Inside The Favourite Brand The Duchess Of Cambridge Inherited From Diana, Princess Of Wales
Catherine Walker & Co, the Chelsea-based atelier beloved by Diana, Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Cambridge, was born as a mode of therapy. In 1976, the recently widowed Walker met a lecturer named Said Cyrus, who tried to alleviate her grief by suggesting that she pursue a new creative outlet. Walker declared, “Well, I can cook and I can sew!” and Cyrus, who happened to major in design, steered his friend towards the latter. A business partnership – and romance – flourished between the pair. After working side by side as husband and wife and designers in the Bury Walk studios since 1977, the team of two became one when Walker died in 2010. Over the past nine years, Cyrus has been writing a new chapter in the house’s history – one that still finds favour with the royal family.
The brand recently received airtime on the royal tour of Pakistan. The Duchess of Cambridge commissioned Cyrus and his team of 30 artisans to create two custom ensembles that nodded to Pakistani culture and sartorial traditions. The first: aquamarine ombré separates designed in the silhouette of a shalwar kameez bore resemblance to the conservative two-piece Diana, Princess of Wales, wore during her tour of Pakistan in 1996. The second: a prim green tunic, which Kate paired with cream trousers by local designer Maheen Khan, put the royal’s own stamp on Pakistani fashion and evoked the innumerable dress coats Catherine Walker & Co has previously made for her. Both are emblematic of Cyrus’s meticulously researched approach to diplomatic fashion design, and the result of a trusted relationship with the family that began when Kate’s mother-in-law was expecting her first child, Prince William.
“I’m very aware of the fact that we design for businesswomen who have an important role in life,” Cyrus tells Vogue. “They come to Catherine Walker & Co for garments that are suitable for the role they are playing and that match up to the power they have.” The brand’s designs for Diana, Princess of Wales ranged from bespoke evening-wear for state visits around Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, to the black dress she purchased three weeks prior to her death, and which she was subsequently buried in. Cyrus’s discretion around the royal family is unwavering. “Everyone that walks through our door does so in the belief that they are having a private conversation that will go no further.” Even the Catherine Walker & Co dresses created for Carol Middleton and Lady Gabriella Windsor are identified by tireless picture agency research rather than as a result of his team’s own admissions.
Cyrus uses the example of how he sought out a trusted tailor back in the days when Catherine Walker & Co was primarily a dressmaker. “I found a short list in the Yellow Pages and called each tailor to enquire who their clients were,” Cyrus recalls. “Only one would not disclose his list of customers, and so I chose him to work with. Tailoring has now become one of the most important parts of our DNA, thanks to his influence.” Across the seven workshops, many of the pattern cutters, embroiderers, seamstresses and tailors have been on the journey with Cyrus from the start.
“The goal isn’t to get bigger, it’s to get better,” he points out. “Catherine and I always had the idea that we would cap the business at 30 employees to protect the integrity of it and to look after our clients.” The design floors are, as one might imagine, a studious place. “You must know the joke about an animal designed by a committee,” says the impeccably mannered Cyrus, breaking into a smile. “It has the face of a giraffe, the tail of a lion, the hoof of a cow, and so on. The concept should come from one mind, and then the teamwork begins. There’s not much time for chit chat.”
After four decades, Cyrus’s favourite part of the job is still “doing a pencil sketch and then seeing it come to life as a dress on a pretty girl”, he shares. “To me, that’s magic.” He is making moves to safeguard his craft, particularly the embellishment techniques he calls the company’s “lifeblood”, through partnerships with “wonderful” students at The Royal School of Needlework. Forward-planning comes in the form of e-couture, a service offered to clients further afield than SW3. Since its inception two years ago, one client in Asia has purchased every single design and sent her measurements through online forms, or what Cyrus calls brand-specific “e-technology”. “We’ve never even met her!” he says in astonishment. On the cutting table currently is a piece for a customer in Alaska.
“A lightbulb moment for the company came in the 1980s when a buyer offered Catherine and I so much money to sell it that we could have retired to a tropical paradise,” says Cyrus. “We decided right then and there that we didn’t want to become a money-making machine with no soul. I get up each morning and do what I want to do, which is look after our clients, rather than push paper around.” It’s clear, then, that the appeal of Catherine Walker & Co extends beyond its prim and proper reputation to the personality behind it.