With fans ranging from the Duchess of Cambridge to Angelina Jolie, Amanda Wakeley defines a very contemporary fashion aesthetic that marries high glamour and cool. Absolutely Weddings meets the bridal and luxury lifestyle designer who says true style is always empowering. Words by Libby Norman
Amanda Wakeley has an international reputation for easy glamour and impeccable tailoring and is a stellar ambassador for British fashion at its best, dressing royals, film stars and – of course – elegant brides. The brand is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and yet the signature look is as fresh and current as it was when the world sat up and took note of the clothes created by a twenty-something ingénue designer for Diana, Princess of Wales.
A diverse and glamorous rollcall continues to showcase the pared back aesthetic that is her trademark – the Duchess of Cambridge and Angelina Jolie among them. Tracey Emin (also a personal friend) has described her as: “really cutting-edge with colour”, while Kelly Hoppen has said her clothes are classic, easy to wear and: “designed for women’s bodies”. For Amanda, there is no magic to making clothes that work for us, it’s a skill: “I design garments to be empowering and chic. They are created to be luxurious and also kind to the wearer, and that always comes down to great cut and internal construction”.
The bridal line adheres to the same design signature. Just like the RTW collections, it requires painstaking work to create clean and contemporary lines that flatter the wearer. The Amanda Wakeley bride wears the dress and not the other way around – and that requires both a clear vision and precision tailoring.
While she is celebrated for this mastery of tailoring, Amanda Wakeley is completely self-taught. Her childhood in Cheshire was an adventure playground of wild sewing experiments. Previous interviews have talked about a dressing-up box of cast-offs from two glamorous grandmothers. Amanda adds: “I had a very tolerant mother who didn’t mind me chopping up and customising old clothes. All the time I was working out how things were made. I was trying to understand the fit and structure and how clothes embrace the body. Tailoring is very technical – very 3D”.
This early passion for making continued through her schooldays – she explored charity shops and market stalls for fabrics and for garments that could be adapted. At Cheltenham Ladies’ College, she had a small business sideline creating clothes for her friends. Along the way, Amanda discovered she had both a natural entrepreneurial streak and an innate love of fashion, so after a spell working in a menswear shop, she went to live and work in the United States’ fashion industry.
It was on her return to the UK that Amanda spotted what she saw as a distinct gap in the market. “It was a clean, glamorous and sporty aesthetic that was ingrained in US fashion that seemed to be missing over here, so I would make or adapt clothes that matched the look I liked. I would wear these pieces in key fashion places like Browns and people would stop me to ask where I’d bought them. This made me think there was an opportunity in the British market.”
Amanda describes what happened next as more of a hunch than a strategic plan: “I was in my twenties, I was bold – I thought I must be right”. The Amanda Wakeley label opened for business in 1990 in a studio in Chelsea, with garments made to order. Without a financial backer, she was relying on her confidence, talent and a certain amount of good fortune to find an audience. This came in the shape of then UK Vogue deputy editor Anna Harvey, who was assisting Princess Diana with her clothes buying and thought the Amanda Wakeley approach might be a fashion match.
“It was all very informal,” says Amanda. “She was advising her and thought my style and design aesthetic might be right and that we’d probably get along – and we did”. A huge supporter of British design talent, Princess Diana was also a fantastic fashion ambassador and mannequin, so the Amanda Wakeley name soon became widely known beyond high-fashion circles. Amanda says: “Of course, her influence was huge, equivalent to the interest that Angelina Jolie’s style creates today”.
The label won many more high-profile clients and some top fashion accolades, including the British Fashion Award for Glamour three times in the 1990s. Other memorable landmarks included a cover for November 1998 UK Vogue – Kate Moss with scraped-back hair in a fabulous black strapless gown by Amanda Wakeley and the irresistible coverline for all would-be partygoers: ‘Return of the glamorous evening dress’.
Weathering the economic storms of the early to mid 2000s, Amanda kept focus. By the end of the decade she had expanded the label into new areas – including the US, Middle East and Australia. The progression into bridal was natural, timely for the market and in tune with an already peerless reputation for high-glamour eveningwear. In 2010, Amanda was recognised for her contribution to the British fashion industry with an OBE, presented by Prince Charles. This award also recognised her long-term association with the industry’s charity Fashion Targets Breast Cancer.
While glamorous gowns are a vital part of the mix, increasingly the Amanda Wakeley brand focus is on the “luxury lifestyle”. That means dressing women not just for the wedding, banquet or awards ceremony, but for every day – work, the school run, relaxed weekend, casual dinner party. “It’s about ease,” says Amanda. “So that might mean a pair of leather joggers and a cashmere sweater – there’s a huge demand among my clients for a style of dressing that works with their lives”. This everyday luxe vision has come to life in the recently opened Draycott Avenue emporium, where the focus is on separates and leisurewear that combine superb fabrics with impeccable cut and comfort.
This store joins the existing line-up: boutiques in Harvey Nichols stores across the country, RTW flagship in Albermarle Street and the elegant standalone bridal store in Chelsea. Of course, bridal is high glamour – not every day – and there are yards of fabulous gowns that work for everything from ballroom spectacular to a hip boho or beach celebration. There’s also choice occasion wear to cover off the mother of the bride/groom, bridesmaids and guests.
Amanda Wakeley brides can be sure that their gown will never waver from her overriding fashion philosophy: “Every gown has our design signature. Our look is about lightweight, sensual and elegant garments for the modern woman. But bridal is also about romance, which means creating shapes that fit beautifully on the body – that’s very important – and the very best fabrics such as silk twill, silk georgette and chiffon”.
Bridal is only one part of the Amanda Wakeley luxe vision, but it’s a pretty good introduction to the characteristics that make her approach as seductive today as it was when the label launched in 1990. She has now dressed two generations of the world’s most stylish women, and always with an utterly simple mission: “My brides – all the women who wear Amanda Wakeley – are looking for clothes that make them feel both glamorous and cool”.