Shopping like a duchess in London

06/04/2014 12:00 AM

06/04/2014 1:58 PM

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere, and that somewhere is here in London at the Champagne Nail Bar at Harvey Nichols. Just a minute or two from my ever-so-lovely Knightsbridge hotel, the department store has already become, in just two days, one of my favorite shopping spots ever.

What’s not to love? Gorgeous fashions from international designers, a top floor with a sushi bar, food market, restaurant and bar where they serve the store’s own signature wine blends and provide free Wi-Fi for customers (important if you are traveling internationally and want to send iPhone messages that won’t cost a shilling or cent).

I wasn’t planning to have a manicure — much less one with a glass of champagne — but one of the beautiful young women behind the counter has persuaded me to take a few moments to do so.

And I’m glad I did. My cheerful, blond beauty expert tells me her parents are from Vietnam but she’s lived in London her whole life. She introduces me to the season’s newest colors from Nails Inc. London. I’m prepared to sit awhile as my nude polish — or “varnish,” as the Brits say — dries, but she puts on a top coat of Kensington Caviar and 45 seconds later, my nails are ready to go.

I think of all the time I can save with this product in my life. I think about how fabulous my nails look. Five minutes and about $50 later, my free manicure is over, and I feel a bit like Becky Bloomwood, my favorite fictional Shopaholic, who lives, naturally, in London.

This is a city with massive hard-to-resist retail opportunities, and I’ve just spent two days on a quest: to whittle down those possibilities into what I’ve been thinking of as a “shop like a duchess” experience. London’s most notable fashion icon is, of course, the former Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, whose every wardrobe selection is logged on sites like WhatKateWore.com and splashed the next day across the pages of the Daily Mail.

In what’s known as “the Kate effect,” the items she wears one day will often sell out the next at a store if they are still available.

Her style is classic, and her choices range from bespoke couture to pieces from mass-market retailers, or high street stores, as the British call them. Since spring, her hemlines have dipped down to the knee in deference to the queen’s wishes that the duchess look a bit more regal.

She also has been working with the queen’s dressmaker, Angela Kelly, to plan her wardrobe — and as the duchess toured New Zealand and Australia in April, sporting pill box hats, feathered brooches and double-breasted coats, the queen’s influence was clear.

I’ve arranged my own “shop like a duchess” tour into three geographic areas of London. Choose just one or do all three if you have the time and stamina. As my base, I chose The Berkeley hotel, centrally located for these excursions, delightfully posh (a TV above the bathtub!) and with its own flair for fashion. The hotel restaurant is where Kate had her first meeting with Camilla to begin planning the royal wedding.

There’s an afternoon tea called Pret a Portea, featuring cakes, mousses and biscuits inspired by the designs shown twice a year at London Fashion Week. The hotel also has a Fashion Truck, filled with vintage accessory finds, and those who book Feature Suites in the hotel can borrow the items for an evening out. The Berkeley also boasts the Bamford Haybarn Spa, where I indulged in a morning massage that reinvigorated me for the second day of my hunt.

And, of course, The Berkeley is just a few minutes’ walk from that other London oasis, Harvey Nichols. Puh-fect.

Start your tour at Kensington Palace, where, of course, the duke and duchess and the adorable Prince George live. Tour the palace, stroll through the gardens, or just head straight to the high street (main street) to start shopping.

To be clear, Kensington is not one of the top shopping experiences in the city. Most of the stores in this area are mass-market retailers on the high street. But that high street is just a few minutes’ walk from Kensington Palace, and locals say they often see the royals popping into restaurants and shops. When you read that Kate has just run into Zara to buy some earrings, most likely, it’s the Kensington branch.

Zara (from Spain) and Topshop (a British store) are right next to each other on the high street. Both chains are known for their trendy, well-priced pieces. Last spring, Kate followers will remember that the duchess, while pregnant, wore a little white frock with black polka dots from Topshop (paired with a Ralph Lauren jacket). WhatKateWore.com reported that within an hour, the £38 (about $99) dress was sold out online.

This two-level store is packed with bargains. I saw a great, expensive-looking Chanel-inspired tweed jacket for £59 (about $100 at the exchange rate at the time) and some fun orange or black platform sandals for £55 ($93).

The Zara store is three floors and includes menswear and children’s. Perhaps Kate’s best-known Zara piece is the nautical-inspired double-breasted navy jacket with gold buttons that she wore on April’s trip Down Under when she bested William in sailboat racing and then donned again for a trip to a vineyard (the blazer is $139 on

zara.com).

She also was wearing Zara skinny jeans on the sailboat. I was partial to the label’s colorful coats (a fuchsia one that I later found for $139 on the website) and quilted jackets (about $100), all of which look pricier than they are.

Just off the high street is Church Street, where Reiss and L.K. Bennett have small but admirable outposts.

Reiss is a British-based clothing company that recently celebrated its 40th year. Kate wore a cream-colored Reiss dress in her official engagement photo. In an interview with fashionista.com soon after that, the company’s founder, David Reiss, said that single photo took the company into the international spotlight.

“It was the most bizarre thing — I was flying to Moscow that day to open our new store there and as we land I turn my phone on and I was absolutely inundated — journalists, requests for TV — and I had no idea what it was all about,” he said. “And then the whole thing snowballed from there. I was getting calls from Hong Kong, Germany, Spain, the U.S. — pretty much all the key American programs wanted me to do TV.”

Kate also wore a little pink £175 ($294) Reiss dress when she met with Michelle Obama at Buckingham Palace in 2011. The dress immediately sold out online. The Kensington store had loads of dresses with classic silhouettes in both solid colors and interesting prints, some with interesting touches such as mesh panels. A navy lace dress was £179 ($300). It also had basics like skinny jeans in red, black and white for £79 ($132).

L.K. Bennett is a go-to for the duchess. On Valentine’s Day this year she wore a snorkel blue dress that retailed for about $395.

In Australia, she wore the label’s “Lasa Poppy Dress,” white with a floral design in that same snorkel blue color, which sold for about $425, according to WhatKateWore

.com. (The store decided to reissue the dress soon after Kate wore it.)

Kate is also known for wearing the heck out of her nude “Sledge” pumps, available at Nordstrom for $345, and for sporting the “Greta” patent wedges, similar to the “Zella,” which are on the L.K. Bennett site for £170 ($285).

While in Kensington, I also popped into Jigsaw, a British chain for which Kate was once an accessories buyer. A chatty salesman confirmed that the young royals are often seen out and about — “look for the red police cars following them,” he noted. He said they often see “the younger one, whatshisname, Harry, at the Marks & Spencers,” and that Kate and William frequent a restaurant “down the road,” as he waved toward Church Street. He also said that when Kate is in the ’hood, she looks “normal” and isn’t wearing “those horrible double-button things” she wears when traveling.

Obviously, he was not the fan that I am. I thanked him for his time and, not having a police escort at my disposal, headed for the Kensington High Street tube. Next stop: Bond Street.

If you watch PBS’ Mr. Selfridge, you know that when American businessman Harry Gordon Selfridge decided to open a department store in a most unfashionable part of Oxford Street in 1909, people thought he would fail. He didn’t. Instead, he developed innovative ideas that made shopping an entertaining experience, putting perfume displays at the front of the store and encouraging customers to touch the merchandise — a radical proposition at the time.

While he is long gone, the flagship store for Selfridges & Co. is still busy, filled with customers exploring its five levels filled with toys, home goods, furniture, a food hall and, of course, clothing and accessories. After admiring a Vans skateboarding pop-up exhibition on the ground floor, I headed up to the designer galleries on 2 and immediately lost myself in colorful prints by Pucci and Mary Katrantzou.

I admired the Alexander McQueen collection and could have spent days sifting through the wares of Roksanda Ilincic (think the yellow dress Kate wore in Australia that William said made her look like a banana and the custom-fabric gray shift she wore to historic Ayers Rock in northern Australia); Erdem (think the green coat Kate wore in New Zealand that William said was a “bit bright”); Stuart Weitzman (Kate frequently wears his “Corkswoon” wedges; $398 on his website); Stella McCartney (Kate wore her seen-before blue “Ridley Stretch Cady” dress when arriving in Australia’s capital city); Chloe, Miu Miu, Prada, Christopher Kane, Chanel and the like.

This is a grand store, with divine historical architectural details and cozy chairs strategically placed in designers’ collections.

But, alas, I had places to go and more shops to discover.

Just down the road, to the west, is Suzannah, a little British boutique specializing in tailored and bespoke dresses. In the window was a dress Kate had just worn the day before in Hamilton, New Zealand — the “ Budding Heart Silk Tea Dress” (£475; about $800), a green frock with a white print and a silhouette inspired by a 1930s vintage dress found in a Parisian market. (This was the dress she wore with the “bit bright” Erdem coat.) I personally love the “ Kaleidoscope” dress, a ’50s-inspired cocktail confection that looks tres Audrey Hepburn (£895; $1,500).

I turned back east and just past James Street (which has lots of appealing-looking lunch spots if you are getting hungry). I arrived at St. Christopher’s Place, a pedestrian-only walkway, which, believe me, you can miss even if you are trying to find it. Here I stopped at a nice outpost of Whistles, another British-based high street store. In January 2013, Kate wore a maroon belted Whistles dress to the unveiling of her official portrait.

She also wore a Whistles blouse in her royal engagement photo and a blue printed silk dress to the closing ceremony of the Olympics in London. This is a three-level shop with sale items below and a nice selection of merchandise, which includes shoes, handbags and some jewelry.

I should have bought the “WXYZ Mega Jax Necklace” in white while I was there — a contemporary chunky geometric piece made from rubber ($115). I looked for it later on the website but the only available colors were yellow and gray, proving that if you love something, you should not set it free, but buy it immediately. Note: In January 2013, the company opened its flagship store, which is also in Mayfair, on Dover Street.

I then headed south toward the tony boutiques near Berkeley Square. Carolina Herrera, Lanvin, Oscar de la Renta and Jenny Packham have small, exclusive shops here, the kind with doormen and the kind where you might have to ring the bell to be let in.

Jenny Packham’s evening dresses are popular on red carpets and have been worn by celebrities including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kate Hudson and Angelina Jolie. The label also offers ready-to-wear, bridal, accessories and lingerie (the bridal and accessories shops are farther south near Victoria Station).

You might remember Kate’s light blue polka-dot dress that she wore when she and William gave George his first public appearance outside St. Mary’s Hospital. Kate has also worn Packham’s evening dresses, including a spectacular ink-blue gown in October of 2013 for a 100 Women in Hedge Funds gala. In New Zealand, she wore a custom black Jenny Packham dress with a silver fern detail to a state reception that featured an unveiling of a portrait of the queen.

Just a few blocks later, I arrived at Bruton Street, where I found Temperley, nestled in among other boutiques such as Stella McCartney and Diane von Furstenberg (Kate wore DVF’s “Patrice” ikat dress, about $325, in Australia and it was sold out on the designer’s site that same day, according to WhatKateWore.com. She also wore a black Temperley coat for a service at dawn at the Australian War Memorial.)

The Alice by Temperley contemporary collection is on the ground floor. I admired eyelet sundresses (£395; $663) and a knit, sleeveless black and white sundress (£325; $545). Upstairs, in a luxurious room that felt more boudoir than boutique, were more formal Temperley creations, such as a sheer black lace floor-length skirt £1550 ($2,603). Kate’s most famous Temperley gown is called “Amoret.” Black and lacy, with a plunging neckline, it’s been worn three times to public events.

My next stop was Alexander McQueen on Old Bond Street. To get there, I passed by more luxury lines, including Hermès, Miu Miu, Burberry, Jimmy Choo, Chanel and Louis Vuitton, and then made my way through a gauntlet of high-end jewelers — Patek Philippe, Chopard, Piaget, Bulgari, Harry Winston, Cartier and more. Then I passed more clothing and accessory stores: Ralph Lauren, Ferragamo, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana.

It was about at this point that I truly began to understand the staggering enormity of the designer retail scene here.

The Alexander McQueen boutique has two floors. The ground floor featured the same dresses Selfridges spotlighted in its McQueen boutique — a simple but divinely detailed black dress with a drop waist and pleated skirt (£1985; $3,333) and a fun red, white and blue frock (£2260; $3,795). Near the stairs, a happy customer was picking out a couple of the signature, colorful skull scarves, which run about $396 for the silk chiffon and $445 for the silk blend.

In 2012, Kate wore a McQueen sailor dress to Wimbledon in July and then a gold-starred gown in September for a formal dinner in Kuala Lumpur. To lay wreaths at a war memorial in April, she wore a bespoke blue Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen coat with a bright red poppy pin. And then on Easter Sunday in Sydney, it was McQueen again, this time a dove gray ensemble, followed three days later by soft pink McQueen separates in South Australia.

While my own personal tastes tended toward Harvey Nichols (where you’ll find, among many, many other brands, Christopher Kane, Valentino, Alexander McQueen, Alice by Temperley, Erdem, Jenny Packham, Versace, Givenchy, Barbour, Lanvin, DVF and Jonathan Saunders — Kate wore one of his waffle-knit sweaters with J Brand jeans to a rugby stadium in Australia) — the big dog, indeed the mastiff of London shopping, if you will, is of course Harrods.

If you are not familiar with Harrods, avail yourself immediately of a store guide to the seven floors of fabulousness. This is like Neimans on steroids, with furniture and technology, kitchen wares, a Toy Kingdom and a variety of places to buy food, too. I’m not sure where else you could go to fulfill a shopping list, for example, that said: Fabergé egg necklace, Philip Treacy hat, Spanx, Beluga caviar and a recently trapped lobster.

You’ll also probably need the guide just so you don’t get lost. I generally have a good sense of direction, but I found myself admiring columns and other architectural details of the building (I felt like I’d made a turn into Disneyland when I was suddenly in the Egyptian area) and got quite turned around. My favorite place was the millinery department. There were two Jane Corbett couture hats made with sculptured filigree straw that I instantly fell in love with, priced at £2400 ($4,030) and £2700 ($4,533). (See the “hat gallery” at www.janecorbett.com.uk for some similar eye candy.)

Knightsbridge has all the high-street shops you might ask for plus a dazzling number of designer stores. If you head south down Sloane Street, you will see, among others, Armani, Prada, Chanel, Bottega Veneta, Escada, Anne Fontaine, Roberto Cavalli, Dior and Hermès.

When you get to Pont Street, head east a couple blocks to Cadogan Place to find the atelier of Emilia Wickstead. The designer has a ready-to-wear collection and makes bespoke clothing. The Duchess of Cambridge wore a yellow dress by the New Zealand-born designer in 2013 to the queen’s garden party, and a pink fit-and-flare Emilia Wickstead dress to the garden party the year before. This April, Kate wore a blue version of the pink dress to church on Palm Sunday.

It’s a bit of a hike to the next set of shops on Elizabeth Street, which is just outside of Knightsbridge. Google Maps says about 10 minutes and 0.6 mile, but after all the walking, it felt longer. But it’s worth it: This is a charming little street near Victoria Station, where you’ll find Jenny Packham bridal and accessories, Peggy Porschen cakes (cupcakes for the weary!), stationery stores, restaurants and Beulah and Philip Treacy.

Legendary British milliner Philip Treacy has designed hats for celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Kate Moss and Sarah Jessica Parker. Kate commissioned him to make some hats for the royal wedding party in 2011. (Interesting fashion tidbit: In 2013, sick of the cheap and ubiquitous fascinators that had gained popularity even in the States, he told The Sunday Times, “The fascinator is dead and I’m delighted.”)

Beulah London was launched in 2011 by Natasha Rufus Isaacs and Lavinia Brennan who, after working in the Delhi slums, wanted to start an ethical fashion label. At a rugby match in Sydney in April, Kate wore Beulah’s “Eden” cashmere-blend scarf in the “Fractured Blossom Dark” print, £125 ($210). The next day the company’s website noted a four- to six-week waiting period for the scarf.

Kate also owns Beulah’s “Sabitri” dress in pale blue — which she wore when she visited Kuala Lumpur (and which then sold out but was later reissued and sold at Harvey Nichols). (Interesting gossipy tidbit: The Daily Mail reported in 2013 that designer Isaacs was a friend of the duchess and was engaged to Kate’s ex-boyfriend Rupert Finch.) In 2011, Kate wore a red, flowy evening gown by Beulah to the 100 Women in Hedge Funds gala.

My shopping mission completed, I headed back toward Knightsbridge, where I stumbled into that unexpected manicure. And then it was back to The Berkeley. My tired feet found solace in a hot bath while I indulged in Bordeaux from the minibar and turned on the BBC.

Puh-fect.

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