With so much changing in Meghan Markle’s life after Prince Harry proposed in November 2017, the now-Duchess of Sussex didn’t get a chance to begin planning the breathtaking bridal gown she wore on her wedding day until a month after her engagement. Busy touring the U.K. with Harry for royal engagements, taking private meetings at Kensington Palace and unpacking the last of her things from her Toronto move, Markle needed a mid-December reminder from her best friend and bridal expert Jessica Mulroney, who told the bride-to-be during a phone call that the search for a royal wedding dress designer needed to begin “ASAP.”
Citing just a dozen “bridal inspo” pics saved to her phone from Instagram, Pinterest and fashion websites, Markle knew exactly what she was looking for—modern, elegant, timeless and appropriate. With the help of Mulroney, Markle worked her way through a list of potential designers, many of whom had submitted sketches to her office at Kensington Palace. “Designers from every big name in fashion you can think of were on that first list,” a source close to Markle tells BAZAAR.com. “Burberry, Ralph and Russo, Erdem, Roland Mouret, Stella [McCartney].”
However, one name remained a firm favorite the entire time. Clare Waight Keller had earlier in 2017 been appointed the first female artistic director at the house of Givenchy—a brand Markle had been a fan of for many years. While a French couture house may not have been the most obvious choice, Keller ticked the most important box—a Birmingham-born Brit who could fly the flag for British fashion at the most-watched royal wedding ever.
After exchanging emails, Toronto-based Mulroney set up an initial meeting for Markle and Keller in London before Christmas. Keller, 47, brought sketches and ideas for Markle to pour over during their 30-minute meeting in a quiet reception room at Kensington Palace’s offices. Markle immediately liked what she heard—and saw.
“I think she had seen my work and knew what I did,” says Keller. “I think she loved the fact that I was a British designer and working in a house such as Givenchy, which has its roots in a classical, beautiful style from the time of Hubert [de Givenchy] himself.”
During Keller’s second meeting with Markle and Mulroney on January 11, Markle told the designer she chose her to create the dress—a secret Keller would have to keep from everyone—even her own family—until the wedding day.
“It was an extraordinary moment when she told me,” says Keller. “It was an incredible thing to be part of, such an historic moment, and to have the opportunity to work with her—it was a wonderful way to start the collaboration with her.”
In the following weeks, sketches went back and forth between Markle and Keller, with the pair establishing a fast friendship through texts, phone calls and brief meetings. “From the very start we had a few variations on the design, but then very quickly it [held] to the final creation that you saw,” Keller says. At any time of day, the two would discuss ideas and even the designer’s busy life as a working mother of twin daughters and a seven-year-old son.
In mid-February, Markle secretly visited Keller at a property in South West London, where the designer keeps an archive of designs and pieces from her work with Chloé and Pringle of Scotland, sketches and catalogues from the House of Givenchy and an array of fabric samples and archival runway looks. Markle arrived in a discreet-looking town car and walked in without security or an assistant for the nearly two-hour meeting.
“[Meghan] was really focused, as I was, on it being absolutely perfect for the occasion. And also knowing what the House of Givenchy has done in its history, I think it was a collaboration that came through that,” says Keller. “We exchanged conversations about what would be the ultimate lines and proportions and the scale of the dress, but over time we got to a point where I [knew] she knew exactly what she wanted, having tried some of the toiles and mock-ups that I had shown her. And then it evolved into the final design.”
And so it began! Two small teams—the members of which all signed nondisclosure agreements—set up a private workspace at the Givenchy Haute Couture Atelier in Paris and an undisclosed workshop location in London. Keller, who conducted extensive research of fabric mills throughout Europe, even sourced an exclusive double-bonded silk cady in the “pure white color” Meghan had requested. With the fabric ready, the skilled ateliers immediately began work on what would soon become one of the most iconic bridal gowns of all time. “It was all about keeping the secret,” adds Keller.
“It was all about keeping the secret.”
It was particularly important for Markle to incorporate subtle acknowledgment of the important work she would carry out as a member of the royal family across the Commonwealth of Nations—especially since the Queen recently appointed Prince Harry as Commonwealth Youth Ambassador. “Over time we had different conversations back and forth, and I came up with the idea of representing each of the [53 Commonwealth countries]… through their flora. And we both loved the story of that. It also meant that every single one of those countries also journeyed up the aisle with her. It was a really poetic moment. She absolutely loved it.” Adds a Kensington Palace spokesman, “Ms. Markle wanted to express her gratitude for the opportunity to support the work of the Commonwealth by incorporating references to its members into the design of her wedding dress.”
Two bonus flowers? Wintersweet, which grows in front of the couple’s Nottingham Cottage home at Kensington Palace, and the California poppy, which is the official flower of Meghan’s home state. There are also crops of wheat around the flowers symbolizing love and charity. “I love the story of [the veil],” Markle told Keller during one of their conversations.
The five-meter silk tulle veil took longer to complete than the dress—almost 500 hours meticulously spent creating each flower with silk threads and organza on a flat surface before sewing it onto the veil. It was so delicate, the workers (who included a former Royal School of Needlework student) had to wash their hands every 30 minutes to keep the tulle and threads clean.
Markle’s next face-to-face meeting with Keller took place in March at Kensington Palace. Here, she saw the first detailed photos of the dress taking its final shape. It was the perfect example of expert craftsmanship, with just six discreet seams extending toward the the train at the back, and a sculpted waist. After toying between varying lengths of sleeve, the pair agreed on a slim three-quarter length version which, says a spokesman, “adds a note of refined modernity.”
With work taking place in two different workshops (one for the dress, another for the veil), it wasn’t until early April that the near-complete design was united in London, ready for what turned into three further in-person fittings to get the soft silhouette just right. In May, the finished article was quietly transported to Windsor Castle, where it was safely stored until Markle—joined by pal Mulroney for a weekend in the countryside—could attend one final fitting with Keller.
“There were a few adjustments in the later fittings, but by the time we got to the third stage, we were quite close to knowing what we needed to do,” explains Keller.
There was just one last person who needed to see it—the Queen. Just like the Duchess of Cambridge did three weeks before marrying Prince William in 2011, Markle privately presented a first look at the finished gown to Her Majesty before the big day. “It’s not for approval,” a Markle pal tells BAZAAR.com. “It is to share a special moment with the Queen, and possibly get a few words of advice before the wedding itself.”
With such a dramatic gown and an important moment to get right (and 10 pageboys and flower girls under the age of seven to worry about!), rehearsals needed to take place at St. George’s Chapel itself: one on May 17 and a second on May 18. “A mock veil of the exact same dimensions was used and the children were present,” a source tells BAZAAR.com. “The timing, the distance the page boys walked behind her… everything had to be perfect.”
Keller adds, “There are always things you think about, but I have to say [the party was] very good at rehearsing… It was important that they placed themselves in the right spot… On the day the boys felt very confident. They were just loving the moment. They did a fantastic job.”
In the early hours of May 18, the dress moved one final time, traveling exactly 9.5 miles away from the royal grounds at Windsor to the Cliveden House Hotel in Berkshire. That afternoon, Markle arrived with her mother, Doria Ragland, to spend her final night as a single woman.
The following day, after a 6 a.m. wakeup call and breakfast, Markle, joined by Keller, hair stylist Serge Normant, and longtime makeup artist Daniel Martin, began the three-and-a-half-hour process of getting ready.
“She was just glowing,” Keller says of the moment when Markle stood in front of a tall antique mirror in the luxe $2,000-a-night suite. “There’s so much emotion on a day like that, but I think particularly when it all comes together, it’s tremendous. She was absolutely radiant.” But no tears, adds the designer, “She was incredibly composed. It was really quite extraordinary.”
As the bride and her mother made their journey to St. George’s Chapel at 11:15 a.m., Keller had already gone ahead to meet Markle at the West Steps of the Windsor Castle church and help her with her dress upon arrival.
“I didn’t really think about it,” Keller says of the moment Markle finally stepped out of the Queen’s maroon 1950 Rolls Royce Phantom IV (also the moment Keller’s architect husband Philip found out his wife had designed the dress!). “It was an important part of the moment when she walked out of the car, for me to really be there and make the veil absolutely perfect. I knew that the dress as she went up the steps would make this beautiful line. With the veil being so long, I wanted to make it absolutely spectacular. So I handed it to the two [page boys, Brian and John Mulroney] and they did an amazing job.”
As the delicate white floral embroidery of Markle’s almost translucent veil caught the light as she elegantly glided down the aisle of St. George’s Chapel towards Harry, Keller felt a moment of immense pride for what had been five months of love and labour. “She was just glowing, says Keller. “They are so in love. I was just thrilled to be part of it. It was a wonderful moment for both of them and I am really proud.”
As for Prince Harry? The newly married Duke of Sussex couldn’t stop admiring his wife at a photo shoot with Harper’s BAZAAR photographer Alexi Lubomirski in Windsor Castle’s Green Drawing Room. Reveals Keller, who was at the portrait session to make sure the dress looked perfect, “He just came up to me and said, ‘Oh my God, thank you. She looks absolutely stunning.’”