LONDON — Two years ago, on a wintry February night, the clinking of champagne flutes clutched by editors, buyers and influencers in town for London Fashion Week could be heard echoing through the gilded state rooms of Buckingham Palace.
The starry function, attended by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, was one of several celebrations in recent years where fashion industry insiders have been hosted in the innermost sanctum of the British establishment.
The famous glossy black front door of 10 Downing Street had repeatedly opened for fashion receptions held by Samantha Cameron, the wife of the former prime minister David Cameron, and Theresa May, Mr. Cameron’s successor.
And the appearance of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, at the Fashion Awards in London in 2018 — and her decision to guest-edit the September issue of British Vogue last year — also suggested the British fashion scene might soon enjoy a new friend in high places.
But then Meghan and Harry decamped to North America. Fed up with England’s tabloids and stiff sensibilities, they will no longer be working royals and are instead on the road to “financial independence,” presumably by eventually leveraging their brand, Sussex Royal.
And newly ensconced at No. 10 is Carrie Symonds, Boris Johnson’s partner, who appears to hold little interest in embracing the high-fashion crowd. Instead, the 31-year-old is using her platform to champion conservationism. (Her Twitter bio specifies “oceans” and “fighting plastic pollution.”)
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, was the guest editor of the 2019 September issue of British Vogue.Credit…Simon Dawson/Reuters
Now, as the latest round of runway shows begin, and two weeks after Britain formally began its exit from the European Union, London Fashion Week faces a front row devoid of an internationally recognized patron.
Such a vacuum could not come at a worse time: The national industry is sorely in need of a champion who could boost its appeal on the global stage, and local designers are feeling increasingly insecure.
Then again, in the time of Instagram, how important are celebrities to the industry’s international image?
“Very,” said Rosie Nixon, the editor in chief of Hello! magazine, one of England’s most widely read celebrity weeklies. “For our readers, first ladies hold a little less appeal, but Kate and Meghan are in a total class of their own. Readers appreciate all their fashion moments and that both Duchesses mix high street with high fashion. They’ll happily spend serious money trying to copy exactly what they wear, too, whether from British brands or other parts of the world.”
According to Lyst, the global fashion search platform, the influence the Duchesses have when it comes to fashion brands of all sizes can be quantified by the spikes they generate in online traffic.
After Meghan wore a pair of Jimmy Choo Romy pump shoes to Canada House for an engagement last month, for example, searches increased by 126 percent in 26 hours. Wearing a black Marks & Spencer jumper increased searches for the brand by 387 percent in 12 hours, while a Club Monaco shirt dress worn by the Duchess last September during the royal couple’s tour of South Africa sold out in less than 24 hours — following a 570 percent spike in searches.
Ms. Symonds can also prompt her own occasional online shopping bonanza, sparking a 140 percent surge in searches for “Whistles animal print dresses” after she wore a version at the Conservative party conference last fall, and a 233 percent spike in those hunting for the Luella dress by British brand Ghost after it was worn by Ms. Symonds for her first official appearance at Downing Street.
So who might step up and fill the void? Social media influencers may be paid tens of thousands of pounds to turn up at fashion week events and appear in campaigns or even on the runway. But Rosie Shephard, the founder of the Luxury Communications Council, said that only a handful of those people are able to move meaningful volumes of clothes, shoes and handbags.
“Instagram is now flooded with photos of either influencers or celebrities in contractual relationships with brands, and savvy consumers recognize this in an instant. The magic has slightly worn off that approach,” Ms. Shephard said. “What makes most royals and politicians unique is the restrictions on them making money from their fashion choices. So what they wear, even if chosen for them by stylists, feels more authentic for many fans. And for a brand, it makes that endorsement invaluable.”
Whether that will still hold true for the Duchess of Sussex now that she has changed her rules of engagement is unclear. Her relocation could mean paid ambassadorial agreements with fashion brands — or even her own collection — further down the line. (Any official details are yet to be disclosed.) Up until now, she has supported a number of British designers, albeit to a lesser extent than her sister-in-law. Whether she feels obligated to continue that patronage, or expands it to include even more designers from Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth, remains to be seen.
As for other potential royal fashion supporters, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie appear to have been encouraged to pursue office jobs, while Sophie Wessex, a one-time public relations maven, is dutiful but not especially starry. The Duchess of Cambridge, adept at a public charm offensive, is a quiet booster. Still, a transition to front-row mainstay seems at odds with her ongoing efforts to appear normal.
There will be a regal presence of sorts next week: On Feb. 18, Princess Anne will present the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design to Rosh Mahtani, the founder of jewelry brand Alighieri.
And although Ms. Symonds has thus far evaded runway shows and Vogue spreads, she is said to be an enthusiastic clothing renter, a strategy that allows her to occasionally wear designer clothes while keeping her green credentials intact.
“Until recently the industry had some unique assets up its sleeve by being able to connect its fashion brands with these glamorous and influential names. Now that will be a little less easy, but no one is panicking,” Ms. Shepherd said.
She pointed to young British actresses like Florence Pugh, Daisy Ridley and Jodie Turner Smith, and pop stars like Dua Lipa, all of whom continue to fly the fashion flag for London talent.
“Designers and image makers have always known that they simply need to change and adapt to the times,” Ms. Shephard said. “The show must always go on.”