Meghan Markle’s fashion line shows how she’s redefining her role as a royal

Meghan Markle at the launch event on September 12. | PA Images via Getty Images

The Duchess of Sussex debuted her charitable clothing collection of women’s workwear.

Five months after giving birth to baby Archie, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, is back to work. Thursday, September 12 marked the launch of her fashion collection with the British charity Smart Works, a line of five women’s workwear pieces that brings together four different British clothing brands.

The collection, called the Smart Set, includes a Marks & Spencer crepe shift dress for $32, $138 tote bag from John Lewis, a $245 blazer and $148 slim-fit trousers from Jigsaw, and a classic white button-down for $125 from designer (and close friend of Markle’s) Misha Nonoo. For every piece purchased, one will be donated to Smart Works. Some, like the tote bag, are already sold out, while the blazer and trouser set aren’t available to ship to the U.S.

Markle herself wore two of the pieces, the shirt and the trouser, to debut the collection at the John Lewis store in London Thursday. There’s a reason why each item appears startlingly simple: Smart Works offers coaching and styling sessions for unemployed women ahead of job interviews, many of whom may not have the budget to purchase an entirely new, office-appropriate outfit to appear professional (Americans may be more familiar with Dress for Success, a similar organization based in the states).

“Since moving to the U.K., it has been deeply important to me to meet with communities and organizations on the ground doing meaningful work and to try to do whatever I can to help them amplify their impact,” Markle said in a statement posted on Instagram. Under each product description is a quote from Markle: “Not a hand out, a hand held.”

Since becoming the Duchess of Sussex, Markle has incorporated her status as a wildly influential fashion icon in her royal duties, and it’s clear that post-maternity leave, she’ll continue to do so.

Yet while Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, has followed a more traditional script in terms of her relationship to the fashion industry — she favors a handful of rather prim British designers at public events and her 2016 appearance in British Vogue was limited to a low-key photo shoot in the countryside — Markle has approached her royal status more like a modern lifestyle influencer.

For instance, her first charity project as the Duchess of Sussex was a cookbook featuring recipes from the Hubb Community Kitchen, formed by a group of women in the aftermath of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, in which 72 people died. Instead of the typical photo spread in British Vogue, she instead guest-edited this year’s September issue after casually shooting a text to its editor, Edward Enninful and filled its cover with 15 “forces for change,” including women like Laverne Cox and Jameela Jamil (there was also an empty space that was meant to look like a mirror, so that “you see yourself as part of this collective,” she wrote.)

 Samir Hussein/WireImage
Meghan Markle in her Smart Works collection on September 12.

Meghan and her husband Prince Harry also managed to get their own Instagram account, separate from @KensingtonRoyal (the official page for William and Kate) in April, despite previous Buckingham Palace statements implying the Duke and Duchess of Sussex would be grouped into the larger family’s social media accounts.

This all makes sense for a woman who was already a food and fashion influencer in her previous life. Aside from her work as an actress, most notably on the TV show Suits, Markle also had a blog called The Tig, where she wrote about healthy recipes, travel tips, and beauty reviews and interviewed celebrities. It’s the world she lived and became famous in before she’d ever met Harry.

It’s also — among a great deal of other things — what’s exposed Markle to fanatic and often cruel criticism, largely from the British press. There are the much-discussed physical signifiers of Meghan’s difference: She wears messy buns! She had no-makeup makeup for her actual wedding! She doesn’t always follow “royal protocol”! And the undercurrent beneath all of it is that she is a biracial American, a stark contrast to the royal family’s history of marrying their white, posh British peers. Every decision Meghan makes as a royal is heavily reprimanded by the press; despite the fact that she wasn’t the first royal to guest-edit a magazine, her choice to do so was called “idiotic,” “shamelessly hypocritical,” and “shallow” by various columnists.

Critics also reportedly condemned the price points of Markle’s new collection as too high, despite the fact that the entire point is to subsidize the cost of the clothing items so that a second can be donated to Smart Works.

Choosing affordable workwear for unemployed women as a banner cause is a telling sign of Meghan’s role as a royal: The kind that can use the word “feminist” without appearing visibly uncomfortable, who champions women entering the workforce, and who isn’t shying away from her former life as an influencer.

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