Few women can have a diary filled with such a number of diverse engagements as the Duchess of Cambridge. And when you’re called upon to watch a traditional Maori presentation in New Zealand one day, and then visit a prison in Woking the next – all in front of the world’s media – it can’t be easy finding the right outfit.
It’s lucky, then, that one British couture house has something for, seemingly, every formal occasion you can wave a fascinator at: Catherine Walker. The Duchess attended today's Order of the Garter service at Windsor Castle wearing a red coat dress by the label, which came to fame in the 1980's as Princess Diana's favourite designer.
It's not the first time we've seen Kate in this outfit - she first debuted the punchy ketchup-coloured outfit on the royal tour of Canada back in 2011 - nor the first time The Duchess has relied on the Chelsea-based atelier. In May, she wore a bright green belted coat dress by Walker for the Chelsea Flower show, and just last Friday Kate was pictured at one of the Queen’s numerous 90th birthday celebrations in an icy blue embroidered number by the designer.
Catherine Walker: the label originally made famous by Princess Diana
Walker started selling clothes in 1976, when she used to walk down the King's Road in London holding a basket of her designs. Soon after she set up her first shop on Sydney Street in Chelsea - and it fast became the go-to destination for event dressing for the 1980's Sloane, including most famously Princess Diana.
French-born Walker first started working with Diana shortly after she married Prince Charles and went on to design over 1,000 dresses for the Princess, including the black dress she was buried wearing. After Princess Diana's divorce, Walker is credited with helping create so-called 'defiant' frocks, such as the black backless dress she wore the night Prince Charles went on national TV to admit his affair.
The eponymous designer died in 2010, but today the label continues under her husband Said Cyrus's direction.
So what makes a Walker creation such a Royal favourite?
“No one could ever accuse Catherine Walker of making her clients look youthful but impeccable dependability is the signature of this designer - and of the house that bears her name,” explains The Telegraph Fashion Director Lisa Armstrong of Walker’s enduring Royal appeal. “The label guarantees a statuesque perfection that looks as good in photographs as it does across a crowded cathedral or state ballroom."
Armstrong also remembers to this day the detail Walker and her team put into every design. "I visited Catherine, who died in 2010, several times in her shop and work-rooms and was fascinated to hear her navigate her way precisely around an outfit. No detail was left to chance. A Catherine Walker bodice or jacket always sat perfectly, its aim to elongate the torso as much as possible in order to create the most elegant, upright silhouette. The sleeves did not rumple or twist like almost every other sleeve you see. That, explained Catherine to me one day, was because most sleeves are ready-to-wear. A proper couture sleeve is seamed differently - there is no visible join. It is inserted differently too. It sits high and is cut narrow, for maximum elegance, but it also allows for movement and royal arm waving.”
Both Kate and her mother Carole have embraced the label since
As such, it's hardly surprising that both Kate and her mother Carole have turned to the label for high stakes occasions. Carole Middleton wore a blue coat dress by Catherine Walker for the Royal Wedding that was strikingly similar to Kate's outfit last week - something the design team say is true to the brand's DNA. "The signature of the house falls into two distinct areas – sumptuous hand embroidered evening wear, and beautifully cut bespoke tailoring," a Said Cyrus, who now heads up Catherine Walker told The Telegraph.
"Common to both those categories is the focus on ageless design and craftsmanship. This is ageless in more than one meaning of the word. Last season we sold the same design to a client in her 60’s and also to a girl to celebrate her 18th birthday. Same design both made to measure."
Diana's legacy lives on
The iconic status Catherine Walker's creations still hold became evident last month when news broke that one of the green sequinned dresses she created for Princess Diana was set to fetch £100,000 at auction.
“It's not true to say her clothes don't date," says Armstrong. "Some of her 1980s designs for Diana are clearly of their time - but they always retain an aura of imposing dignity and their photogenic flawlessness.”
But the Kate effect is equally as strong
So how does it compare when The Duchess of Cambridge steps out wearing one of Catherine Walker's new designers? As you'd expect the label won't be drawn on comparisons - but they do admit the speed with which keen Kate watchers race to identify and then copy her outfits has impacted the business.
"Over the past 40 years the most striking change has been driven by the arrival of the internet," Cyrus says. "In 1980 if you wanted to know who wore what the answer was on TV or in print, often in expensive magazines. Nowadays clients in the USA, central Asia and China have looked at our website and ordered using a new service we have started called e-couture." No doubt after today they'll all be asking for red.