List of fashion houses
Few women have captivated the fashion world like Princess Diana. Now the Duchess of Windsor turns heads with every ensemble, and duchess-to-be Meghan Markle will be the newest member of the British royal family to have her sartorial choices broadcast around the world. The Windsors have held the style spotlight like no other royal family, bringing success to the brands they wear—high and low—and sparking international trends. At Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s nuptials on May 19, the fashion crowd is buzzing about who will design the bride’s gown. While that’s still top secret, there’s a good chance one of these three iconic British houses will have a presence, since they’ve long been embraced by the royal family.
Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing Catherine Walker & Co. in Hong Kong on November 8, 1989. (AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing)
Catherine Walker & Co Think of Princess Diana’s most iconic ensembles and chances are it was designed by Catherine Walker. “We knew Lady Diana for 16 years, from when she was just married right up until the time of her death,” says Co-Founder & Head of Design Said Cyrus. “There was a transition in the 16 years. To start with, she was an ambassador for the U.K. But as time moved on, she carved out a respected career for herself on the international stage, for her humanitarian work, and of course her wardrobe changed according to those different roles.” Now Catherine Walker is a go-to for the Duchess of Cambridge.
Beading detail on a Catherine Walker garment.Courtesy of Catherine Walker & Co
Founded in 1977 by Catherine Walker and her husband Said Cyrus, the British couture house still makes every single piece in its atelier in Chelsea. “We don’t have anything made anywhere else in the world,” Cyrus says. “Everything is made in this building and that includes all the embroidery. The service that we offer is that someone gets a piece that is quintessentially British, because not only is it designed here and has this thought process behind it, but it’s actually made in this building as well. I think clients enjoy the fact that they’re getting something which is so preserved in that way.” After 32 different measurements are taken, the bespoke service typically requires three to four fittings. But now you don’t have to fly across the pond to get a Catherine Walker piece thanks to e-couture, which allows them to make the garment in their atelier, and when it’s 99% finished it is sent to the client to be finished by her local tailor to ensure it fits perfectly. That precise fit is a hallmark of the line, as Savile Row tailors are mined to work there. “It’s nice to take the same skill of tailoring to evening dresses,” Cyrus says. (That tactic was also employed by Alexander McQueen.) “A lot of that has to do with the shoulder, which is constructed like a man’s suit. A lot of our clients are in the public eye and in many cases they’re photographed quite extensively from every angle, so we never lose sight of the fact that the garments have to be as good from the back as the front. We try to give people confidence. We often hear clients in the shop when they’re trying things on say that as soon as they put it on it makes them feel like standing tall; we’ve even heard the word ‘empowerment.’”
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge wearing Catherine Walker, with Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel of Sweden during day one of their Royal visit to Sweden and Norway on January 30, 2018 in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo by Chris Jackson - Pool/Getty Images)
Catherine Walker releases two collections a year, for spring/summer and winter/fall, and they also have an archive of about 400 evening dresses that people can choose from. Additionally, they make custom designs, as they often did for Princess Diana. Cyrus and Walker dedicated a lot of time to researching her destinations. “On some occasions, we actually visited the countries she was going to visit to make sure we got it absolutely right,” Cyrus says. “We were looking for visual imagery to build into not just the surface, but the whole structure of the garment. Our brief was usually in two parts: One was to show respect to the country she was visiting, but wherever she went throughout the world people want to see her as British princess, so there were two things going on at the same time. For Hong Kong, one of the features that we looked for was symbols that could be used in the clothes that represented the country. We went through a whole list—jade, silk, dragons—but in the end we decided pearls had exactly the right feel for what we were trying to do. We felt they had a gleam or a glint of mystery of the orient and what we designed was a long pearl dress, with 22,000 pearls, all hand-embroidered.” Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra were also enormously influential on that dress. They researched what they considered to be modern British royal dressing, dating back to Elizabethan times and decided to focus on the two women. “This was an era of beautiful exquisite grace and calm, when ladies had the time to indulge in finery: fine lace, fine fabric, fine embroidery, intricate detail. And we extracted from this imagery elements that we built into what was the origin of where she was coming from. It’s a destination issue and an origin issue. You can’t help but notice the visual symmetry from these images from 100 years ago brought forward into this modern, polished princess.”
House of Garrard The world’s oldest jewelry house has worked closely with the British royal family since 1735 and has served royalty across the globe. They were appointed Crown Jeweler by Queen Victoria in 1843 and have since served every subsequent British monarch. Garrard has created many iconic jewels, including the Imperial State Crown worn by Queen Elizabeth on her Coronation Day and the tiara she wore when she married Prince Phillip that was originally created for Queen Mary. They’re also famous for their tiaras in the royal collection of the crown jewels displayed in the Tower of London. House of Garrard has a Royal Warrant of Appointment, which is a recognition of those who have supplied goods or services to the queen, the Duke of Edinburgh or the Prince of Wales for at least five years.
A princess tiara by House of Garrard.Courtesy of House of Garrard
There is a long tradition and history behind tiaras. A strict rule in the royal family is that the first time you should be able to wear a tiara is on your wedding day, so only married women should wear them. The Cambridge Lovers Knot tiara, which was originally made for Queen Mary, was gifted to Lady Diana on her wedding day and is now owned by the Duchess of Cambridge. Most tiaras are designed so that you can wear it in different ways—you can take a section out and wear it as a necklace or brooch. Garrard works with clients to create custom tiaras and they also recently launched a line of princess tiaras that are smaller in weight and look. “We felt the younger clientele wanted something a bit more modern,” says Design Director Sara Prentice. “They’re very easy to wear. Historically a tiara has a framework on the base and the framework is wrapped in a ribbon that’s the color of the wearer’s hair so the tiara in effect floats on the head. In olden days when hair was very coiffured, you could hide the framework within your hair style, but obviously modern-day brides aren’t wearing their hair like that, so we wanted a style that would just slip on the head. They all have a removable element as well.”
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge wearing her engagement ring by House of Garrard, which was Princess Diana's. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)
Located in Mayfair, the House of Garrard building was built in 1911 to be a jewelry house, with the workshop and design studio housed inside. All of the fine jewelry is designed and made on-site. When creating new pieces, the artisans often look to the past as their muse. Take Princess Diana’s House of Garrard sapphire and diamond engagement ring, which was given to the Duchess of Cambridge. “The inspiration behind that was a sapphire cluster brooch that Prince Albert co-designed with Garrard and he gave to Queen Victoria on their wedding day, which she actually wore on her wedding day,” Prentice says. “In terms of making a piece modern, it’s more about the style of the jewelry and how that’s made today—that’s the interpretation rather than big heavy earrings that are uncomfortable to wear. We want jewelry to be worn throughout the day.” For example, for versatility, necklaces have sliders in the back so you can wear them low or short. While they never make a direct copy of designs of the past, they will use elements to create new pieces. “It’s absolutely amazing to work at a place with such history,” Prentice says. “You’re never short of inspiration.”
Bentley & Skinner Walking into Bentley & Skinner is like going back in time into the Victorian era. “You see the showcases, the jewelry, and the way things are laid out—it’s like going into an emporium,” says Sales Director & Antique Jewelry/Faberge Expert Omar Vaja. “Time has stood still here and this is what I and a lot of the people that come in here like about it, the fact that we’re not a global brand. It’s a unique shopping experience walking in through the doors. You’re not going to find it anywhere else in the world. There’s that sense it is very exclusive and very English.”
A tiara at Bentley & Skinner.Courtesy of Bentley & Skinner
Since 1880, Bentley & Skinner has specialized in museum-worthy fine antique jewelry, engagement rings and objets, as well as valuations for insurance and probate, repairs, seal-engraving, pearl-stringing and bespoke jewelry commissions. An in-house workshop allows them to do most of the work on site. They have been working with the royal family since Queen Victoria’s reign. “Although we are very traditional jewelers, we had a brush with contemporary art and made the famous diamond skull for Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, which was the most expensive art sold by a living artist and we were quite privileged that he asked us to commission this piece for him,” Vaja says. It took two years to make, 8,601 diamonds and nearly a kilo of platinum.
A tiara at Bentley & Skinner.Courtesy of Bentley & Skinner
But they are even more proud of the two royal warrants they hold, from the queen and Prince of Wales. “That means that you’ve got the most prestigious person in this country that you’re looking after,” Vaja says. “The royal family is known throughout the world and when visitors see that seal of approval, they will be excited to walk into a place where they feel that the Queen of England has been looked after by these people. There’s a historical element to it and it’s a sense of security, value for money, quality reassurance. For us, having the warrant is very, very important.”