How the 'Duchess of Cambridge effect' is helping British fashion in US

Kate's patronage of LK Bennett has propelled the UK brand into the fashion big league – and a Manhattan flagship store

Outside LK Bennett's brand-new Manhattan flagship store, four American women peer through the glass to look at the dress on display. It is above the knee, ruched at the side, and has these friends thinking they've seen it before. As they talk among themselves, one of them remembers who she saw it on. "Kate Middleton", she says, and at once the group starting gushing about the Duchess of Cambridge's style and rush into the shop.

This is the 'Kate effect', aka the Duchess effect, which has propelled the quintessentially British brand – famous for its statement 1990s 'kitten heels' – into a 2,100 sq ft space in New York.

Along with other British labels worn by the duchess, such as Reiss and Issa, LK Bennett is using its unofficial brand ambassador to make inroads in the US. Before the Manhattan store opening, on 23 March, the brand was sold online and in department store concessions, slowing building a dedicated fanbase. But the flagship represents the company's first growth as a result of the Kate effect.

"Kate Middleton is an elegant lady, she wears our clothing and our shoes very well, and the American public are infatuated with her, which has definitely helped us, being new to the American market," said Tony DiMasso, president at LK Bennett and former chief operations officer at Jimmy Choo. "The great press we've received because of her has helped people come to the store and see the brand. We've been very well received in the United States and are starting to look at more stand alone locations in the city and in other states, such as Florida and San Francisco."

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Robert Bensoussan, LK Bennett's executive chairman, hinted at plans to "go to 20 stores in the US very quickly".

The Manhattan store is in a prime spot in an upmarket shopping centre in Columbus Circle, close to the New York fashion week tents. The plush carpet, ladylike decoration, welcoming sales staff and prime positioning of the Davina dress that the duchess wore earlier this month while with the Queen as part of the diamond jubilee tour, is helping to attract both press and customers.

Manhattanite Salud Reyes, who lives in the Upper East Side, said LK Bennett was synonymous with Kate's style from dresses to shoes. "I regularly see them appear on the blog What Kate Wore, and I already have my eyes on LK Bennett's nude 'sledge heel' that she wore recently", says Reyes.

Mary Alice Stephenson, a former fashion editor of Vogue, Allure, Marie Claire and Harper's Bazaar, believes the duchess's appeal in America lay in her American aesthetic. "While she might be supporting British brands, the way that Kate dresses is very all-American, classic sportswear with a twist," said Stephenson. "She is also very smart using fashion the way that Michelle Obama does, Kate is championing new home-grown talent and breathing life into iconic, traditional British brands."

New York stylist Jess Zaino says her clients are not just chasing after the royal appeal, but that the dresses are accessible and fit regular women.

"The women I put in [LK Bennett] are curvy size 6 to 8 [US]. Also, the Davina dress, with the flattering ruche at the side, is a perfectly versatile dress. It's the new little black dress or the new DVF wrap dress," Zaino adds.

DiMasso is hoping to turn the growing demand for LK Bennett into a dedicated and loyal US customer base. "I think that the female customer in America expects a lot from her brands," DiMasso says. "If you can meet her expectations, she becomes very loyal to your brand."

The 'Kate effect'

The Duchess of Cambridge's patronage has helped a number of upmarket UK high street chains attract an international audience at a time when domestic sales are hard-won.

Although profits at LK Bennett fell to £5m on sales of some £80m in the year to 30 July 2011, its more recent performance has been strong with underlying sales jumping 15% in the six months to the end of January.

Whistles has also benefited from the Kate effect after the duchess wore one of its white silk blouses in the series of Mario Testino photos taken to mark her engagement.

Its owner, former Topshop supremo Jane Shepherdson, says the extra exposure has given the brand a "significant international profile". The engagement photoshoot was also good for Reiss as the series of outfits included a white £159 Reiss dress – and the duchess would wear another of its dresses when she met the Obamas.

The duchess looked rosy in the bandage-style dress and her long-held patronage of the brand has helped strengthen its financial performance, with the most recent set of accounts showing sales jumping more than 10% to £95m.

With the glamorous royal also now holding down a day job of sorts, Hobbs, a popular choice for working women, is benefiting as the duchess expands her work wardrobe. A brown woollen coat from its Unlimited collection sold out online after she wore it for a solo engagement in Liverpool.

The retailer, which started out as a shoe brand with a store in London's Hampstead, describes its clothes as "quintessentially British" with a contemporary twist. Its most recent figures showed profits more than doubling to nearly £7m after sales broke through the £100m barrier.

Contributors

Carlene Thomas-Bailey in New York and Zoe Wood

The GuardianTramp

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