Visiting Alessandra Rich’s showroom is like getting a glimpse into the future. Yes, it’s a relatively limited glimpse (one where your powers are limited to predicting what the Duchess of Cambridge will wear next year), but it’s the future nonetheless.
Our future Queen tends to spread her love liberally when it comes to fashion, typically wearing a mix of British designers, with some tactical high street pieces thrown in. But this year she has been unusually monogamous; everywhere from Prince Philip’s memorial service to Royal Ascot, Kate has been spotted (sorry) in Alessandra Rich polka dots. Flicking through the rails of Rich’s upcoming collection and seeing a strawberry print dress, I make a mental note of what the Duchess may be wearing to next year’s Wimbledon final, while a red and white number with an oversized collar must be a contender for the annual Christmas card.
Rich has never actually met the Duchess of Cambridge but since her polka dots emerged as Kate’s all-but official uniform for 2022, the designer has been thrust into the spotlight like never before. “It was a huge surprise for me,” says Rich in her strong Italian accent. “We only know she’s wearing one of the dresses when we see her in it - we’re never told anything in advance. We don’t ask and they don’t say.”
The particular silhouette that Kate is currently so wedded to - long-sleeved, ending just above the ankle, with a cinched-in waist - is now indelibly linked to the brand, so much so that when I arrive at Rich’s glossy Mayfair studio I am momentarily surprised to find her opening the door in a baggy black t-shirt and boyfriend jeans.
The second surprise comes from looking through her collections which - strawberry-prints aside - seem rather too racy for our future Queen. There are diamante-encrusted micro-mini dresses, bulky camouflage jackets and high-waisted leather trousers, all of which peddle a very different version of Italian style to the covered-up numbers Kate is so fond of.
“Not everything I make is long dresses,” says Rich, almost sharply. “If you see Dua Lipa or Hailey Bieber wearing my brand, you will see there are many different types of women and clothing.” I ask if her popularity with the Duchess of Cambridge can be frustrating as it leaves her typecast, and she laughs. “I am super grateful. The buyers know the collection is bigger so it is fine that the public mostly knows the more conservative pieces. The Duchess of Cambridge is such a style icon, I can’t ever say I’m not thrilled she likes my clothes.”
Rich in more than just name, the designer has long been a go-to for the society set and her dresses retail for about £1,300 each. She was born in the Italian countryside and moved to Mayfair nearly 30 years ago after meeting her British husband at an art fair. Today, she lives between two apartments - one airy, art-filled flat on ultra-sleek Mount Street and another in central Milan. At the start of their marriage, it was she who assisted her husband Steven at his gallery; today, he is the CEO of her flourishing label.
Rich came to her career later in life, starting her business in 2010, aged 41, with no formal training, just an understanding of how frustrating it was to have nothing to wear to the glamorous art world events she attended on a weekly basis. “I learned everything from scratch,” she says. “In the early days I was just doing something that I liked, it was a passion project. I was naive but determined and I had logic, so I’ve got here now.”
As a consequence of starting out two decades later than most designers, Rich has never been particularly focused on appealing to the young. “I love my age, I love having clients who aren’t super young, because you know yourself better, you know what you want - this is true for everyone, so it must be true for the Duchess. I am just happy that what she wants at this stage of her life is my clothes.”
Of all the Alessandra Rich dresses the Duchess of Cambridge has been photographed in this year, the designer’s favourite is the cream and coffee-coloured one she wore at Royal Ascot with a brown hat and clutch bag. “She looked so beautiful. It was in crepe de chine, with an asymmetrical hem - she was like light in it, she looked amazing. It was the perfect choice for this incredible event. We don’t have things like Ascot in Italy so it’s wonderful for me to see women like the Duchess dressing up for it here.”
Living between Milan and London, and being a darling of the British social scene while showing her collections in Paris, has given Rich a particularly international perspective. At first she refuses to be drawn on the prevailing looks of the various countries she spends time in, saying that women everywhere are beautiful, but later, she returns to the subject.
“London is much more energetic and out-there than Milan,” she says. “I was walking along Oxford Street the day I flew in from Italy and thinking that British women do wear bolder and more revealing clothes than Italians.” She gestures at her thighs and chest and pauses before adding, “Maybe it’s confidence, or maybe not.”
Throughout our meeting, Rich is friendly and eminently likeable but she also seems uncomfortable with the process of being interviewed. Each time I ask a question about anything other than the specifics of her collections, she gets an almost pained expression on her face. It is only when I mention that I have nothing to wear to an upcoming wedding that her entire demeanour changes and she beckons me to stand up. Within minutes, the formal interview is over and I’m standing in my underwear with a suddenly energised Rich passing me dress after dress.
“I love this on you,” she says, about a colourful print number with a slit so high I fear borrowing it would mean banishment from the church. “It’s fine,” says Rich with a very Italian wave of her hand. “All my pieces are like this - they cover the arms or the legs but there’s always a split somewhere, or a body chain underneath. It is good to be a bit naughty.”
For someone who is famous for making relatively conservative dresses beloved by a future Queen, Rich references sex appeal more often than I would expect, referring to Princess Diana as an inspiration because of how alluring she was and saying how important it is that customers feel ‘sensual’ when wearing her designs.
I ask if she has any advice for women who don’t always feel sexy and she pauses. “I think the answer is dressing for yourself and not the opposite sex,” she says. “It is much more difficult to please another woman than to please a man. Pleasing another woman is more a question of your mind and how you perceive yourself; pleasing a man, well that’s easy.”
The Duchess of Cambridge - who famously caught Prince William’s eye while wearing a see-through shift at a university fashion show, but only became the darling of the fashion world well into her thirties - probably knows this better than anyone…
Kate in Alessandra Rich
Wimbledon, 10 July 2022
“I love this navy blue look - it looks like two pieces but it’s one piece, and she looked beautiful in it. There is something sexy about covered-up clothes - women know that they can be very sensual even when they aren’t showing their legs. If they wear something they like, in a shape they like, they feel their beauty more.”
Wimbledon, 5 July 2022
“I feel very lucky that my dresses are so popular in the British social season. I think it’s because women feel modern but classic when they wear them. My dresses have found a place at events like Wimbledon and the Jubilee - but it was not something that was planned; it was a happy accident.”
Royal Ascot, 17 June 2022
“People make the mistake of thinking this is black and white but it’s actually off-white with coffee-coloured polka dots. It was made from crepe de chine, and the skirt has an asymmetrical hem. I love how Kate brought the colours out with a brown hat; she looked so sophisticated.”
Service of Thanksgiving for the life of the Duke of Edinburgh, 29 March 2022
“It’s always flattering to wear a longer skirt - they create a nice shape and make the waist smaller. Long dresses change your attitude and the way you sit and give you a softness because they’re so feminine.”
In Nassau, Bahamas, 26 March 2022
“There’s always something ‘wrong’ in the dress that makes it right. If it’s too perfect, it can fall into being too plain. I have added big buttons, and an oversized belt and a frilly collar - things that make it more fun.”
D-Day exhibition at Bletchley Park, 14 May 2019
“This dress is all about its shape, with pleats and a very Forties cut. It’s a very flattering cut and all women look beautiful in it. It’s a perfect occasion wear style.”