It’s been over a year since Meghan Markle became the Duchess of Sussex. And in that time, she's had a hand in influencing people’s lives through one medium: fashion. Similar to her sister-in-law Kate Middleton, and late mother-in-law Princess Diana, Meghan has become part of the phenomenon aptly titled “The Meghan Effect.” The term is used to describe the power the duchess holds when it comes to instantly selling out clothes she’s photographed in. In other words: If Meghan Markle wears an outfit, you can bet fans are searching for the exact look to copy. Though she may be an unintentional fashion influencer, Markle has wielded her status to champion brands and designers that are working to make the world a better place.
One example? There is a pair of V-10 Veja sneakers sitting in my closet because of the duchess. I’ve always admired the royal’s style, so when I saw her wearing the trendy brand (which I had never heard of before) during her and Prince Harry’s Australian tour, I participated in “The Meghan Effect” when I purchased the same item. Beside the fact I felt inclined to buy the trainers because I discovered them through Markle, I also admired the ethos behind the French brand's use of eco-friendly materials to create their shoes.
In a small way, it felt like I was contributing to sustainable fashion through my purchase — and I wasn’t alone. According to Lyst’s 2018 Year in Fashion Report, Instagram searches for Veja increased 113% the day after Markle was spotted in the look. On top of sustainability, Meghan has also shown her support for women-led brands and designers of color through her ensembles, ultimately giving them worldwide recognition through press.
Given her status in the media, making an important subject like sustainability a topic of discussion is something we applaud Meghan for. And it's no secret the fashion industry is negatively affecting the planet, especially when it comes to fast fashion. According to Good On You, a social impact business, fast fashion can be defined as "cheap, trendy clothing, that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed." You can also think of it as low-quality clothes made for consumers at a rapid pace. The United Nations Climate Change released a 2018 study which found the industry contributes to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and produces 20% of global water waste. To put things into perspective, 10,000 liters of water is the amount it takes to produce one kilogram of cotton, the equivalent of a single shirt or pair of jeans.
As for fast fashion, a 2018 BBC report revealed 235 million items of clothing were sent to landfills last year in the UK alone. Mary Creagh, a Member of Parliament, explained the current rate of the country’s consumption of clothes will “account for more than a quarter of our total impact on climate change by 2050.” One solution to this major issue would be for consumers to turn to sustainable brands and invest in pieces that will combat the throwaway culture our society has become accustomed to.
Yet convincing people to trade cheap, single-use pieces for pricier eco-friendly items may have its difficulties, which is why it’s inspiring to see the Duchess of Sussex utilize her fashion clout to advocate for sustainable brands. During Meghan and Prince Harry’s 2018 tour to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Tonga, the royal dressed primarily in sustainable labels, drawing attention to local brands as well as high-end designers.
The 16-day tour was extensively covered by the international media, often focusing on every single item the duchess wore. In turn, eco-friendly brands such as Outland Denim, Hiut, Reformation, and Figue were featured on hundreds of sites crediting the outfits seen on Markle. For Outland Denim, the royal donning their “Harriet” jeans was a game changer. According to the brand, a week and a half after Meghan wore the look, their site saw a 948% increase in traffic — it’s also worth mentioning the jeans sold out within 24 hours. Thanks to Meghan, the Australian-based label stated they were now able to employ up to 30 more seamstresses, all rescued from human trafficking, to work in its Cambodian production house. Through this, not only did Markle catapult this sustainable brand into the spotlight, but also helped the workers behind the product.
This is further proof that the Duchess of Sussex isn’t only deliberate about the sustainable items she wears, but also focuses on the person behind the creation of her clothes, namely minority designers. And the fashion industry's relationship with designers of color is another contentious issue that needs to be addressed. Case in point: In an article discussing the lack of racial diversity in fashion, Fast Company revealed that within the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s roster, which features more than 500 designers, only 3% are black. Displaying that minority designers have often not been able to experience the same media attention or opportunities as their white counterparts, which is something Markle is changing.
And given the recent controversies seen by brands like Gucci and Prada, a change is desperately needed. In early 2019, Gucci was accused of evoking blackface when they released a sweater that covered half of the model’s face and featured a design of large red lips around the mouth. The brand quickly removed the product from its site and created a new program to support diversity and inclusion in fashion after the incident, with a focus on helping kids in the African-American community.
Prada also received backlash in 2018 when the high-profile brand released a line of cartoon characters that also resembled blackface imagery, resulting in the label pulling the items from stores. Prada has since announced the creation of a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council that will be co-chaired by director Ava DuVernay and activist Theaster Gates. And while it’s hopeful to see the powerful fashion houses attempting to correct their mistakes, it only proves how prevalent the lack of diversity within the industry is today.
Given Meghan’s biracial background, it’s clear her support of designers of color holds a special meaning. And when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex debuted their newborn son Archie to the world, Meghan used the opportunity to wear a dress by a young designer named Grace Wales Bonner. Bonner, like Markle, is mixed-race and explained how her brand “embraces a multiplicity of perspectives, proposing a distinct notion of luxury, via a hybrid of European and Afro-Atlantic approaches.” The duchess’ choice catapulted Bonner’s name into the press and introduced her brand to millions who may have not discovered her if it weren’t for Markle’s decision to wear the label during the highly anticipated photo call.
Bonner’s case is just one example of how the fashion industry can become more inclusive and have a wider spectrum of representation when you highlight minority designers. Often, a lack of representation is not only from the designers but is seen on the runway, as well. And it can come down to the decision makers behind the scenes choosing certain types of model they want to spotlight. According to the Fashion Spot’s Spring 2019 Diversity Report, only 36.1% of all casting for fashion week across the four major cities in New York, London, Paris, and Milan went to models of color. And that was the most racially diverse fashion month ever. Style editor Robin Givhan told the Business of Fashion, “It’s not a particularly diverse industry. We are drawn to people who look like us. Unless [designers] are making a conscious decision to deviate from the standard, then the standard is what they go for. And [their] standard is blonde and blue eyed.”
Diversity isn’t the only issue the fashion industry faces: Gender inequality has become an important topic of discussion, with recent reports finding a disproportionate ratio of men to women in executive positions. In 2018, Glamour released a survey titled “The Glass Runway,” unveiling the disparity between men and women in top positions at fashion companies. What's even more astonishing is the fact that the majority of shoppers for these brands are women, making the gender imbalance all the more confusing. The article shared that 100 percent of the women they interviewed stated gender inequality is a problem in the industry. Less than 50 percent of the men surveyed agreed. It also found that at a junior level, women were 17% more likely than men to aspire to be in a top executive role. However, by the time women worked their way up to the VP level, the study found men were 20% more likely to reach for the higher position. The survey explained, “As women hit the middle-and-upper-management levels, they seem to get discouraged, with women half as likely as men to go for a bigger job. Several female industry veterans said they’d felt ‘lucky’ just to be hired or promoted at all.”
And when women do reach the top of the fashion chain, there’s still a huge discrepancy. According to a 2015 Business of Fashion survey, it found that 14% of 50 major fashion brands were run by a woman. In an interview with The New York Times, Glamour’s editor, Samantha Barry, shared how the public can help to solve the inconsistency: “Right now consumers put their fashion dollars behind companies that are sustainable. Why not do the same for companies that are run by women? That way female-led brands benefit, and other brands will be encouraged to follow their lead.” With a majority of male designers, it also shows that most women are wearing clothes designed for women by men — which is another taxing issue.
Which is where Meghan Markle comes in. Instead of quietly putting her money behind women-run businesses, the duchess is using highly publicized outings to champion female designers. Take, for example, her 2018 royal wedding to Prince Harry. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s nuptials were televised across 15 different broadcast and cable networks and was viewed by 29 million people. For the big day, Markle chose to wear a bespoke Givenchy dress, designed by the French fashion house’s first female artistic director Clare Waight Keller.
At the end of 2018, Meghan presented Waight Keller with the British Womenswear Designer of the Year Award, reportedly saying she had a “deeply personal connection with fashion and how fashion can support and empower women.” The designer has also been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world on Time’s 2019 list, and has continued to create custom looks for the duchess. Aside from Givenchy, the royal has also donned female designers such as Victoria Beckham, Misha Nonoo, and Stella McCartney (who made the duchess’ wedding reception gown). In fact, McCartney’s dress was so popular, she created an exclusive limited-edition version of Markle’s gown for fans to purchase.
The Duchess of Sussex’s forward-thinking approach to utilizing her status within the press is a fresh, much-needed way to not only share her values, but also help influence the millions of people that follow her fashion — for the better. The royal has impressively put contentious, important topics within the industry at the front and center of the media, all because she chose to wear a certain piece of clothing. If it takes a duchess to make people think harder about the pieces they wear, who designs them, and where they come from, imagine how much the industry could change if other influencers followed suit. It may seem subtle, but Meghan Marke is sending a message, and the world is listening.