When John Lewis head of womenswear Jo Bennett received a call from an unknown number one late January afternoon, the last person she expected on the line was the newest member of the royal family. But the Duchess of Sussex was on a mission: To bring together four of Britain’s leading affordable fashion brands to create a capsule collection of workwear, to be sold on a one-for-one basis in the name of Smart Works.
The idea was born just after Meghan became patron of the organization, which empowers disadvantaged women with the right tools and clothes to get back into the work place, at the start of the year. After listening to clients who wanted to feel comfortable and confident, the Duchess realized that while there’s never a shortage of donations (including items from her own wardrobe), Smart Works’ stock didn’t always feature every size, or classic, key staples needed to anchor an outfit. Meghan pitched the idea for a collection to the Smart Works team, including executives Juliet Hughes-Hallett and Kate Stephens, and it was an instant hit. “She wanted the basics of a capsule collection to always be available,” a source tells BAZAAR. “Pieces that were more mix and match-able rather than just one new outfit.
“She brought it to life immediately,” the source adds. “After consulting with Smart Works about their needs, she contacted bosses from each of the brands directly—cold calls!”
Today, Duchess Meghan officially launches the Smart Set, a capsule wardrobe produced in partnership with John Lewis & Partners, Marks & Spencer, Jigsaw, and designer Misha Nonoo. The five-piece collection, to be unveiled today at an in-store event at London’s flagship John Lewis store, brings together workwear essentials, including a versatile M&S crepe dress, flattering for all sizes, at just £19.50, or $24.
For approximately two weeks, every item bought from the collection in store or online will see another donated directly to one of eight Smart Works dressing rooms across the U.K. According to Meghan, the items will offer the confidence and support clients need “to enter the workforce and take an important step in building a career.”
It’s a bold mission, but projected sales and interest already show that the collection will enable Smart Works to provide staple pieces to clients for at least the next year. As a charity spokesperson says, “This one-for-one model allows customers to directly support the Smart Works women by playing a part in their successes.”
Almost a year after she brought together women from a small community kitchen in west London to create a New York Times bestseller, the Smart Set launch is a continuation of Meghan’s focus on British community initiatives and female empowerment. “Since moving to the U.K., it has been deeply important to me to meet with communities and organizations on the ground doing meaningful work and to try to do whatever I can to help them amplify their impact,” Meghan said in a statement. “It was just last September that we launched the Together cookbook with the women of the Hubb Kitchen in Grenfell. Now, one year later, I am excited to celebrate the launch of another initiative of women supporting women, and communities working together for the greater good.”
The duchess spent eight months working closely with the charity and brands involved to ensure every aspect of the project is right. Alongside her royal duties and other charitable endeavors, Meghan pored over look books from her home in Windsor to curate and perfect the collection, filled with pieces she would wear herself. (Yes, she has the entire range in her own wardrobe!) A favorite? The “perfect tote” by John Lewis (£109/$134), which was added to the collection after Meghan spoke with Smart Works about the need for more office-friendly bags. “The most important thing was it had to fit a CV [resume],” says a source involved in the project, who notes that the design team agreed on producing it in black and tan leather, as the colors are “great, year-round staples.” The John Lewis brand has been a longtime supporter of Smart Works, donating seasonal wardrobes of new stock and running volunteering programs with the organization.
Another familiar face involved in the Smart Set is British-Iraqi designer and close friend of the duchess, Misha Nonoo, whose trademark is pared-back, minimal separates. Her popular “Husband Shirt” became the breakout star of her “Easy 8” collection when Meghan wore it to the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto, and now, an update of that piece, a crisp white cotton shirt, is available through the Smart Set, pairing perfectly with Jigsaw’s tailored black blazer and well-cut trousers. “Thinking about the essential pieces you need in your wardrobe, it makes sense that the foundation of a wardrobe should be black and white; for example, the classic white shirt and well-fitting black pants,” says Nonoo, who will join the other designers at today’s London launch. “Empowering women has always been my goal as a designer, and I was thrilled our brand could support so many women’s professional pursuits in this special partnership.”
Meghan has been hands-on with the project from start to finish, recently surprising the Smart Works team when she joined the Smart Set campaign shoot with fashion and travel photographer Jenny Zarins at a central London studio. Instead of using professional models, they worked with three women—Andrea, Kate, and Zara—who had successfully found jobs with the help of Smart Works. Since former Vogue editor Juliet Hughes-Hallett founded the organization six years ago, Smart Works has helped 15,000 women re-enter the workforce. “We have dressed and trained every woman as if she was the only one and made each and every client feel exceptional,” Hughes-Hallett tells BAZAAR.com in a statement. “The Smart Set capsule collection will make a significant difference in our ability to dress our clients in the high-quality clothes and accessories they need, giving them the opportunity to regain their confidence, look fabulous, and get the job.”
It was important for the campaign visual to reflect the diversity of the unemployed women whose lives are transformed by the organization. Just over half of Smart Works’ clients are from an ethnic minority background and have experienced long-term unemployment, even after a large number of job applications. Smart Works has a 64 percent success rate in helping these women get a job after their visit, where they are dressed for interviews and coached by volunteers. They also have the opportunity to join the Smart Works Network, which meets every month to further members’ professional and personal development. Once clients score their dream job, they’re invited back for a second outfit, which will help see them through their first pay check.
“It’s the enthusiasm of the volunteers, the earnestness of the staff and, most of all, the blushing, bashful, and beautiful smile that crosses a client’s face when she sees herself in the mirror, that I have found so profoundly compelling,” says Meghan.
This collection has also been a chance to shine a light on brands driving the accessible fashion scene in the U.K., just as the world’s fashion industry descends on the capital for London Fashion Week. “It was important to the Duchess to not only support British high street brands she knows and loves, but also those that the women feel comfortable in and familiar with,” says a source, who notes that Meghan was impressed by Jigsaw’s 2017 advertising campaign celebrating cultural diversity in the U.K.
As the items begin to sell online, Meghan is keen to share her thanks to those that made it happen. “The four brands who came together in supporting Smart Works on this special project—placing purpose over profit and community over competition,” she says. “In convening several companies rather than one, we’ve demonstrated how we can work collectively to empower each other as another layer to this communal success story that I am so proud to be a part of.”