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Meghan Markle Says a Lot About Sustainable and Ethical Denim Without Uttering a Word

An American dressed in denim may seem as unique as florals for spring, but it is an authentic choice for Meghan Markle, who has publicly worn denim by DL1961, J.Crew, Hiut Denim Co., Madewell, Mother Denim, Outland Denim and more since becoming part of the royal fold.

“I think when Meghan wears classic blue jeans people may associate that with her U.S. roots. Particularly if she is wearing a U.S. based brand,” said Susan Courter, owner and editor of What Meghan Wore, a fashion blog that chronicles the Duchess of Sussex’s style.

Though she isn’t the first royal to wear jeans, or the only (sister-in-law Kate Middleton favors skinny jeans from Zara and J Brand), the Duchess of Sussex has impacted companies’ sales, and in some cases pushed their businesses into new echelons.

From January to December 2019, data provider SEMrush said online searches for the Duchess of Sussex’s fashion topped off at an estimated 26,100, 35 percent more than Kate Middleton. Top searches for Markle’s style included sunglasses and jeans, which were searched 58 percent more than Middleton, WWD reported.

Premium Los Angeles-based Mother Denim was among the first brands to be on the receiving end of the “Markle Sparkle” when she wore the brand’s $228 Looker ankle fray skinny jeans to the September 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto. At the time, she and Prince Harry were still dating. The company saw a 60 percent increase in Google searches the week Markle donned the jeans, and its website saw close to a 200 percent increase in traffic. The jean sold out again when it was reissued six months later.

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Interest in DL1961’s Emma jean, a low-rise full length skinny jean, ramped up after the duchess wore a pair during a royal tour of South Africa in October 2019. She wore the style again this week with a Madewell belt during an official visit to Luminary Bakery in London, a business that supports disadvantage women.

“She’s had a huge impact on the brand and the demand for the brand since wearing them. It’s been really good, she’s a natural fan of the brand,” said Zahra Ahmed, DL1961 CEO. “In the short time Markle has been a part of the royal family, she’s made a handful of style statements with denim. What makes her approach to this wardrobe staple so refreshing is how she keeps it simple, sticking to the essentials and styling them in ways that are effortless.”

It’s a level of authenticity that can’t be replicated through any other traditional celebrity or influencer endorsement because members of the royal family are prohibited from endorsement deals. The brands they wear are by choice.

And for Markle, denim serves as a common thread with the women she meets during her royal duties. “Meghan conveys a more relaxed, relatable message when wearing denim to engagements,” Courter said.

Courter has watched Markle’s denim style evolve from distressed jeans and trendy washes, to more traditional washes by premium and sustainable brands. It’s a style transformation that many women on the go experience.

“Denim is clearly a go-to for Meghan, and we admire the way she continues to work a fabric you wouldn’t expect royalty to traditionally wear into her wardrobe,” said James Bartle, founder of Outland Denim. “She is really staying true to her individual style.”

Dressing with a message

Royal protocol calls for traditional fashion (i.e. natural nails and pantyhose), but the women of the British Royal Family have historically found ways to step into their own sense of style. Queen Elizabeth is a beacon in large groups, instantly identifiable in head-to-toe color, block heels and her signature Launer handbag. Princess Diana’s eclectic off-duty style choices like cowboy boots, bike shorts and chunky sneakers have become the de facto weekend uniform of millennial-age women in recent years. Likewise, Meghan Markle’s everyday style—slim jeans, a blazer and sustainable footwear—reflects what they wear in their professional lives.

The one caveat? The duchess is dressing with a message and the world is paying attention.

While the royal family traditionally remains mum about politics and their personal life, Markle has pushed those boundaries. She voiced support for the Time’s Up and MeToo movements, and in a recent interview with the The Daily Telegraph she opened up about how she has struggled to acclimate to her new life.

Fashion has become another vessel for Markle to express her viewpoints. A yogi and flexitarian who normally follows a meatless diet, Markle has brought elements of her former West Coast lifestyle to the palace. And it is no coincidence that some of her favorite brands to wear reflect this wellness mindset, including styles from sustainable designer Stella McCartney, vegan footwear brand Veja, and Reformation, the Los Angeles-based brand that upcycles deadstock fabric.

“When the duchess steps out in something as accessible as jeans, she’s knowingly saying something to the public,” Ahmed said. “She is advocating for an issue close to her heart: sustainable fashion.”

Since day one, Ahmed said DL1961 has “made it a point to changing the way denim is made to lessen our impact on the planet for future generations.” The premium label uses certified organic and recycled fibers and cellulosic alternatives across its collection, and employs Jeanologia’s resource-saving technology throughout the finishing process. On average, a pair of DL1961 jeans uses just eight gallons of water.

Fashion is also a way for Markle to give under-the-radar designers and brands clout. “When Meghan has chosen to wear pieces from ethical and sustainable brands, it sends a big message in a subtle way that is beneficial to everyone,” Courter said.

During the South Africa tour in October, the duchess stopped by Johannesburg’s Victoria Yards, a hub for small business owners and artisans, to pick up a pair of custom jeans by Tshepo “The Jean Maker” Mohlala. Photos from the visit garnered more than 400,000 likes on the royal couple’s official Instagram account.

And for a small company, a large influx of attention and sales moves the needle in a meaningful way.

“You cannot put a price on the brand recognition or the credibility that the duchess is able to give a small, social enterprise like ours,” Bartle said.

Australian-based Outland Denim brought its inspiring, yet still unknown story to the U.S. in February 2018. The men’s and women’s brand was established as a means to provide jobs to survivors of the sex trafficking industry and women at risk of falling into poverty in Cambodia. The company also uses sustainable manufacturing methods.

That changed in October 2018 when the duchess wore the brand’s $200 Harriet jeans four times during a royal tour of Australia. The black jean sold out in Australia in 24 hours and had a six-month waiting list. Outland also gained about 8,000 new Instagram followers in 24 hours.

“When you think about the fact that what we try to do with Outland Denim is inspire our staff members in Cambodia with a sense of pride in their work and their value as human beings, a quiet, dignified royal endorsement like this, while unofficial in the sense that we don’t have a Kensington Palace seal or badge, is incredibly powerful,” he said. “Our staff can’t quite believe a duchess is wearing their jeans.”

Most importantly, thanks to the ‘Markle Effect,’ Bartle said the company was able to employ 46 new seamstresses for its Cambodian production house. “In terms of growing our business, Meghan has enabled us to do this in a very tangible, immediate way,” he said.

Welsh denim brand Hiut Denim Co. saw its business catapult in 2018 when the duchess wore the brand’s black high-waisted skinny jeans during an official visit to Cardiff, Wales with Prince Harry. To cope with the demand, the company moved into a factory three times the size of its original facility and hired eight new employees. The jean still garners a wait list for popular sizes and inseams.

Both Outland Denim and Hiut Denim Co. have maintained their Markle Sparkle, thanks in part to more consumers turning to Markle as an unofficial guide to ethical fashion. Whereas most of the denim industry struggles to communicate their sustainable innovations to the end consumer, Hiut and Outland have used their royal moments of fame to reinforce their stories about philanthropy, local production and sustainable manufacturing.

Outland Denim recently opened a new 23,600-square-foot washing and finishing facility in Cambodia, equipped with state-of-the-art water and energy-reducing technology by Jeanolgoia. The brand also unveiled its first collaborative project, a women’s collection with designer Karen Walker.

And earlier this year, Hiut owners David and Claire Hieatt had a chance to meet the royal couple when they were invited to Buckingham Palace for a reception to mark the 50th anniversary of the investiture of Prince Charles. In a tweet, the Hieatts wrote: “As we entered Buckingham Palace this morning, we were told The Duke and The Duchess of Sussex wanted to meet us. Eek. And breathe. We talked about how to lessen the impact of denim on the planet.”

“[Meghan] is someone the broader public pay close attention to and she has global recognition,” Outland’s Bartle added. “With Meghan’s choices getting that level of exposure, ethical and sustainable may no longer be a nice idea for idealists or a niche, but a viable and very exciting fashion proposition that can potentially change the world for the better.”