In the second episode of The Duchess, comedian Katherine Ryan’s new Netflix series, Katherine (also our heroine’s name), takes her 10-year-old daughter to school in full mourning garb. Her best friend has just died - or nearly died, anyway - while recovering from a fat transfer, and Katherine is processing the close call through her favourite medium: her wardrobe.
“Bev pulled through, luckily,” she sighs through a black net veil (the finishing touch on an outfit also involving a sheer-bodice black dress, shrunken black blazer, black sunglasses, black choker, black Givenchy handbag, black lace tights and black stilettos). “But my mind went straight to the grief and then immediately to the outfit.”
The Duchess is a snappy show about a single mother balancing devotion to her tween daughter with an Instagrammable career (as a ceramicist who makes boob pots for the likes of Adele), a hot dentist boyfriend and an incorrigible ex. It is also, as anyone who has seen as much as the first two minutes of Episode 1 will know, about fashion.
“That mourning look uses an old Lanvin dress that I got for about £50 in a vintage shop in Knightsbridge,” says Jennifer Michalski-Bray, the show’s costume designer. “I knew that she would love it and that it was right for the character.”
Katherine’s fashion on the show is bold, brash and ultra-feminine - a high-glam vibe Michalski-Bray has shaped over seven years as Ryan’s stylist. “We took Katherine’s typical onstage style and magnified it,” she says.
So instead of the sort of generic school-run outfit you might spot in the real world, Katherine wears a silver-sequinned Racil coat over a pair of ripped Alexander Wang jeans, while toting a bubblegum-pink Balenciaga City Tote handbag that coordinates with her diamante-embellished No 21 heels. Or a pink lamé Zandra Rhodes strapless dress with Gucci logo knee-highs and fuchsia Giuseppe Zanotti heels. In Katherine’s mind, the latter is totally appropriate for a meeting with the head teacher, because she also wears a blazer on top. “She wouldn’t have worn it without anything underneath it, but layering it up felt really right.”
Michalski-Bray spent three years as a costume assistant on Gossip Girl when she lived in New York, so she’s no newcomer to TV costuming (she's American; Ryan is Canadian). But she approached The Duchess in the mindset of Ryan’s longtime stylist.
“There’s costume which is more period, and then there’s ‘fashion costume’. This was definitely ‘fashion costume,’” she says. “It felt pretty similar to working on a magazine shoot. Every look had a mood board, every look took in runway trends… Every look had layers.”
(Layers are a very big thing for Michalski-Bray. One of her favourite tricks is “taking a belt off a dress and tying it over a jacket or cardigan to tie it together.” You’ll want to try this after, oh, Episode 2.)
Gossip Girl ended up serving as a key reference for The Duchess, along with Clueless, Legally Blonde - and a certain real-world duchess. “The headbands played a massive role,” she says of the intricately beaded, sequinned headpieces by designer Victoria Percival that Katherine wears with pretty much every look - not unlike pumped-up versions of some of the Duchess of Cambridge’s favourite accessories. “Those were a play on the idea of ‘the duchess’, a subtle nod to the title of the show.”
The handbags were just as plentiful as the headbands, with a fresh Saint Laurent or Fendi bag for seemingly every school run. “We must have had about 15!” Not that anyone should assume the show had a massive budget - Michalski-Bray borrowed the bags from Catwalk Club, a luxury handbag rental platform. Fans can rent the same bags that Katherine carried on the show.
Some viewers (or Twitter users) have pushed back at the show for its glamorisation of single motherhood, questioning how Katherine affords her house, her bags, her clothes. The fabulousness is, of course, intentional. “Katherine [Ryan] absolutely wanted to make sure the single-mum stereotype of looking messy and not put together wasn’t present - it was important that she looked like a million bucks.”
Indeed, everyone I’ve discussed the show with has found Katherine’s enjoyment of her life, absent any fixation on a romantic relationship, refreshing. Still, the gender politics of the show haven't proven as big a talking point as a certain slogan jumper. You know, the red Rachel Antonoff knit that Katherine wears over her Sleeper feather-trimmed party pyjamas in the opening scene of the show. Yes, the one that reads, ‘World’s smallest pussy’.
“I did not find that,” Michalski-Bray laughs. “It’s Katherine’s. She wrote it into the script… so I couldn’t put her in anything else. She wears stuff like that to pick up her actual daughter from the school run, which I love.” If only all school-gate dressing could be so colourful.