NEW YORK, United States — On Wednesday night Meghan Markle finally walked down the wedding aisle, resplendent in a lacy, sparkling white dress. It was, of course, the “Suits” season finale, and she was marrying her on-show fiancé.
But it was also a mere three weeks or so before Ms. Markle herself — biracial American, now former actress, divorcée, United Nations women’s advocate — will walk down the aisle in Windsor Castle to to marry her real fiancé, Prince Harry (beloved royal soldier and hell raiser turned mental health activist). That made for a digital frenzy about what may be coming, which is only going to grow as the days wind down.
After all, the drip-drip-drip of details has already sped up. The betting is closed. On what? The still outstanding question: What will she wear? There are economic and cultural repercussions riding on the answer.
And you thought it was just a dress. Pshaw.
First, odds were on Ralph & Russo, makers of Ms. Markle’s official engagement dress. Then Erdem Moralioglu. After all, he is a Canadian — Ms. Markle lived in Toronto while she filmed “Suits” — who has become a stalwart of London Fashion Week, famous for his way with a romantic lace dress, and Ms. Markle told Vanity Fair she had been wearing his clothes for years. Then Burberry became a favourite, because — well, Britishness. (It probably won’t be the Anne Barge “Versailles” gown Ms. Markle wore in “Suits,” though that extravaganza did have a princess vibe.)
The answer won’t be certain until the bride appears on May 19, but what is increasingly clear is that whoever the designer is, he or she will be vaulted into the global conversation.
In today’s influencer culture, when an individual’s ability to ignite far-reaching trends simply by dint of her own appeal is more effective than any advertising campaign, and a photo can carry a message round the world more powerfully than any words, it is beginning to seem as if Ms. Markle could be the most influential of all.
Even though she has deleted all of her social media accounts.
Bigger Than Kate
The numbers began to roll in almost as soon as Ms. Markle appeared with Prince Harry at the Invictus Games in Toronto last September wearing ripped jeans from the California brand Mother and carrying an Everlane tote.
Mother saw a 200 percent increase in traffic to its website, the company said, and a 60 percent increase in Google searches compared to the same week the previous September. According to Lela Becker, the president and founder of Mother, the jeans sold out in three days and 400 people signed up on a wait list for a reorder. There was a day when the site saw more traffic than it does on black Friday.
[Meghan Markle] will quickly match or even surpass the Duchess of Cambridge in her incredible influence on the fashion industry.
At Everlane, there are more than 20,000 people on a wait list for the tote she carried, according to the company. When Michael Preysman, the Everlane founder and chief executive, was asked to come up with an equivalent celebrity, he said: “Angelina Jolie.”
The white wrap coat by the Canadian company Line the Label that Ms. Markle wore for the engagement announcement sold out almost immediately, the brand said, and the website crashed. Traffic to the website of Birks, the Canadian jeweler responsible for the opal and gold stud earrings she was wearing in the same appearance, spiked 500 percent, according to Birks, and does so each time she wears a Birks piece.
“We have had celebrities wear our pieces — Claire Foy, Serena Williams — but no has ever matched the magnitude of the global response,” said Eva Hartling, the vice president of Birks.
“We’ve always had coverage in Canada,” Ms. Hartling said, “but now we are in Vogue Japan, in Russia” and more.
When Ms. Markle carried a Strathberry bag for her first official appearance after the engagement, it sold out in 11 minutes, and traffic to the Scottish company’s website rose 5,000 percent. In January, she wore a pair of black jeans from Hiut Denim, a small Welsh brand, and in March the company moved to a bigger factory to fulfil demand.
Even in the context of the oddly enduring global fascination with royalty, the current appetite for happy endings at a time when the news often seems filled with unhappiness, and the romance of princes and princesses, the scale of the response is huge. Especially given that Ms. Markle will never have the title princess attached to her name (the “overwhelming likelihood” is that her title will be Princess Henry of Wales, the BBC has reported, but not Princess Meghan), and that her husband is now sixth in line for the throne, following the birth of that other potential influencer, William and Kate’s baby No. 3.
That lesser status is why Brand Finance, a British consultancy that specializes in brand valuation (especially of intangible assets), originally projected that the wedding would be worth about 500 million pounds (approximately $696,859,000) in tourism and unofficial endorsements: a meaningful event, but not a phenomenon.
But as soon as the report was issued, said David Haigh, the chief executive, “people went bananas. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a press release get more coverage.”
Mr. Haigh began to revise his projections upward. Now, he believes, the wedding itself will have economic repercussions “closer to GBP one billion — and to be honest, it could be more than that.”
Ms. Markle herself, he said, could contribute 150 million pounds ($209,057,850) annually simply to British fashion in the form of unofficial endorsements. She “will quickly match or even surpass the Duchess of Cambridge in her incredible influence on the fashion industry,” he said.
And that’s just in Britain. In Canada, where Ms. Markle lived for much of the seven years she spent filming the television show “Suits,” the fashion industry is also banking on her patronage — not just to raise the profile of local brands including Birks, Line the Label, Sentaler and Mackage, but of the local industry itself.
If Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, first brought the eyes of the world to Canadian fashion, Ms. Markle has raised the focus exponentially.
“People globally are glued to her,” said Vicky Milner, the president of the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards, who invited Ms. Markle to award the International Canadian Designer of the Year prize in 2016. (It went to Jason Wu, the designer whose clothes Ms. Markle continues to wear.) There are at least two blogs — Meghan’s Mirror and Mad About Meghan — devoted to chronicling her choices.
“When you have a figure like that, it changes everything for designers and the country when it comes to fashion,” Ms. Milner said, noting that there had been a stereotype of Canadian fashion as significantly less creative or trendsetting than Paris or Milan, but that Ms. Markle’s patronage could change all that. “For people to be able to see Canadian brands in a new light is huge.”
People globally are glued to her. When you have a figure like that, it changes everything for designers and the country when it comes to fashion.
The French-American designer Joseph Altuzarra, who started working with Ms. Markle when she was in “Suits,” said her ability to alter perception of a brand is “less quantifiable, but arguably has a bigger impact” than her effect on sales.
She wore his pinstriped day dress to her first major event as a representative of the royal family, at the Commonwealth Youth Forum last week (website visits up 400 percent, Instagrams up 300 percent in the hours following, according to a spokeswoman for the brand).
“We are not a millennial street style brand,” Mr. Altuzarra said. “We are a niche brand in a niche area. She changes how people think of us.”
The Obama Effect
There may not have been another public figure whose clothing choices were obsessed over to such an extent since Michelle Obama, who inspired a study by a New York University professor in the Harvard Business Review that analyzed her effect on the fashion stock market.
Indeed, since the Obamas left the White House, there has been something of a vacuum when it comes to a public figure consciously using fashion in a creative way to advance specific ideas, and ideals. Melania Trump has proved reluctant to engage consistently in strategic dressing, and Brigitte Macron, the first lady of France, has been notably loyal to French brands, especially Louis Vuitton. If Ms. Markle has a role model for how to use her job as “wife of” to advance a broader agenda, it may be Mrs. Obama.
“We’ve seen that Meghan Markle is very considered in her choice of what she wears, and understands the soft power fashion can have in terms of connecting to a community, shining a light on local companies and using what you wear to challenge conventions,” said Caroline Rush, the chief executive of the British Fashion Council.
A random assortment of the brands Ms. Markle has worn include some major British labels (Burberry, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney), but as a whole they range in price, profile and place of origin, and the majority come from smaller contemporary brands from across the Commonwealth (and the former colonies).
It is a description oddly reminiscent of Mrs. Obama’s fashion history, though in its particulars it reflects both Ms. Markle’s own story and the anticipation that she and Prince Harry will be tasked with acting as “international ambassadors,” according to Mr. Haigh; that in the shadow of Brexit, these royals cross borders, literally and symbolically. Also, perhaps, that Ms. Markle stands for something more than simply aspiration — she stands for change. That may be expressed in clothes but goes far beyond it.
That’s the reason Time magazine included Ms. Markle and Prince Harry on its list of the 100 Most Influential people of 2018 (right next to President Trump), an acknowledgment of their decisions to support what may traditionally have seemed risky causes for a royal family: depression, women’s empowerment and L.G.B.T. rights.
As Mr. Altuzarra points out, Ms. Markle also “represents inclusivity.” If Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, was the first commoner to wed a royal in 450 years, Ms. Markle represents the 21st century and its attitudes in multiple ways, including race and nationality.
From a sociological standpoint she seems like a very modern woman, with an accessible idea of luxury that allows young women to identify with her.
“Aside from the fairy tale, from a sociological standpoint she seems like a very modern woman, with an accessible idea of luxury that allows young women to identify with her as someone who makes her own choices,” said Jean-Christophe Bédos, the chief executive of Birks Group, which owns the Birks brand. (A friend of Ms. Markle’s, the stylist Jessica Mulroney, reportedly helps her on an unofficial basis.)
“She’s less conventional than any of her potential royal peers,” Mr. Bédos said. She has been criticized because of it — there were complaints about the ripped jeans, the sheer dress, her messy bun, her penchant for wearing thumb rings — but also cheered. It has the effect of appealing to a different constituency. Think of it this way: Catherine wears the requisite sheer stockings when she appears in public. Ms. Markle doesn’t. It’s a detail, but it’s telling.
“It all seems genuine,” Mr. Altuzarra said — which is, on the surface, an odd thing to say, but also important.
We have gotten so used to being force-fed imagery — red carpet appearances, festival Instagrams — by celebrities who are paid or have formal relationships with brands that the idea of someone who is making her own choices with her own agenda, unfettered by financial obligation, has significantly more power. Fashion on its own gets you only so far; it’s the content and character the clothes represent that is the propulsion mechanism.
As the hype and hope and gossip continues to build, and the collective breath is held for whatever the big dress (or maybe it won’t be so big?) on the big day will be, that’s a lesson worth remembering.
By Vanessa Friedman. This article originally appeared in The New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.