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The Designer Behind Meghan Markle and Michelle Obama’s Best Looks is Now Making Wedding Dresses

The Designer Behind Meghan Markle and Michelle Obama’s Best Looks is Now Making Wedding Dresses

If you don’t know the label Safiyaa, chances are you’ve seen its most famous dress: a blue cape-back gown worn by none other than Meghan Markle. Images of the Duchess on a royal visit to Fiji last year went viral almost instantly: This was the first gown she’d been photographed in since her wedding, as well as one of her first public appearances after announcing her pregnancy. But the dress itself left a lasting impression, too: the striking color (mirroring the Fijian flag); the elegant cape detail; the narrow, unfussy silhouette. A few decades ago, a royal tour would’ve mandated a ball gown and gloves, but this was a fresh, modern alternative. In fact, Markle looked comfortable.

That sort of easy-yet-elegant balance is the core of Safiyaa, according to its founder Daniela Karnuts. Before she launched the line in 2011, she was working as the commercial director for a major fashion media company in London and found it arduous to curate a “work wardrobe” that felt both sophisticated and practical. “I was always looking for clothes that were dignified, but still comfortable, and what I found was either very expensive or very seasonal and trend-driven,” she explains. “You might find a beautiful dress, but it becomes the dress of the season, and by next year, everyone knows exactly what it is. Or it’s beautiful, but it doesn’t work for every woman’s shape.”

She noticed men didn’t seem to have this problem. Instead of navigating a glut of choices, they could simply go to Savile Row and have a suit made to their every specification. “I wanted to make that available to women, with eveningwear and ready-to-wear made to order and in multiple colors to choose from,” Karnuts says. “I’ve always had the experience of finding a piece I loved and wishing I had it in five colors, so I’d have this wardrobe staple to mix and match.” She decided to start Safiyaa with 12 such staples: a few trousers, tops, jackets, cocktail dresses, gowns, and camisoles—simple, yet powerful-looking pieces in sculptural silhouettes. The assortment has since grown to dozens of styles, all of which are available year-round in 60 shades of her signature stretch-crepe. “It took me years to find the right fabric,” Karnuts says. “Women still want to be dressed up, but I don’t think they want to compromise on comfort anymore. This holds you in, but it has just enough elastane that it’s comfortable and molds to your body, and you don’t feel like you have to change immediately when you come home.” (An added bonus: The crepe doesn’t wrinkle, so women who travel frequently for business or pleasure have one less thing to stress over.)

Still, the real differentiator is Karnuts’s manufacturing process. Every item is made to order in her Mayfair atelier, whether it’s a pair of trousers or an embellished evening gown, so she doesn’t stock inventory. Londoners can schedule private appointments to have something made for them, whether it’s a simple pair of trousers or a custom evening gown; Karnuts says her team “can do anything.” Many of her private clients are based outside of London, and once Karnuts has their measurements, they’ll simply place orders via WhatsApp. All of that personalization makes her price points impressive: She calls it “demi-couture at a ready-to-wear price point.” To wit, the gown Markle wore retails for just under $1,300 on Net-a-Porter. That’s still an investment, of course, but it’s substantially less than what many luxury houses will charge for a gown—and theirs likely weren’t handmade by a single person.

Karnuts has been able to pull all this off by ignoring the typical fashion startup blueprint. She’s never invested in press or marketing, and doesn’t pitch her brand out to celebrities; until women like Markle and Michelle Obama made Safiyaa a recognizable name, her customers simply discovered the brand through word of mouth. (Obama’s team approached Karnuts, not the other way around, because they’d seen so many women in Washington, D.C. wearing the brand.) Instead of “front-facing” activities like runway shows and press, she’s focused on the “back end” of her business, refining Safiyaa’s unique on-demand manufacturing. A typical piece is made to order (usually by a single person) and shipped in less than a week, while fully bespoke items (i.e. custom, brand-new designs) take two or three weeks.

That detail will be a key selling point for Karnut’s newest category: bridal. Karnuts is hoping to offer a modern, streamlined alternative to traditional wedding gowns—both in terms of the actual designs and the much shorter lead time. Six or nine months is the norm for a made-to-measure wedding dress, whereas Safiyaa’s ivory tuxedos and embellished columns can be done in just a fraction of that time. “Over the years, we had so many clients asking us to make their favorite dress in white, or we did bespoke gowns for them. Net-a-Porter asked us to do a special capsule of white ready-to-wear pieces for their Bridal edit, and I thought, why not build out a bridal collection of our best-selling classics? It’s a nice way to reinterpret our archives in white, but with new embroideries and embellishments.”

The results include tuxedos, jumpsuits, and top-and-trouser combinations in Safiyaa’s usual crepe with new hints of sparkle. A sleek column with sculptural sleeves felt familiar, whereas other looks—a sparkling gown with a giant satin bow, or a long-sleeved dress in floaty chiffon—take the brand in a newer, softer direction. “I think a lot of women want to wear something like this down the aisle,” she says. “But even the bride who wants to wear a big gown for the actual wedding will need something [easier] for the rehearsal dinner or brunch.” Interested brides can shop the debut collection exclusively on Safiyaa’s website and on Moda Operandi.