On July 29, when Lady Diana Spencer emerges from the gilded carriage that will carry her to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London for her marriage to Prince Charles, wholesale designers in West End workrooms will move closer to their tellies to peer at the bridal gown. “Their shears will be ready and their machinists standing by,” laughs Elizabeth Emanuel, who with her husband, David, is designing Lady Di’s dress. Within two weeks reproductions will begin to flood the stores. “I will say this—it won’t be easy to copy,” adds Elizabeth. Far easier was the daring $1,000 strapless swirl of black taffeta they sold the bounteous Lady Di for her first official evening on the town with the Prince. Almost immediately a mail-order copy was advertised for $150.
Clearly delighted by the buzz that dress caused when she arrived for a benefit recital at London’s Goldsmiths’ Hall, Lady Di informed Buckingham Palace the following day that the Emanuels had been chosen to make her bridal dress. “There will be a formal announcement in about one hour,” the press secretary told Elizabeth Emanuel when he phoned with the good news. The brunet designer whooped with glee, but on putting the receiver down began to fret that it was all a hoax. “So we turned on the radio,” Elizabeth reports, “and walked about biting our nails until the news came. Then David and I opened champagne, got out paper cups and celebrated with the girls in the workroom.”
In other London salons that day there was hardly jubilation. The conservative House of Hartnell—which had designed traditional wedding gowns for Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and the bride’s own mother, Mrs. Frances Shand Kydd—was apparently miffed. “We don’t know the Emanuels’ work,” harrumphed a spokeswoman. “But that’s Lady Diana’s choice and there it is.”
Hardy Amies, a favorite of the present Queen, was more gracious. “My green eyes of jealousy,” he quipped, “have changed to blue for luck.” Chimed in another designer who had been mentioned, pink-haired New Waver Zandra Rhodes: “I think it’s lovely the royal family has turned to someone new.”
Although the Emanuels have been in business only four years, their style—characterized by lush, elaborately decorated fabrics, plunging necklines and petal-shaped skirts—is the most romantic since Scarlett O’Hara tore those green velvet drapes off the wall. In fact, Diana is not the first titled lady to be attracted by the look. The Duchess of Kent, a sharp dresser by royal standards, packed several Emanuels for her recent official tour of New Zealand. And Lady Di’s sister-in-law-to-be, Princess Anne, wore a gold ruffled silk taffeta Emanuel for her official 28th-birthday portrait.
The Emanuels also count among their clients some flashy commoners: Jane Seymour, Bianca Jagger and Rod Stewart’s wife, Alana. These days, however, David, 28, and Elizabeth, 27, are turning down hordes of would-be customers. Until recently the 5′ 10″, size 12 Lady Diana climbed the creaky steps to their modest Brook Street salon; now the designer couple come to her in her quarters at Clarence House, the Queen Mother’s residence.
The Emanuels, who wear jeans to work, have taken their meteoric rise calmly. Though she is British-born, Elizabeth’s paternal roots are American. Her grandfather was a New York cabbie and her father a Gl who married an Englishwoman and stayed in Britain to make a small fortune in the grocery and insurance businesses. Elizabeth met and married David, the third of a Welsh steelworker’s 11 children, when they were studying fashion at London’s Harrow School of Art. Both went on to earn graduate degrees from the Royal College of Art, and—with her daddy’s backing—set up shop after graduation.
Today their designs—ranging in price from $400 for a simple day dress to $5,000 for an evening gown (the royal wedding dress will cost an estimated $8,000)—are sold in tony U.S. outlets like Henri Bendel in New York and Neiman-Marcus, Dallas. All of which helps pay for the three-story townhouse in the chic Kensington area that the Emanuels share with their children—Oliver, 3, and Eloise, 1—and nanny-housekeeper.
They probably won’t go as far as Sir Norman Hartnell, who painted over the windows of his salon when he designed the present Queen’s gown, but Elizabeth concedes Lady Diana’s dress is “the biggest secret we will ever have to keep.” The gown probably will combine generous quantities of silk, lace and perhaps even sequins. The Emanuels study old masters—Gainsborough in particular—for inspiration. “We want Lady Diana to look like a fairytale princess,” gushes David. He hints that the color could be pink. “Remember,” he says, “we are not traditional.” That also goes for the neckline, which may well plummet. “With Lady Diana,” raves David, “it is not just a case of showing off her wonderful shoulders. She is wonderful all over.”