x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Daniella Helayel talks about designing the Middleton engagement frock

The Issa London designer Daniella Helayel talks about Kate Middleton's engagement dress and dealing with the press.

The former model Andrea Dellal and Yasmin Le Bon acknowledge applause with Issa's Brazilian designer Daniella Helayel after a catwalk show during London Fashion Week in February.
The former model Andrea Dellal and Yasmin Le Bon acknowledge applause with Issa's Brazilian designer Daniella Helayel after a catwalk show during London Fashion Week in February.

The Daniella Helayel that sits in front of me at a trunk show in Abu Dhabi's Fairmont hotel is a somewhat different creature from the one I first interviewed two years ago in Dubai. The sweetly dimpled smile is still there, albeit a little less ready than before. The Issa designer is still as polished, tanned and glowing as ever, wearing almost the same dress - one of her trademarks, the "Lucky", fitted at the torso, springing out into a full skirt, and this time in a zinging cobalt blue lace.

But - and it might be nothing more than the constant travelling that's to blame - she carries herself with more of an air of caution. It's not surprising. Along with the immense benefits to her business that have come from becoming one of the world's most famous designers, when Catherine Middleton chose to wear a classic blue silk jersey Issa dress to announce her engagement to Prince William, are some lessons learnt - mainly lessons about the fickle, gossipy world of tabloid journalism in Britain and the speed with which a story can travel the gossip blogs of the world. In other words, the former chatterer is not really talking.

It might have been worn by the bride-to-be of a prince, but the subsequent life of Catherine's dress (henceforth always to be known as "that dress") is something of a fairy story in itself. Helayel had been dressing Middleton periodically for a few years, simply because Issa's are clothes that are chosen by the very chic for their incredibly flattering shapes and fabrics - her seventysomething pattern-cutter used to work with the late Ossie Clark, a designer who truly knew flattering. Certainly Issa is nothing new to fashion-lovers in the Middle East, who have been devoted fans of the brand's easy glamour for years.

But those pictures of the couple who would become the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge changed everything. Within 12 hours of the royal couple's interview being televised, Matches.com had sold out of the dress; within a few days retailers had knock-offs on the shelves - including the £16 (Dh95) Florence + Fred at Tesco version that sold out online in an hour - and bloggers were busy seeking out the "cheap chic" versions.

Just as Michelle Obama is watched for her wearing of American designers, Kate Middleton is the subject of scrutiny for her support of British designers, and for Helayel, a Brazilian who has lived in London for years and cites Queen Elizabeth and black cabs among her inspirations, it was an unforgettable moment.

"It was amazing for everyone in the office," she says, eyes crinkling, cheeks dimpling. "It was very uplifting, everyone was quite happy because it was such an important thing in England, and I think that everyone in the country was very happy and cheered up everywhere. It was a very happy energy going on towards the wedding; instead of talking about tragedy everyone was talking about love, and love stories and fairy tales."

Well, that's not strictly true: what everyone was really talking about for the next few months was who would design the wedding dress. Inevitably, given her long relationship with Middleton, Helayel was among the names mentioned - others including Bruce Oldfield, Sophie Cranston, Alice Temperley and, of course, the designer who ultimately carried the day, Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen.

It was a fun game for the press and British fashion, and Helayel played it well. Unlike Temperley and, ironically, Burton, she never came out and denied her participation, keeping the press begging for titbits of information. Even now, she firmly refuses to talk about it, her cutesy smile hardening for a moment. "I didn't talk about it, and I can't talk about it," she says.

The result was journalists and paparazzi on the doorstep and a huge increase in interest internationally. She remained, she says, unfazed by the attention. "It was OK. We had, like, people standing outside of the office, it was quite funny, but it's part of the job. It was manageable." She's not going to give anything away.

Mention the effect on her brand, though, and she becomes far more animated - after all, fashion is what she's about, not fame.

"The amount of awareness has changed a lot," she says, eyes widening (like many of us, she habitually exaggerates her face and body language to get her point across in a language other than her first). "The amount of enquirers: suddenly from day to evening we became global because it was such a huge impact - everyone talked about us, fashion people, not fashion people - so it's amazing; the best publicity you could ever wish for."

She is even magnanimous about the imitators who took her engagement-dress design and copied it to sell to millions of aspiring Kates. "It's like, you know, people always copy, and it was a funny thing that right after the engagement Tesco came out with a copy but it was so different, it was just, like, inspired - and it's nice to inspire." She smiles sweetly, safe in the knowledge that an indigo cotton frock from a British supermarket chain will never compete with her famously well-cut silk jersey pieces. This is, after all, her bestselling frock, a dress that has been in her collection every season since 2004 in various colours, and continues to sell out year after year. A faddish fancy on the high street over a few months is not going to hit her sales.

"There are five shapes I make every season and that's one. It fits women from 25 to, like, my grandma's 87, she wears that same dress, so it's very versatile. And it's not only for skinny people, that dress - it's, like, a bestseller in a UK 16."

Now is the time for Helayel: how will she build on her good fortune, having become "global", as she describes it? She could continue to sell her beautiful dresses to beautiful women, flogging multiples of the Middleton dress - and risking the sort of market-saturation that destroyed Diane Von Furstenberg's wrap dress the first time round, back in the 1970s. "Issa's known for jersey dresses, for lots of prints, colours, and I think we'll always be," she acknowledges. "I mean, I'm wearing lace today, and I'll always love it, like lots of novelty fabrics, cottons, things that come and go, but the jersey's always there; it's a staple, it's a trademark."

Yet for all she has her five or so signature shapes that she makes every season, she is a versatile designer and her collections regularly offer more complex and progressive pieces (though "wearable" is always the watchword).

As she navigates her brand's path, she has another precarious line to tread: over the potential chasm that is press scrutiny. Helayel has not commented on stories regarding the royal couple, and refuses to do so - wisely, perhaps. Earning a reputation for talking to the press could do irreparable damage to a brand beloved of the rich, famous and private. Discretion is everything in this glamorous stratum of society. Instead, it's back to work as normal - and for Helayel, "normal" means lots of travel, meeting customers and colleagues all over the world. In Abu Dhabi, she will not even stay a night before flying back to London.

"I was in Brazil for work and holidays, because we're opening some shops in Brazil; before I was in New York... Hong Kong for production before; going to China in a month, for work."

She has just launched her first childrenswear collection: tiny, crisp summer dresses in winsome prints for little girls. She hints, too, that an announcement will be made soon, regarding a new investor for the company. If so, the distribution and profile of the brand could move on at warp speed.

For now, though, she, like much of British industry, has to recover momentum from the royal wedding's holiday atmosphere and get her staff back to work.

"I'm so crazy busy, because no one wanted to work during the holidays in London - my patterncutters, the seamstress - so now everyone's working late to make up."

If those orders keep flooding in, that hard graft won't be easing up any time soon.