Fashion and politics

On a Brexit charm offensive

Britain's Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, who wore a dress and belt by French fashion house Chanel as well as Cartier accessories on their first official visit to Paris.
Britain's Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, who wore a dress and belt by French fashion house Chanel as well as Cartier accessories on their first official visit to Paris.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Duchess of Cambridge used Paris as a catwalk on her first official visit, raising the bar in the art of diplomatic power dressing

LONDON • The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were in Paris last weekend, flying the British flag on their first official visit to the French capital, as well as spearheading a thinly veiled effort at soft diplomacy as Britain prepares to leave the European Union.

The two-day trip, which began last Friday when Prince William and his wife Catherine Middleton flew to the city in a private jet, and were then driven to the Elysee Palace for a meeting with President Francois Hollande, was an opportunity for many things.

The couple met survivors of the Paris and Nice terrorist attacks to symbolise cross-border solidarity in the face of a shared threat. Last Saturday, they attended a rugby match, Wales versus France in the Six Nations tournament, long a source of fierce national rivalry (Wales lost, 18-20).

And with numerous staged photo opportunities in the creative and commercial capital of the fashion world, the Duchess used the city as a catwalk to subtly raise the bar in the art of diplomatic power dressing.

The show began in an understated way - she started her tour in the same green Catherine Walker coat she had worn at an earlier engagement in Britain that day. She often makes a point of recycling her outfits for public appearances (all the better to show how, underneath it all, she is just like the rest of us).

But this look, bedecked with big gold buttons and a black velveteen collar and sleeves, had a more poignant touch: Catherine Walker was a favourite designer of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the trip was Prince William's first official visit to Paris since his mother was killed in a car crash there 20 years ago.

Familiarity also proved appealing later in the day when, at a British Embassy reception, the Duchess wore a simple sleeveless black dress by Alexander McQueen, the British design house that created her wedding dress (and that shows its collections on the Paris Fashion Week schedule).

And Jenny Packham, another of her go-to British designers, created an ice-blue, high-neck, delicately embellished gown for the glittering black-tie gala to celebrate the best of British and French relations, an event attended by actresses Audrey Tautou and Kristin Scott Thomas.

The Duchess has long had her favourite British designers to wear on the global stage. But given the profile of the trip, it was hard not to think that championing some of the British female talent leading the industry charge in Paris, such as Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo at Celine, or Clare Waight Keller - installed at the helm of Givenchy just last week - might have reflected a defter touch in sartorial tradecraft.

Still, the stakes were higher than usual. In the wake of the British vote last June to leave the European Union - and with Prime Minister Theresa May expected to invoke Article 50 on Wednesday, beginning talks for a British exit - the royal family is serving as "Brexit ambassadors" to maintain Britain's links with Europe. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall are scheduled to travel to Austria, Italy and Romania this month; Prince William and Catherine are to visit Germany and Poland in July.

So the visit across the English Channel to France called for a charm offensive.

As a result, it was no real surprise that the Duchess of Cambridge chose Chanel - the house widely seen as the grande dame of Parisian fashion - as she posed for photographs with her husband last Saturday, with the Eiffel Tower in the background and with well-wishers waving Union Jack flags nearby.

The Duchess, a 35-year-old mother of two, wore what appeared to be a modified version of a look from Chanel's 2017 pre-spring ready-towear collection, priced on the brand's British website at £8,350 (S$14,600): a black tweed coatdress with bracelet-length sleeves and a box-pleated skirt, accented with multi-coloured embroidery and a black belt with the house's signature interlocked double Cs.

She also carried a burgundy quilted-leather and top-handle bag finished with the legendary emblem and underscored her French luxury statement with a necklace, earrings and watch by Cartier.

The choice was immediately met with murmurs of approval from the French news media, which had grumbled about the tour for weeks.

A little black dress worn by royalty in the City of Light. Rarely has a formula for sartorial homage been so simple and so effective.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'On a Brexit charm offensive'. Print Edition | Subscribe