Spain’s new Queen Letizia is the ideal billboard for her country’s fashion industry.
The recent coronation of Crown Prince Felipe de Borb as the new Spanish king and his wife, Letizia, as queen consort is generally being greeted, anti-monarchists aside, as a new start for Spain; a smart move on the part of Felipe’s father, King Juan Carlos; and the introduction of a new royal “fashion icon” – this last even though the event itself is billed as an austere affair, without the usual pomp and elaborate gowns a coronation implies.
Nevertheless, comparisons between Letizia and the last young attractive royal to make fashion news, the Duchess of Cambridge, have been rife. Hello magazines everywhere have begun salivating about the cover possibilities. She is elegant! She is reed-like! She wears jewel tones!
All of which is fair, and true, enough. But what all the breathless coverage thus far has missed is that the real significance of Letizia has less to do with the fact that she takes the sort of picture that feeds the celebrity maw, and more to do with the fact she embodies an opportunity for the Spanish fashion industry that comes along, well, once in a royal handover.
She is a living, breathing marketing bonanza for both the mass market and the high-end apparel sector. And in this context, her importance, especially for a country whose economy has not entirely recovered from the recession, should not be underestimated.
For though Letizia has been the subject of close attention in her own country since she married Prince Felipe in 2004 after a career as a journalist and news anchor – there was a blog that tracked her clothing choices much as the blog O tracked those of Michelle Obama – she has played a relatively low-key role on the international stage.
She did not, for example, make it onto the Vanity Fair best-dressed list until 2009, and then did not make another appearance until last year. (To put this in perspective: the Duchess of Cambridge has landed on the list every year since her wedding in 2011, and appeared on it as Kate Middleton a few years beforehand.)
All that is about to change, however, in part because Letizia and her husband are expected to begin a royal tour following the coronation. Representing their country, they will also represent its industry. And that in turn represents a chance for Spanish fashion to raise its profile and, with it, its profits – in particular Spanish fashion beyond Zara and Mango, which arguably have enough profiles and profits (though Letizia has been known to wear both, in the high-low, Obama-Duchess of Cambridge mode that has become par for the course in post-crisis democracies).
After all, as much as anything, the job of first spouse, even if just symbolic – especially because it is symbolic – has historically and currently involved acting as a billboard for the local fashion industry, no matter what the country.
It’s the reason Jacqueline Kennedy had to switch allegiance from Hubert de Givenchy to Oleg Cassini when her husband became president; why the Duchess of Cambridge favours Alexander McQueen and Jenny Packham; why Peng Liyuan wears Ma Ke; and why Obama has been so deliberate about promoting new American designers like Jason Wu, Isabel Toledo and Thom Browne (though Obama has also broken out of purely patriotic strictures and worn non-American designers such as Azzedine Alaia, Moschino and Junya Watanabe).
Madrid Fashion Week has long been the neglected sibling of the European ready-to-wear industry – it does not draw anywhere near the same global attention as the big three of Milan, Paris and London (possibly because it inexplicably takes place this fall from Sept 12 to 16, the same time as London Fashion Week) – so you can see why Letizia may represent a trend-changer.
Certainly, when it comes to Spain, the high-street behemoths aside, most people outside the borders would be hard pressed to name the major homegrown designers – at least the ones who could influence global trends, are still working in Spain and are not owned by foreign groups.
Which is to say: not Manolo Blahnik, who is based in London; not Fortuny, which has transmogrified into an Italian textile manufacturer; not Balenciaga, which is based in Paris, owned by the French conglomerate Kering and designed by the Asian-American Alexander Wang; and not Loewe, which is owned by LVMH and designed by Jonathan Anderson, a Brit.
Not even Paco Rabanne, which is owned by the Puig Group, the Barcelona-based beauty conglomerate, but is shown at Paris Fashion Week, nor the up-and-coming label Delpozo, which left Spain to show at New York Fashion Week to build buzz, following in the footsteps of the street-style label Custo Barcelona.
Rather, think Felipe Varela, Lorenzo Caprile and Ailanto.
Er ... ? Exactly.
Yet these designers, who have been part of Madrid Fashion Week, are also the designers most worn by Letizia over the last 10 years. She chose Felipe Varela, for example, in 2012 for an official visit to Portugal (black and white lace off-the-shoulder cocktail number) and for the 2009 state visit of Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French president, and his wife, Carla Bruni (a raspberry bandage dress that was widely said to trump the French first lady’s Dior), and donned Caprile for a 2011 dinner with Prince Charles, to name a few of the events that have been suddenly resurrected by Get the Look! sites around the Internet.
With her husband’s coronation, Letizia doesn’t just become queen, she becomes the equivalent of a global brand communication superhighway. In her role, and her wardrobe, lies the power to change a designer’s name recognition globally, which in turn changes retailers’ desire to stock said designer, which changes the designer’s business.
It effectively takes the obsession with how a first lady looks and what she wears, that much-derided international pastime, and turns it into a tool for national economic growth. Ka-ching. – International New York Times