08.01.11

Kate Middleton’s Favorite Label Bought

Kate Middleton has been called the ‘unofficial brand ambassador’ of British fashion label Issa. Now the company has been bought by Camilla Al-Fayed, the 26-year-old half-sister of Princess Diana’s late boyfriend, Dodi Al-Fayed. By Isabel Wilkinson.

When she’s not in an Alexander McQueen wedding gown, Kate Middleton is famous for her slinky wrap dresses and girly prints. More often than not, they’re the creations of Issa, the popular British brand for which Middleton has become known as its unofficial ambassador.

When Middleton wore a blue Issa dress to announce her engagement to Prince William in November, it sold out within 24 hours. It inspired several knockoffs, which in turn also were wiped from the shelves, and prompted a “little blue dress” craze.

The Middleton style frenzy was born—and Issa was a brand forever changed.

But now the label has been purchased by Camilla Al-Fayed, daughter of the former Harrods chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed. At 26, she’s a beautiful fixture on the British social scene, with deep pockets, important social connections, and limited experience in the fashion world. And she’s promising to vastly transform Middleton’s favorite brand.

Created by the Brazilian designer Daniella Issa Helayel in 2001, Issa has slowly grown into a beloved label. Often compared to Diane Von Furstenberg, it is regarded as an “evergreen” brand, and one largely unfazed by passing trends. “They’re clothes for girls who want to look polished and sexy but not too sexy, stylish but not fashion victims, respectable but not middle-aged,” says Catherine Ostler, former editor of Tatler magazine. “You could meet your future mother-in-law in one of [Issa’s dresses] and she wouldn’t think you were a flapper.”

Helayel presented her first runway collection during London Fashion Week in 2003, and has since become the go-to designer for some of London’s most fashionable girls. Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie have worn her designs, along with stars such as Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, and Keira Knightley.

The success of Issa—and the popularity of Middleton’s style—has ushered in an aesthetic shift in British fashion. While Kate Moss’s style—skinny jeans, ripper T shirts, and bedhead—was popular in London only a year ago, now it’s all about polish. “In England, there was a real trend for women to look grungy and tarty and scruffy, and [Kate and Pippa Middleton] made it clear that you could scrub up and look really attractive,” says Ostler. “Issa became really associated with that.”

She may be a popular designer, but financially, it hasn’t always been an easy ride for Helayel. She ran out of money after her first few seasons, which prompted an investment from her family friend, Laura Moltedo, the former president of Bottega Veneta. As Issa’s CEO, Marc Abegg, told WWD last year, the business is “small—but growing.” Unsurprisingly, the team at Issa was unprepared for the attention from the Middleton boost—and it was difficult for the small company to keep up with newfound interest. “They’re thrilled and grateful,” says Samantha Conti, London bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily. “But from what I can see, they’ve kept their heads down and are just trying to keep up with demand.”

That should all change now that Camilla Al-Fayed is in charge. With a 51 percent stake in the company, she will assume the role of chairwoman while Helayel—who retains 49 percent—will remain its creative director. The women are good friends, and Helayel said she reviewed many investors before deciding Al-Fayed was the right fit for the company.

Camilla has had little concrete experience in the fashion world. She had exposure through her father, Mohamed Al-Fayed, who was the chairman of Harrods department store for 25 years before selling it to Qatar Holdings for £1.5 billion in 2010. And she worked briefly as a fashion news presenter for a British TV show. Her elder sister, Jasmine, on the other hand, started her own fashion line, Jasmine Di Milo, within Harrods in 2003. It quickly became popular with stars such as Sienna Miller and Thandie Newton, but closed last year because Di Milo reportedly wanted to pursue other interests. Camilla herself, meanwhile, flirted with design—telling the press she also wanted to create a label for Harrods—but nothing came of it.

She is best-known for her constant and, to some, “maniacal” presence on London’s social scene, attending party after party with socialite friends that include Dasha Zhukova, Tatiana Santo Domingo, Princess Charlotte Casiraghi, and model Natalia Vodianova. But her heavy partying stopped after she became pregnant in 2009—and she’s been largely out of the limelight since then. Al-Fayed, who is notoriously tight-lipped with the press, refused to reveal the identity of her baby’s father. (She has been linked to Brandon “Greasy Bear” Davis, the former boyfriend of Paris Hilton, British boy-bander Lee Ryan, and guitarist Johnny Borrell.) It has since been reported that the father is 30-year-old real-estate mogul Mohamed Esreb.

Camilla’s a fixture on the social scene, with deep pockets, important social connections, and limited experience in the fashion world.

After Al-Fayed spent a year under the radar, it sends a strong message that she is returning now with her first official foray into fashion. “[Daniella] has worked hard to earn the success that she has achieved over the last eight years,” Al-Fayed told Vogue. “I believe she now needs a partner who will support her vision in order that we can take the brand to a global customer.” Al-Fayed will provide a much-needed cash infusion for the brand and a long list of connections. Not only will she expose Issa to the right socialites and celebrities, but her family history at Harrods will surely arm her with a thick Rolodex of retail, manufacturing, and distribution contacts as well. As Camilla is the half-sister of Dodi Al-Fayed, Princess Diana’s boyfriend who died alongside her in the car crash in 1997, it may seem awkward for her to be taking control of a company so closely associated with the royal family. But her father has taken strides since Diana's and Dodi’s death to mend ties, remaining an active supporter of Diana’s former school since 1998. “It’s a long way away from the associations of Diana and Dodi,” Conti says.

With the new leadership at Issa, there will soon be a lot of change for Middleton’s favorite brand. Al-Fayed says she aims to open stand-alone Issa stores in London and Brazil in the next few years, and an e-commerce store for the brand next month. The company plans to expand the brand in the United States, which is a notoriously difficult market to crack, and to create children’s and home lines. People inside the company will likely be replaced, as Al-Fayed lists “managerial changes” among the first few she’ll make. “We’re restructuring the whole business model,” she says. “The long-term plan is to create a lifestyle brand… The Issa label has a lot more to give and we’re very excited about the future.”