Making a gown fit for a princess

Royals: Britain's atwitter over dress, designer. Pressure is on.

June 15, 1999|By Janet Stobart | Janet Stobart,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- Samantha Shaw, a 30-year-old designer whose clothes are worn by a coterie of Britain's younger high-society crowd, is designing Sophie Rhys-Jones' wedding dress for her upcoming royal marriage to Prince Edward, Queen Elizabeth II's youngest son.

Like his brothers' brides, Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson, Edward's betrothed will be wearing the creation of a relatively unknown designer. And like her predecessors, Shaw is keeping the dress under strict wraps until the June 19 wedding. No hints of its style or shade of white have been ferreted out, even by the scavenging British tabloids.

But in keeping with the occasion, say fashion observers, the dress will probably be distinctive but not flamboyant in style and cut.

Shaw, who is not giving interviews until after the wedding, is new to the fame and publicity that almost destroyed the career of Elizabeth Emanuel, who designed Diana's wedding dress, but she can benefit from the experience of her couturier predecessors to map out her future.

"She has no illusions," says her publicist, Tom Konig Oppenheimer. "As a young designer, you can't grow too quickly, like the designers of Diana's dress, who were suddenly thrust from royal patronage to international fame, and took on too many orders, then couldn't secure the business."

When Buckingham Palace announced her new commission on April 13, Shaw told the Sunday Telegraph: "I hope I'm prepared for the fact that my life is going to change and I'm going to come under scrutiny. But I love what I do. I don't want that to change."

Samantha herself was wed on May 27 in the Chelsea Old Church in London. She designed her own silk gabardine ivory wedding dress, the skirt slightly curved and flared with a wide V-neck and shoulder-framing bodice. Long sleeves ended in trumpet flares, and she carried a bouquet of trumpet lilies. Fashion and society commentators studied it closely as a forerunner of the royal dress.

At the wedding, Rhys-Jones appeared as a guest. She wore a Samantha Shaw ensemble, a fitted V-neck dress and long jacket in lilac silk with pearl-trimmed seams.

Wedding guests were both friends and clients. Shaw has the advantage of living in the same world as her customers, so she can instinctively sense their sartorial needs, whether they be for society weddings, charity balls, board meetings or parties.

She comes from one of Britain's older construction dynasties, stemming from a 19th-century rags-to-riches Scottish builder on her mother's side, and a film producer father, Peter Shaw. Her husband, David Keswick, is a banker son of Scottish aristocrats.

Her clientele is small, and unashamedly elitist.

Most of her clothes are custom-designed for high-society friends, who include Serena Linley, daughter of the queen's sister, Princess Margaret; socialite sisters Tara Palmer Tomkinson and Santa Sebag Montefiore; actress and model Elizabeth Hurley, the much-photographed girlfriend of actor Hugh Grant; and Ivanka Trump, daughter of Ivana and Donald Trump.

Her style has evolved as classic but feminine, with great attention to cut and details like bead trimmings, layers or hand-painted motifs.

After studying art and fashion in Paris and Venice, she graduated with a master's degree in theater and film costume design from Central College in London. During a period when she designed for the theater and film, her clothes were worn on screen by Helen Bonham Carter in "Keep the Aspidistra Flying," an adaptation of George Orwell's novel, and on stage in modern operas among other productions.

She held her first fashion show in 1995 with designs created in her tiny rented studio in Chelsea. Since then, her client list has grown within the parameters of British high society.

Last year, one of her first wedding dresses was worn by another royal connection, Isabella Norman, the bride of a royal relative, Timothy Knatchbull, whose wedding guests included most of the royal family.

The dress was a triumph of classic precision in cut and flowing femininity in style. As Hilary Alexander, fashion editor of the Daily Telegraph, said: "Isabella's hourglass satin sheath, overlaid with a semi-transparent chiffon float-coat, was both daring and decorous."

Her popularity with friends rests as much with her willingness to adapt to their tastes as with her own talent.

"Sam adapts to you; her clothes are young, light and beautifully cut," says Santa Sebag Montefiore, publicist for Polo Ralph Lauren Special Events in London. "I love wearing the suit she made for me because she designed it especially for me. I have very classic tastes. I don't want anything wacky."

Despite, or perhaps because of, her short, publicity-shy career, Shaw receives nothing but support from clients and colleagues.

"She is shy and self-effacing," says Montefiore.

"She'd be appalled at the enormous amount of publicity she's getting."

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