Few institutions have been capable of knocking the coronavirus off the global front pages this past year – one of them is the British royal family. From Harry and Meghan’s recent explosive interview with Oprah to the extraordinarily high viewing figures for The Crown , the public appetite for all things royal shows no sign of waning. They also have the Midas touch when it comes to fashion. At a time when social media has democratised the industry, it seems almost ironic that the one guaranteed way to create a sell-out collection is the same now as it was a century ago: get a royal seal of approval. In particular, whenever Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, is spotted wearing anything – be it a Zara jacket or an Alexander McQueen gown – it makes news. “That brand immediately gets worldwide attention, from the press wanting to write about it to ‘copykates’ buying the pieces the duchess has worn,” says Bethan Holt, the author of The Duchess of Cambridge: A Decade of Modern Royal Style . “They then enjoy this huge halo effect of having a royal seal of approval, whether they’re an expensive fashion house like Alexander McQueen or a high street name. “Alongside the huge benefit she brings to individual brands, Kate’s way of dressing had a big impact on the way many normal women dress around the world – they are inspired by her dedication to a ladylike, classic aesthetic which isn’t dictated by trends.” Some of the fascination with Middleton comes from the fact that she is a future queen who doesn’t regularly speak to the press, so the best chance we have of charting her personality and her growth is through her changing style. Her look has evolved over the last decade. Slowly the colourful jeans, Breton tops and beige LK Bennetts have been replaced by statement hairbands , embellished dresses and pussy-bow blouses – and thousands of column inches have been written dissecting these choices. “Fashion has always been a huge part of the royal family’s image-crafting, but it’s now more important that even in our social-media-driven, visual culture,” Holt says. “Pictures of the royals often go viral, so they have a huge opportunity to use their clothes to communicate messages, whether that’s by wearing British brands or sustainably made pieces to show their support for those movements, or the simple but hugely effective practice of wearing a meaningful colour or symbol. “Last year, Kate wore vintage for the first time and has been digging into her wardrobe to re-wear pieces which are up to a decade old. It’s an example of her using her soft power for good.” The Duchess of Cambridge is, of course, far from the only royal the fashion press pays attention to. Last year, Prince Charles released a sustainable clothing collection while the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker-Bowles, has been applauded for her increasingly bold fashion choices. Princess Beatrice’s hand-me-down Norman Hartnell wedding gown from her grandmother also hit the perfect note last July in a subdued, coronavirus-ridden world. But it is Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, and her sleek Californian style that has – after Middleton – garnered by far the most attention. From her first public appearance as Prince Harry’s girlfriend, when she wore a shirt known as the “Husband” by her friend Misha Nonoo , she showed she was not going to be following her future sister-in-law’s dedication to curating a wardrobe that had meaning but was never a distraction. Markle intended to be a lot bolder. From the start, she mostly opted for high-fashion international designers like Dior, Prada, Givenchy and Valentino and her commitment to sustainability and feminism was shown by her adherence to vintage couture and brands like Outland Denim, which helps women who are victims of sexual exploitation. She’s made a point of working with women designers too, from well-known names like Stella McCartney to under-the-radar labels like Safiyaa. But over the last week, one image in particular has dominated Instagram, news sites and television networks: that of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex ( her in a US$4,700 Armani gown ) telling “their side of the story” to Oprah Winfrey in a sunlit Californian garden. It is a piece of television that has divided families across the world. On one side are those who believe Markle has been treated unfairly by an old-fashioned, problematic institution unable to modernise; opposing them are the people who think the Sussexes have dealt an unnecessarily cruel and vindictive blow to the queen. These heightened tensions have deep implications for the future of the monarchy and the Commonwealth, but they also leave the fashion industry in a difficult position. British fashion in particular has worked hard to court the royals: the queen attended London Fashion Week in 2018; the Countess of Wessex, Sophie Rhys-Jones, presented an award at its most recent iteration; and brands across the spectrum regularly dress all members of the family. What will the supposedly woke fashion industry that has shown its support for MeToo and Black Lives Matter do now the royal family has been implicitly accused of racism? Equally, now Markle has chosen to leave the royal family, will her clothing choices continue to be fashion gold – or will they put off certain sections of the public who think she has been damaging to the monarch? It’s likely that brand reaction will depend on which side of the pond they have the biggest customer base. British labels will largely throw their support behind the Duchess of Cambridge, while US brands will respond to an American public that – according to polls – are overwhelmingly on Meghan’s “side”. Once this has all died down, however, the fact remains that Middleton is set to become the Princess of Wales and eventually the queen, so her fashion choices will always be more important than those of her sister-in-law. This raises the question of what they are likely to look like in the years to come. “It could go two ways,” Holt say. “We may see Kate become more like the queen, shrinking the pool of labels which she wears, especially for official royal business. This might serve to take some of the focus off her outfits. “A more powerful and modern strategy would be to see her emulate Spain’s Queen Letizia – she is regularly seen wearing accessible brands like Massimo Dutti and Uterque, which gives her huge appeal, ultimately boosting the causes she is working with because those kinds of outfits create images which are shared far and wide.” Whatever path Middleton chooses – and however her relationship with Markle develops from this point onwards – her fashion choices will continue to be dissected by the public. And each time either of these women appear in public, they do the very important job of boosting brand sales. More royal exposure means more fashion revenue and that, at least, is one positive to come out of this acrimonious moment in royal history.