When the Duchess of Cambridge gets dressed, her outfit needs to be spot on. As one of the most photographed women in the world, the scrutiny received by every detail, from the angle of her hat to the precise diameter of her bouncing curls, means that style failures are not an option. Given these high stakes, when she deigns to patronise a new designer, such as Emilia Wickstead, it’s worth paying attention.
When Kate Middleton first started stepping out in Emilia Wickstead’s ladylike pastel concoctions, it’s fair to say that most of the fashion world’s reaction was: “Emilia … who?” It didn’t take long for Wickstead’s creations to catch on; the designer has injected the made-to-measure world’s rarefied confines with a fresh and modern energy, aided along the way by her photogenic fans.
A New Zealander, Wickstead spent her formative years in Milan before putting down roots in London, where she launched her eponymous label in 2009. She developed her skills from an early age; her mother ran a bespoke dressmaking service in Auckland.
“My mother remains my mentor and will always be a key inspiration to me,” she says. “I have memories from every aspect of her growing business – the happy and the hard times.”
Wickstead is tight-lipped about her clients, especially when quizzed about her most famous fan. “I’m just so thrilled whenever I see my clothing on clients and friends,” she shrugs. The duchess isn’t her only high-profile client; Diane Kruger is a fully paid-up member of the Wickstead fan club, and, at this year’s Golden Globes, Caitlin Fitzgerald wore a cornflower blue, high-low hem Emilia Wickstead gown, a dress that earned Fitzgerald a place on just about every best-dressed list.
Wickstead is clear on the kind of woman her designs attract: “She’s independent, has a big personality, is intelligently interesting – and fun”.
Like her royal patron, Wickstead has taken the odd fashion risk. After studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, she chose to take her talents in a different direction from the rest of her class. Instead of the London-designer route to the runway, she focused her business on creating made-to-measure clothing for women. It’s a simple enough concept; but one that largely faded from fashion’s mainstream in the mid-1950s.
“When I started, I was interested in old-world glamour and how women used to dress up, so I started my made-to-measure business to cater to that,” she says. “That’s something that’s exciting and refreshing. I wanted to design clothing for women that they would keep in their wardrobes forever.”
In an industry that adores the shock of the new, a young designer’s conscious decision to turn away from trend-led fashion to focus on timeless style seems, well, rather shocking. Wickstead’s old-world atelier approach is comparable to haute couture – except when it comes to price. “I wanted to make it affordable for clients,” she says, “but the pieces should be designed in a way that they want to wear them again and again.”
An haute-couture dress can cost up- wards of US$150,000 (Dh560,000) while Wickstead’s made-to-order dresses start from $1,500 (Dh5,500). “I think there is a trend toward consumers seeking out bespoke craftsmanship,” she says. “They want a well-fitted, unique garment, in their colour and fabric choice, to fit their body and taste.”
Clients who opt for Wickstead’s made-to-order service can choose from select styles of blouses, dresses, skirts and trousers that are both modern and classic. The flair is in the detail and a deft, but unexpected, use of colour – abstract pearl beading on a classic darted, powder-pink pencil skirt or an impeccably cut tuxedo overcoat in dazzling chartreuse – quirks that give her designs a modern, one-off twist.
Clients choose their preferred material and colour with the help of an in-house team, and can alter a neckline, sleeve and hem length at will. Those wanting to take it up a notch can opt for the made-to-measure service, where bespoke garments are created to precise measurements. The turnaround is quicker than traditional bespoke services: “We have quite a fresh and modern approach to couture and a first fitting would take place after 20 days.”
Business is booming, and Wickstead has expanded her repertoire to include seasonal ready-to-wear collections, stocked everywhere from AlOthman and The Art Of Living to Selfridges and Net-a-porter. But despite earning the patronage of fashion’s upper echelons, Wickstead has no plans to deviate from the personal approach that is at the root of her label. “The made-to-measure and bespoke is the heart and soul of my business – without this first chapter, how would I know what my clientele truly wants?”