Each month I give my verdict on who has shown the world an interesting and distinctive brand. My latest personal brand of the month goes to…
I find this Brand of the Month an interesting one on a few different levels.
This month, we saw Markle take a seat on an International Women’s Day panel for the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, holding her own next to the likes of activist, model and mental health campaigner Adowa Aboah, pop icon and advocate of ‘global feminism’ Annie Lennox, and Australia’s former prime minister Julia Gillard. She spoke passionately and articulately about the importance of male involvement and using your voice in advocating for gender equality, and not just on social media (stating ‘Hashtags are not enough’).
Markle, who comes from a privileged, all-girls private school background, once shared, ‘I’ve never wanted to be a lady who lunches – I’ve always wanted to be a woman who works.’ She certainly worked her way up in her acting career, becoming a skilled, well-paid lead in a highly rated TV series. She also cultivated a social conscience, and worked that as well with her involvement with UN Women as an advocate for political participation and leadership.
Markle has also shared: ‘With fame comes opportunity, but it also includes responsibility – to advocate and share, to focus less on glass slippers and more on pushing through glass ceilings. And, if I’m lucky enough, to inspire.’ Given that the word ‘fairytale’ continues to be a ubiquitous label for royal romance, perhaps we should keep these words in mind as a modern-day mantra. Markle’s is no Cinderella story (thank God).
In Markle, we can certainly see a strong sense of an authentic inner brand – passion,
purpose, values, vision – shining through. We also see plenty of evidence of a strong outer brand. During countless appearances now, she has demonstrated a refined, poised yet strong personal presence, matched with an elegant yet cool personal style (a refreshing contrast to the dowdy ‘standard uniform’ many of the royal females have adopted). Her personal brand reminds us that being a feminist and being feminine are not mutually exclusive.
And I should add that not many women can pull of Maternity Chic. Here she is radiating in a stunning cream-colored cape dress by Dior:
There’s another thing that stood out this month: the polarizing effect of Markle’s brand, and not just what’s been splattered across the tabloids over the past few months.
Earlier this month, I was at a dinner for the National Theatre, where Markle’s name was announced as the newest ambassador of our ‘Young Patrons’ group (her other sole royal patronages champion education, women’s employment and animal welfare). The room applauded, with the exception of a fellow table guest who emitted a sound like a dying goose. When a few of us probed him, our heckler couldn’t provide a precise answer…he simply didn’t like her. I received a similar response from friends the following week, who, in almost trigger response to her name, dismissed her as ‘tacky’, citing her lavish baby shower as a recent example (we’ll get to that).
When her engagement to Prince Harry was first announced, Markle was largely portrayed in the media as a ‘breath of fresh air’ for the royal family. She has since plunged head first into royal duties and has done her fair share to dazzle the media. But the Markle Pendulum swings.
I’ve of course raised a curious eyebrow at the increasing barrage of harsh media: ‘Demanding’ Meghan ‘emails staff instructions as early as 5 a.m., as personal assistant quits in tears’ blared the Sun. ‘Feuding’ Kate and Meghan (or at the least a cool distancing) rumours went viral. And then there’s the imminent departure of Sussex’s private secretary, which fueled the ‘difficult Duchess’ storyline.
There are certain dimensions to her brand that might be immediately polarizing for some, whether it be attributed to racism (covert or overt) given her mixed-race and American background, and/or association with black social-spiritual activism, to the belief that she has less worth as a human, a ‘commoner’ with a different type of ‘blood’ from the long-entwined royal bloodlines. Such prejudices run deep of course and have fueled an ugly barrage of online abuse towards Markle. But some of the polarizing of her brand seems to be more ‘surface’ than this.
Case in point, the baby shower.
As the press were quick to point out, her stateside visit came at no additional cost to the taxpayer as it was a privately-funded affair, with Markle flying on a private jet. But in the royal family, there are traditions to uphold…and perceptions. The criticism seemed to center around the fact that her baby shower looked more ‘celebrity’ than ‘royal’. After all, the star-studded guest list included the likes of Amal Clooney and Serena Williams, with Williams reportedly funding the soirée. Could it be that the Infamous Baby Shower of New York was just too glaring a contrast to the ‘sober mainstream’ of the royal duties facing the Duke and Duchess of Sussex? Perhaps my friend was right; if it is all about perception, a lavish New York baby shower may have very well been Markle’s biggest recent misstep.
I imagine this is a tricky one to navigate. As an American, Markle may have wanted to pay homage to her roots and celebrate her baby-to-be with her friends, like her friends. And, as a celebrity, glamourous friends and all the accompanying glitz come with the Markle package. As a royal, however, her behaviour is judged much more rigorously.
This raises an interesting point. Is there room for respecting both tradition and maintaining one’s own personal brand, at least to an extent, in the royal family? Will we see more glimpses of the Artist formally known as actress Meghan Markle or will she default to more of a pre-packaged Duchess of Sussex version? I’d personally be quite surprised (and quite frankly disappointed) by the later (and let’s not forget who her ‘co-brand’ is!).
I came across the following analogy made by Margo Jefferson of the Guardian: ‘Today the House of Windsor is like a venerable and all too predictable fashion house. Its cultural currency depends on history packaged as costume drama: The Queen, The Crown, The King’s Speech, Darkest Hour. To flourish it must attract new designers, new ideas and new muses.’ She has a point. Perhaps the royal family needs that magic touch from a Lagerfeld; a deep respect for tradition while adding something contemporary and relevant to the mix. Jefferson also reminds us that last year, Virgil Abloh, a Ghanaian American designer, became artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton, ‘a fashion house founded in 1854 when Queen Victoria was on the throne and the royal family had yet to be rebranded as the House of Windsor’.
While our ‘Cambridges’ will undoubtedly uphold the more traditional perceptions of the royal family, I’m sure our ‘Sussexes’ will continue to provide a refreshing counterbalance, challenging and breaking the mould.
We’ll of course just have to wait and see (I for one can’t wait). In the meantime, I hope we can sit back and enjoy the style, passion, charisma and modernity Meghan Markle injects into the royal family. Love her or hate her — and similar to other fabulously unconventional royals of the recent past like Grace Kelly and Diana — there’s no doubt that Markle’s a brand eliciting a strong response; one that may even prove to be an empowering example for generations of young women to come.