In the summer of 1956, Grace Kelly was the world’s most talked-about woman. Already an astoundingly beautiful, Oscar-winning Hollywood actress, she had just married Prince Rainier of Monaco and become Princess Grace. Her every style choice was pored over by magazines, and women everywhere sought to emulate her classically elegant look. So it was a marketing dream come true for the storied French luxury label Hermès when the Princess held her beloved Sac à Dépêches, one of Hermès’ signature handbags (which she’d carried since it had been part of her To Catch a Thief wardrobe), up over her stomach to conceal her burgeoning baby bump from the world. The impact of that simple gesture was so powerful that the style was soon renamed the Kelly.
Fast-forward to spring 2020 and the Kelly remains the epitome of sophistication, with fashion executives everywhere hoping for their very own Kelly moment. Except today it’s a Meghan endorsement that’s on every wish list. On 31 March, the Sussexes will begin their new life outside the Royal family, and one of the biggest questions hanging over their next chapter is how they’ll achieve their goal to become ‘financially independent’.
We already know that Meghan and Harry are a power couple like no other – every picture of them goes instantly viral and when they speak about a subject, everyone else starts talking about it too. Add to that Meghan’s very modern style credentials (in 2019, fashion search tool Lyst declared her the most powerful dresser of the year, thanks to her ability to create an average uptick of 216 per cent in searches for outfits similar to the ones she wears) and it’s hardly surprising that brands are now clamouring for an opportunity to be associated with her. There is simply no one else who combines Hollywood glamour, the magic of monarchy and the gloss of humanitarianism.
Since her engagement, Meghan has lent her sparkle to lots of fashion brands. At one point, we hoped she might save Marks & Spencer from the doldrums when she wore a black jumper from its Autograph collection for a visit to Brixton – searches for M&S went up by 387 per cent (according to Lyst) and the jumper quickly sold out. When she chose a patterned wrap dress by Club Monaco to introduce baby Archie to Desmond Tutu in South Africa last September, searches shot up by 570 per cent and the dress again sold out. These were organic choices made because they worked for that engagement, but if they had been part of a paid ambassadorship, it would have been a dream ROI (return on investment).
There have been less traditionally royal fashion moments illustrating Meghan’s allure, too. When she became the first royal to guest-edit British Vogue last September – after meeting editor Edward Enninful to enlist his help with her charitable causes – her ‘Forces for Change’ concept, which saw her choose a cast of activist cover stars, was the magazine’s bestselling issue in a decade and the fastest-selling ever, disappearing from shelves in 10 days.
Meghan proved she recognises fashion’s emotional power, too, when she chose Smart Works as one of her patronages. Last September, she brought together M&S, Jigsaw, John Lewis and her designer friend Misha Nonoo to create a capsule collection of basics where, for every piece sold in shops, one was given to the charity, which dresses vulnerable women trying to get back into work. Naturally, most pieces sold out in hours. When I interviewed Nonoo (who’s part of an ultra-connected global set that includes supermodel Karlie Kloss and Princess Beatrice) recently, she was enthusiastic about working with the Duchess again: ‘I’d be honoured to work on anything with her. She’s so passionate about the work she does.’
In royal life, there is strict protocol around brand endorsement and so, while the Duchess may have been conscious of the influence she wielded and sought to use it, like so many royals, to send messages and to support good causes, an unspoken line was always in place – any form of commercial tie-in was strictly forbidden. Now, though, the fashion world is, theoretically, Meghan’s for the taking.
Since Meghan and Harry announced their decision to leave the Royal family, all kinds of rumours and estimations have circulated about their future earning power and potential projects. Simon Huck, owner of Canadian celebrity strategy service, Command Entertainment Group, estimates that Meghan could earn $100 million a year through commercial deals. There were reports in January that she might already be in talks to work with Givenchy, the French fashion house that created her wedding dress and once dressed Audrey Hepburn (a heritage almost as valuable as Hermès’ Kelly).
‘Meghan is good-looking, of mixed heritage, a woman who speaks her mind, which people find very appealing. She’s successful and aspirational,’ says David Haigh, chief executive and chairman of Brand Finance, a consultancy that assesses ‘intangible assets’ to create a brand valuation and has calculated that the Royal family is worth £67.5 billion to the UK. ‘There are a lot of things about her that women want to be associated with. She’s got perfect skin and great dress sense, it’s the whole package. On top of it all, she’s very intelligent,’ says Haigh, who also believes Meghan’s earning potential could reach $100 million, once books, a deal with a company like Netflix and some astutely chosen brand partnerships are factored in. He suggests a label like Ralph Lauren might be perfect for Meghan and Harry, with its wholesome US heritage and innate love for all things British (Lauren once dedicated a collection to Downton Abbey).
The real appeal of the Duchess of Sussex, though, is how she embodies more than just being a clothes horse. In a climate where sustainability and authenticity are buzzwords, she’s someone who can bring meaning to a label, making it about so much more than pretty dresses, and connecting with millennials and Gen-Zers who value, well, values.
In her pre-Harry life, Meghan had spoken at the UN and volunteered at homeless shelters. Even as part of The Firm, she has been forthright in speaking about her feminist values and she and Harry have supported environmental charities. She explained her beliefs more in the editor’s letter for her Vogue issue: ‘Throughout these pages you’ll find Commonwealth designers, ethical and sustainable brands, as well as features with designers not about clothes but about heritage, history and heirloom,’ she wrote. These are all beliefs she’s shown in what she wears, such as when she chose jeans made by Outland Denim, which provides safe and stable employment for victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia, or vegan trainers by Stella McCartney.
While big design houses may dream of giving Meghan a spokesperson deal, in reality it’s more plausible that she’ll be selective and always conscious of the optics with any contract she signs, consulting her close circle of fashion friends including Enninful, Nonoo and Canadian stylist Jessica Mulroney (who has helped Meghan with much of her royal wardrobe) for advice. ‘My thinking is that they probably won’t cheapen the brand because I think they’ve got a bit more taste than some of the others,’ notes Haigh. Buckingham Palace has already barred Meghan and Harry from trading explicitly on their royal ties so it makes much more sense for her to lean into the reputation she’s built around her personal activism.
One label that might benefit from this approach is Rothy’s, a shoe brand based in San Francisco that uses plastic bottles to create its signature lightweight, flat pumps, loved by the commuting cognoscenti in the US, and is set to come to the UK this year. When Meghan first wore Rothy’s in October 2018, the brand saw a fourfold rise in sales of its classic Black Point and a 600 per cent rise in new users to its website. ‘Meghan wearing Rothy’s catapulted the brand to a new level of global awareness,’ confirms Elie Donahue, senior vice president of marketing at Rothy’s. Meghan miracles happened again recently, when the Duchess stepped off a flight in Canada wearing a pair of Rothy’s newly launched Merino flats, resulting in similar sales spikes.
At the moment, royal protocol prevents Meghan from being paid for moments like these, or even receiving the products for free, but once she is liberated from the constraints of being a ‘senior royal’, she could begin to strike some lucrative monetisation deals. We live in the age of the influencer, a reality Meghan knows only too well. As an early adopter of blogging with her lifestyle site The Tig (named after her favourite wine) and three million followers on her personal Instagram account, she would showcase everything from her favourite pyjamas to the brands whose events she was attending. Now, Kylie Jenner earns an average of $1.27 million for her every sponsored Instagram post. The Sussexes’ 11 million followers might pale in comparison to Jenner’s 163 million, but the money-making opportunities of Instagram must nevertheless be tempting – it’s been estimated they could earn £85,000 per post. Last September, Meghan quietly renewed her The Tig trademark, meaning she could reinstate the platform.
There are plenty more insights to back up the Duchess’s unique earning potential, especially since the dramatic twist in her narrative. ‘If anything, stepping away from her royal duties has reignited a certain curiosity towards her style, especially now that she is free to dress without the constraints of a strict protocol,’ observes Morgane Le Caer, Lyst’s fashion insights reporter. ‘Over the past few weeks, the polished wardrobe the Duchess has come to be known for has been replaced by a series of decidedly more casual outfits [like those Rothy’s and Lululemon leggings], which not only seem to indicate a more relaxed Meghan, but are also more relatable and could therefore have an even bigger impact on sales as fans seek to emulate her style.’
But let’s think bigger picture. If we’ve learnt anything about Meghan, it’s not to underestimate her. So why wouldn’t she go all the way and eschew spotlighting other brands in favour of creating her own?
Over the past decade, the celebrity power brand has become a huge vehicle for money-making and image-shaping. Victoria Beckham has shaken off her Spice Girl/WAG reputation by creating fashion and beauty lines that present her as a paragon of tasteful elegance, Gwyneth Paltrow has made jade vaginal eggs and bee venom synonymous with her wellness and lifestyle brand Goop, and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen have transformed from sweet child stars to soothsayers of pared-back luxury with their brand The Row. Meghan’s friend Serena Williams has got in on the action too, with her clothing line Serena, which Meghan wore in Australia.
What could Brand Meghan entail? I’m thinking a line of eco yoga and Pilates mats, empowering workwear, vitamin supplements, a beauty and haircare line for black and mixed-race women, vegan leather bags and shoes, a maternity fashion collection, perfume created from natural, sustainably sourced ingredients, organic-cotton children’s wear, activewear made from recycled materials… a percentage of the proceeds from everything would go to charity, of course.
Her future might have Gwyneth-esque potential, but the Duchess might prefer to see herself as more of a Michelle Obama. Indeed, lots of the plans the Sussexes are rumoured to be looking at, like deals to produce TV shows or make speeches, are based on the Obamas’ post-White House trajectory. Just as Meghan rewrote the rules of royal fashion, so Michelle redefined how a First Lady could use fashion as a tool of soft power – so influential were her looks that they were reported to boost a brand’s stock price by $14 million. It’s a campaign she’s continued since, with her bold but meaningful fashion choices, like the glittery Balenciaga thigh-high boots she wore to be interviewed by Sarah Jessica Parker or the pink embellished suit by Danish designer Stine Goya she wore in Copenhagen.
‘The trend we are seeing today is that the brands who are able to create a moment that speaks to a wider audience, beyond the insular “fashion” crowd, will earn higher results – this is just another example of the power of authenticity,’ says Alison Levy Bringé, chief marketing officer at Launchmetrics, a service that helps brands to identify the people who will connect with their customers most powerfully.
Her comparisons between Meghan and Michelle wield fascinating insights. ‘On average, Meghan is generating between $6 million and $9 million in MIV [that’s Media Impact Value, the score used by Launchmetrics]. If we compare her impact for brands with another stately influencer like Michelle Obama, we see some very interesting results. When the two were snapped wearing Stella McCartney, Michelle Obama’s coverage for the brand represented a tenth of what Meghan generated [$292,000 versus $2.69 million respectively].
To put that into context, and compare with other forms of brand experiences and activations, the spring/summer 2020 Victoria Beckham show generated $8.2 million in MIV. The time, labour and financial investment needed to stage a fashion show is more costly than investing in a tastemaker like Meghan to create the same – if not more – MIV in a single activation.’ In short, it might be more effective and efficient for a brand to have Meghan photographed wearing one of its pieces than going to the effort and expense of a big show or event.
Which brings us back to the Kelly and its priceless fame. It’s perhaps just a matter of time before women the world over are lusting after the Meghan, by Meghan.