The omnipresence of the royals in our lives has given rise to one particular person behind the scenes. Step into the light, the royal stylist.
When Natasha Archer slipped, detected but nevertheless as discreetly as she could, out the back door of the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital on an April morning in 2018, it seemed the paparazzi’s prying lenses were attempting to X-ray their way through the London stock brick walls. The images, as grainy as a wheat silo, were circulated and published ad nauseam. Why should such an event, and such a person – stylist to the Duchess of Cambridge, a staffer carrying out her duties – elicit such fascination?
It seems that these image-makers, the ones tasked with pulling it all together in the midst of whirlwind global travel, high-profile meetings and, apparently, the most private of moments, hold a very rare key. Less concerned with trends than their fashion-world counterparts, the royal stylist’s goals are rooted, ironically, more in the real world, at least when it comes to balancing a plethora of demands.
“A royal stylist is more conscious of protocol and strives to maintain decorum. A fashion stylist is looking to be more experimental,” says British-born Simon Doonan, creative ambassador for Barneys New York and an observer of royal attire.
While most of us do not have the pressures of royal responsibility (and certainly not the same financial means and manpower), it feels that their sartorial serenity and their composed attire, like perfectly pressed vermilion Jenny Packham on the steps of the Lindo, is one of the greatest examples of a working women’s power wardrobe in 2019. They are balancing the demands of modern womanhood, and their stylists are the crucial supporting act.
For starters, take their visibility. “The younger royals are living in the age of the social media. They are striving to avoid negative commentary by dressing simply and elegantly, but also striving for perfection,” observes Doonan. Orchestrating this exhausting proposition, as well as weighing up dress codes, symbolism, colour, hem length and the knowledge that if there is not a telephoto lens then there is a smartphone camera in every pocket, are the unflappable royal stylists like Archer and the Duchess of Sussex’s long-time friend, Jessica Mulroney.
It is why they are crucial now, and why their efforts behind the scenes are being noticed more than ever. “They are not really known as ‘stylists’ as such. The Queen has a dressmaker, Kate and Meghan both have in-house tailors, and in recent years Kate has acquired a stylist in Archer who was previously a PA,” says Katie Nicholl, regular royal columnist for Vanity Fair and author of Harry and Meghan: Life, Loss, and Love. “The idea of a stylist in royal circles is seen as frivolous, and courtiers would have us believe the Duchesses of Sussex and Cambridge choose their own outfits and do their own shopping, when actually there is someone in-house taking care of all of this. They may well have other duties as well, more on the level of a PA, but they are responsible for packing for tours, calling in clothes and travelling with the royals on tour. Their job is hugely important. [Whether] that first image of Kate or Meghan arriving overseas or stepping out at an engagement will make the front page largely depends on what they are wearing,” she explains. Chances are it will now also be followed by an image of Archer juggling garment bags and hats boxes on the tarmac, come rain, hail or Norwegian snow, as she once did after joining Kate Middleton’s hairstylist in sub-zero temperatures on an Oslo runway of the non-fashion variety.
Unlike the dressmakers of the past, stylists must painstakingly take into account a host of factors, miniscule as they may seem. Susan Kelley, who runs the influential and oft-referenced What Kate Wore, points to women like Archer and Mulroney as well as Virginia Chadwyck-Healey, former Vogue executive retail editor, who is said to work with the Duchess of Cambridge. “[They] are well aware of the style stakes … They scout locations months ahead of tour events and know what will photograph well and what won’t. They also know how a material drapes, which fabrics wrinkle too easily, what brands might convey a sense of self-indulgence, and a host of other fashion facts.” She also notes that they colour-match locations to dresses.
And so they must balance appropriateness, grace and accessibility, something the traditional fashion system doesn’t seem to uphold as often. Dynamic, fickle and bent on the next, it is an exclusive club that thrives on making you feel envious. “If I were a royal, I would avoid anything that smacked of trendiness, self-indulgence or excessive vanity,” posits Doonan. “Queen Elizabeth is the gold standard. She always looked smart and relatable and kind: because they are public servants, royals must always appear kind. This is the key.” Nicholl agrees: “Royal style is quite hard to get right. Their clothes must attract attention, but not detract from the important work they are carrying out.”
It is why, if you’ve ever wondered, you don’t see them in the latest, waitlisted colour of Balenciaga knife-point heels, or sold-out sandals by The Row. Instead they’ll be in polished trenches and ethical denim labels. Timelessness is the aim, a goal shared by a monarchy looking for long-term relevancy and increasingly by regular women searching for more sustainable options in quality clothing. One of the Queen’s key dressmakers, Hardy Amies, who began working with Her Majesty in the 1950s, wrote in his memoir: “Style is so much more satisfactory than chic. Style has heart and respects the past; chic, on the other hand, is ruthless and lives entirely for the present.”
And as we navigate a rocky world, constants, like the longest reigning British monarch, have a certain appeal. “Royals are expected to adapt and evolve, and we expect their fashion choices to as well. We look to them for inspiration, for trends, for couture and for always looking effortlessly chic,” says Nicholl.
Perhaps they make a better choice when looking for real-life style icons. In an age of social media influencers, the royal stylist, who proffers a stable of wardrobe choices as reliable, elegant and, most importantly, achievable, is a tastemaker nonpareil. “Most women do not wear theatrical or avant-garde clothes. They look to Kate and Meghan for classic elegance and simplicity. This is the basis of their influence,” says Doonan. “Their influence is huge. They can sell product and have a positive impact on the economy.”
Kelley notes authenticity is ingrained in their style choices (it is verboten to accept gifted clothing). “Designers are chosen for their discretion, not for a desire to have their brand publicised,” she says, a result of stylists wanting to highlight the women and their work over the clothes. “Their personal tastes remain very much at the forefront of their wardrobes.” For this reason, their influence is formidable. They have the ability to lift smaller designers up – it is said Markle’s wearing of a pink trench by Canadian label Nonie saved the label from liquidation – or bolster an existing industry: look to the continual support by the Royal Family of British labels such as Alexander McQueen, Erdem and Stella McCartney.
The stylists’ choices are also tapping into a growing movement against the attention-grabbing sensibilities of an online world. Kelley points out that Middleton’s wedding to Prince William in 2011 “dovetailed with a growing desire by some women to move away from the ‘bare down to there’ clothing showcased on social media and celebrity fashion websites. There was an audience weary of that look, ready to adopt designs that were a little more conservative. For many, Kate’s style demonstrated this could be done without looking frumpy or dowdy.”
Ultimately, however, we do live in a visual world. “People use many methods to form opinions about specific Royal Family members and the monarchy itself … Fairly or unfairly, what a royal wears can dramatically impact an impression,” says Kelley.
And fairly or not, the same could be said of women in general, particularly as we increasingly take up positions of power in a world working towards equality. The royal stylist is in the rare position of helping to shape what that image of a modern woman is – poised, powerful, ready for anything – while simultaneously reminding us of the potent power of fashion. “As royals, they say rather little, but their outfits speak volumes,” says Nicholl. The royal stylist has afforded royalty the ability all women should have: to say at top volume, and with style, everything they wish.
This article appears in the 2019 Vogue Royal Special, on sale now. Buy it here.