It is one of the biggest secrets in the country, and one with potentially huge ramifications for the British high street: who has designed Kate Middleton's wedding dress?
Increasingly loud rumours that the royal wedding dress could be the work of lesser-known designer Sophie Cranston – founder of the label Libelula – forced the company to issue a denial last week, at which point the speculative spotlight shone upon Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, Bruce Oldfield, Phillipa Lepley and Alice Temperley.
The bride-to-be's choice is expected to have huge repercussions as high street stores prepare to satisfy a generation of mini-Kates seeking to replicate the future queen.
Cranston started Libelula – which means dragonfly in Spanish – in 2002. Middleton is already a fan of her designs, most recently wearing a black velvet dress coat to a friend's wedding in January. Her vintage-inspired aesthetic, which often focuses on 1920s and 1930s styles, has slim, bias-cut silhouettes that flatter narrow frames, and seems in keeping with Middleton's style.
But with so much riding on it, many fashion insiders are hoping that Kate has chosen the boldest design house in the running, Alexander McQueen. McQueen's successor, Sarah Burton, who has dressed the likes of Lady Gaga and Cate Blanchett, would make a daring choice for the conservative bride-to-be.
"There is obviously a huge amount of speculation and gossip, but personally I think it would be amazing if she wore McQueen," says Sarah Clark, senior fashion editor at Glamour magazine. "It would definitely be a bold choice for Kate. The fashion house is known for being dramatic and contemporary, so it would make a real statement.
"Of course, any designer Kate chooses to wear will immediately become a household name – the coverage will be unbelievable. It will catapult that designer into the mainstream. It's hard to overestimate the impact."
The Kate Middleton brand is already worth millions. After her shopping trip in Chelsea last week, sales of short-sleeved black dresses rocketed by 90%, according to price comparison website StyleCompare. Sales of brown bags saw a similar 60% upturn at retailers such as Radley and Paul's Boutique.
Similarly, the blue silk Issa dress she wore to announce her engagement last November catapulted Brazilian designer Daniella Helayel to global fame. In a further bout of Middleton fever, Whistles and Reiss had to reissue the dress and cream silk blouse Kate wore in her engagement photos. Sales of her familiar black knee-high boots have soared, and Debenhams has announced its £6 replica of her engagement ring is set to become its fastest-selling piece of jewellery.
Julia Rebaudo, style expert at StyleCompare, said that if Middleton chose the softer, more feminine designer Alice Temperley, we would be likely to see scalloped edges, beading and hand embroidery replicated on the high street.
"If Kate goes with Alexander McQueen then we can expect a structured statement piece, but infused with Burton's touch of femininity. But if she goes with Alice Temperley we could be looking at something slightly more deconstructed, romantic and bohemian – a style that would easily translate to the high street and would definitely be picked up on."
The other designers said to be in the running produce more classical dresses. Jasper Conran and Bruce Oldfield were among Princess Diana's favourites, but their designs are more traditional and understated. Fashion experts say Middleton will try to distance herself from the Diana legacy and that could make her even more popular.
"Kate is synonymous with the British high street, in a way that Princess Diana never was, which definitely adds to her appeal as a modern princess. Her style is accessible," says Clark. "She shops in high street stores such as Whistles and Warehouse and she used to work at Jigsaw. She always looks chic and polished, but admits she's not obsessed with current trends."
Middleton's more conservative style may be more fitting in the current economic climate, said Clare Coulson, of Harper's Bazaar magazine. "Princess Diana's wedding dress was very much a design of the moment; blowsy big sleeves and romantic Laura Ashley-style dresses spread everywhere on the high street. Of course in our recession it's harder to have an impact – Kate can't look excessive, but in the abbey you still need to make a bold statement."
One thing's for certain, Middleton will have to choose a British designer, so up-and-coming homegrown talents are looking to her choice with interest. Independent designer 26-year-old Rosa Hirsch-Holland, who runs her own cult label, Rosa Bloom, says she is intrigued by what choice Kate will make. "If she goes for something a little off-the-wall, then it could certainly inspire customers who would normally play it safe to seek out something with a bit more edge," said Hirsch-Holland.
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