markle? I’m still figuring out my own style. I’ve had my fair share of misses, but it’s been entertaining to have some royal help along the way, even if it’s been mostly of the aspirational variety. Meghan’s former publicist broke down the duchess appeal to Harper’s Bazaar last summer: “She is hardworking, relentlessly upbeat, and determined to find happiness—and, of course, every now and then, the perfect thing to wear.” Magical indeed.