Rachel Riley: the woman behind Prince George's dungarees

Forget the Kate effect, when it comes to transforming the fortunes of little-known designers, it’s Prince George you want on side. Rebecca Newman meets Rachel Riley, creator of the world’s most famous dungarees

Little boy blue: Prince George in his Rachel Riley polo shirt and shorts

When Jean Paul Gaultier makes couture for four-year-olds, the Harrods children’s department stocks £2,700 Christian Dior baby dresses, and Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s baby North graces the April cover of US Vogue, it’s fair to say that children’s fashion is going slightly mad.

How gratifying, therefore, to observe the wardrobe of our eventual heir to the throne, Prince George. On his first official engagement in New Zealand in April, at the bold age of eight months, he melted hearts with his ruddy cheeks and brown eyes — not to mention a winsome pair of Rachel Riley navy smocked dungarees. At £79 they may not have been exactly cheap, but they were at least somewhere within the realms of affordability; indeed, they sold out within hours. He’s also partial to wearing the more mainstream French label Petit Bateau, and the Duchess of Cambridge has even been spotted shopping in Baby Gap, but Rachel Riley is the favourite. He has subsequently sported at least four of her outfits, each in her classic, vintage style, and each priced rather lower than other upscale brands popular with London mothers, such as Bonpoint and Marie-Chantal. Typically, the Duchess of Cambridge has championed a brand that is British, stylish and more or less affordable.

Central to the appeal of Riley’s clothes is their nostalgic charm. Those smocked dungarees, for example, echo a pair of blue cord dungarees worn by Prince William in his early years. ‘I had no idea he was going to wear the dungarees on his first official engagement,’ Riley, 51, tells me. An elegant figure, she carries off her blunt, Audrey Tautou-style fringe, ponytail and boat-print dress with insouciance. ‘We didn’t even know when Prince George would make his first appearance. From a business perspective, of course, it was phenomenal. But more than that, personally, I’m honoured. It makes my heart flutter to think that they chose our dungarees for him to wear.’

Riley is coy about discussing the effects of the young Royal’s patronage on her business, but we can gain insight from a look at other examples of the Prince George effect: orders for the bird-print swaddle by Aden + Anais, in which the newborn prince emerged from hospital, crashed the company’s site and over the following week the brand saw a 1,000 per cent increase in sales in the UK, 890 per cent in Australia and 790 per cent in Japan. According to a study posted by the SME Engagement Programme a few hours after his birth, 12 per cent of all web traffic related to the royal baby and it predicted that the global baby retail market would grow to over £2.3 billion in the coming years — an increase of nearly 20 per cent — as a result of George’s arrival.

Before meeting Riley I feared she’d be insufferable. All that delicate smocking and embroidery, it’s so perfect: boys in sailor suits; girls in sashed dresses (from about £80) with cashmere boleros and little bows in the hair to match. It’s stuff worn by celebrity babies such as Harper Beckham — utterly charming but from my personal perspective, deep in the spaghetti-drenched world of weaning, is it not another benchmark from which to fall short, an unattainable fantasy of family life?

Not at all, says Riley, with a wave of her scarlet manicure: ‘The clothes look nice, but they are incredibly practical.’ Worn frequently, she emphasises that they are also good value. The shorts and polo shirt George wore for his Easter Sunday appearance cost £45 and £35 respectively. ‘Most of the clothes are machine washable and they can be worn again and again: the materials are tactile and high quality, so they really improve with age.’

London-born Riley has long held a passion for making clothes — sewing things for her dolls and for herself from a young age. ‘I spent my teenage years at markets and jumble sales, collecting fabrics. I’d make trousers out of kitchen curtains because I liked the lobster print.’ When she went to Cambridge to study social anthropology — the first person from her Bath comprehensive to get into Oxbridge — she took a cable-knit jumpsuit she’d knitted (‘I thought I looked fabulous’) and a sewing machine.

Rachel Riley and modelRachel Riley and model show off matching outfits from her S/S 2015 collectionShe complemented her degree with work as a model in the high-octane fashion world of the 1980s, whirling around the globe on shoots forVogue and Marie Claire. On a casting she met her future husband, the fashion photographer Daniel Jouanneau, best known for his iconic campaign images of Chanel scent bottles. When Riley was five months pregnant with their first child, they found their dream home — a 16th-century Loire château, complete with rococo turrets, chapel and orangerie. ‘We both wanted to bring up our family in a rural setting; our children able to run outside, climb trees and ride bikes,’ she explains. ‘It’s a fairy-tale castle, and it enabled us to bring up the children in a very earthy way. I would take the boys to watch Daniel plough the wheat with his tractor, then we would feed it to the hens, then collect the eggs for breakfast.’ She had three children in three years: Felix, Alfie and Rose.

Riley took huge pleasure in making clothes for her brood — often dressing all three in matching outfits — and would spend the quiet country evenings making garments for friends’ children. She soon realised there was enough interest for her to start a mail-order business and so set up a workshop in the château’s billiard room.

She reflects on this bucolic time with delight, but when her children needed more education than she could provide at home, the couple decided to return to London in 1994. Besides which, she felt ready to set up a shop. They lived above her first boutique, on Pont Street in Belgravia, and after Riley had walked the children to Hill House School she might stop to meet her shopkeeper neighbours Anya Hindmarch and Serena Rees (founder of Agent Provocateur) over coffee in Drones.

‘I adore being a London brand,’ she says, her blue eyes soft under a wing of eyeliner. ‘I’m a London girl. It’s such a mixed city, but with a specific culture that I love. On Friday we went to see the Royal Childhood exhibition in Buckingham Palace. It was the biggest treat ever. There were these sweet chairs with a Toile de Jouy fabric in 1930s colours that must have belonged to the Queen as a child, with little flags and pictures of Windsor Castle.’

Perhaps this is the secret of Riley’s quint-essentially British appeal: it’s all real. Her branding — the two plastic Beefeaters standing sentinel outside her Marylebone shop door, the vintage prams, the quaint prints — are things Riley visibly cherishes. Her clothes tap into her own desire for quality, tradition and for articles that are beautifully made. And just as they appeal to the British market, so they have strong appeal for customers overseas; half her client base today is American.

Riley won’t be drawn on who does Prince George’s shopping, though she assures me that all items are paid for, not given by her as gifts. I ask which item from her range might next be party to the Prince George effect. ‘Obviously he’d look gorgeous in anything,’ she evades, but, when pressed, suggests that he might look particularly fetching in a new pale grey marl sweater with buttons up the back, launching as part of her autumn line. You heard it here first — better get in there quick, before the George effect works its magic again.

Original article published in ES Magazine, in November, 2014

Related articles: