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Why British fashion still looks to Diana

Prince Harry’s mother will be missed at the royal wedding – but her influence will be seen in the dresses, writes Olenka Hamilton

When the American fashion designer Virgil Abloh launched his label Off-White’s spring-summer 2018 collection at Paris fashion week last September, it was as though he knew something the rest of us didn’t. The collection, described by Harper’s Bazaar as ‘Princess Di 2.0 at its finest’, is a reworking of Princess Diana’s wardrobe 20 years after her death – just in time for the impending royal wedding.

A collection of rouched bodices and frothy tulle skirts, it is a drastic departure from Off-White’s usual denim and streetwear. One look copies a conservative double-breasted pink suit of Diana’s but cuts the skirt to mini-length, while another is an homage to a silk polka dot dress which Abloh matches with a pair of plastic knee-high boots: not especially avant-garde, but proof that the Diana look is back. The designer of the Milan-based label was inspired by the free manner in which she experimented with her clothes, he told Vogue.

In the age of the smartphone, society weddings have become like super-exclusive red carpet events, and no one did red carpet-level glamour quite like the Princess of Wales. She flitted happily between designers, always trying different looks and never disappointing the media.

‘It’s all about followers on Instagram now,’ says designer Bruce Oldfield, laughing. Oldfield, who is credited with transforming Diana from fresh-faced Sloane – ‘a complete blank canvas’ – to Hollywood siren, has a point: the pressure is definitely on.

So what advice can Diana’s one-time favourite designer and friend give us on what to wear to such a grand and public occasion? For there is no doubt that when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle get married in May, people will be glued to their screens, not because they care about how much the bride and groom love each other, but because they want to see what everyone is wearing.

‘The occasion doesn’t want to be very fashionable,’ says Oldfield. ‘It needs to be aware of what’s in fashion but it needs to be an entity unto itself. It has to nod to convention and not seek to be too flashy.’ Oldfield’s style mixes traditional elements with his own unique embellishments. ‘I’m conservative – as was she, by the way, which is why we got on. I was very keen to do my kind of look and not try to over-intellectualise, but I was keen to make sure she didn’t look too parochial.’ He is pleased when I show him Abloh’s collection.

Gone are the days when royal ladies were dressed almost exclusively by one man, Sir Norman Hartnell. ‘Back in the Fifties,’ says Oldfield, ‘you look at a photo from a royal christening and there are 25 ladies – 60 per cent will have been dressed by Hartnell. Today you’d have a few British designers, maybe Versace and someone in Zara.’

As a 19-year-old, Diana was sent to the traditional British designers, including Bellville Sassoon, Catherine Walker and Victor Edelstein, and a 30-year-old Oldfield, all of whom tried to define her style early on. None could pin her down, and she became bolder and moved on to Valentino, Oscar de la Renta and Saint Laurent as her prominence as an international figure increased. She wore bold colour combinations, pulled off a tuxedo,
and even once wore a backless lacy dress so racy that she is alleged to have expressed concern that a young Prince Harry wouldn’t approve. She loved the camera, which loved her. She changed the rules.

One of today’s taste-makers is Lady Natasha Rufus Isaacs, co-founder of luxury clothing label Beulah. It makes whimsical and classic designs which have been hailed as ‘quintessentially British’ by the press, and sells both off-the-peg and made-to-measure occasion wear for women. Whereas Oldfield’s clients tend to be in their fifties and sixties, Beulah’s designs appeal to women in their twenties, thirties and forties. At Beulah there are no rules.
‘I love wearing jumpsuits and long dresses to weddings, not your traditional knee-length dress,’ says Rufus Isaacs.

Like any couturier wanting to stay afloat, Beulah has a strong off-the-peg range, with dresses retailing for less than £1,000. Oldfield has had to adapt too, with a range at John Lewis and a custom-made range which price-wise sits between off-the-peg and couture. Even the Duchess of Cornwall, a regular couture client of Oldfield’s, also wears Bruce by Bruce Oldfield at John Lewis. (‘The Duchess is very conservative. Except when she’s not,’ he says, coyly.) ‘There is less demand for couture, people are strapped for cash, plus they don’t have time or patience,’ Oldfield says. This especially goes for the young (excluding Middle Eastern royals). Couture takes time. ‘Forget about anyone under 40 bothering to stand around and be pinned, unless they’re very, very rich.’

British designers remain the most coveted, with favourites including Emilia Wickstead, Amanda Wakeley, Jenny Packham, Alexander McQueen, and at the lower end of the price scale Beulah. The old guard, including Oldfield and Catherine Walker, continue to feature prominently among slightly older ladies. At Pippa Middleton’s wedding, for example, the Duchess of Cambridge wore McQueen (the label also designed her wedding dress), while Carole Middleton chose Catherine Walker – a favourite of Diana’s, who liked her simple, pared-down designs. The French-born Walker was known for shunning fickle fashion trends, instead striving to make clothes ‘which give poise to women without being too rigid and which are poetic without being overworked,’ she said. Since her death in 2010, the boutique has been run along the same principles by her husband Said Cyrus.

‘While trends repeat and evolve, British style is usually characterised by individuality and an attention to detail,’ says Rufus Isaacs. Although women and designers have become bolder over the past half-century, the message, no matter what your age, is clear: there are no hard and fast rules as long as you keep it simple and are true to yourself. ‘People get it wrong by trying to match shoes and bags, or too much colour going on. Always better to keep simple. Be true to your aesthetic,’ she adds.

‘Fashion, darling, it’s not rocket science,’ says Oldfield. ‘It’s frocks.’

What Oldfield et al saw in Diana continues to inspire, as Abloh’s collection shows. ‘She was a strong individual that, despite her position, had her own personal taste and it came out through the clothes,’ Abloh told Vogue the day before his collection was launched. ‘There is no stylist at play here.’

Olenka Hamilton is staff writer at Spear's