Belfast designer MaryRose McGrath on the fashion hits and misses at the Royal Wedding
Belfast fashion designer MaryRose McGrath gives her expert opinion on Meghan's dress and which royal wedding guests stood out and tells Una Brankin how a family tragedy prevented her producing a copy of the wedding gown
No-one was prouder than the late Norah McGrath when her designer daughter's flawless replica of Kate Middleton's bridal gown went on display at the House of Fraser in Belfast - within 24 hours of the 2011 royal wedding at Westminster Abbey.
The exquisite recreation of Kate's Alexander McQueen gown made headlines around the world for local occasion-wear specialist MaryRose McGrath. And the glamorous mother-of-one from north Belfast was aiming to pull-off the same feat of tailoring with Meghan Markle's Givenchy dress - an achievement managed by Newry designer Shauna Fay last Sunday.
Sadly, MaryRose's plans came to an end when her mother Norah (73) was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer in February. The former midwife died just six weeks later.
"Mum taught me how to sew when I was about seven and she was so proud when I made the Kate dress replica," says MaryRose (44). "I had to take off so much time when she was ill, I couldn't take on the Meghan dress, on top of my ongoing commissions, but I don't regret a second of that precious time with Mum. I mean, it was very tough at times, but she was very accepting of the fact she was dying, and she had such dignity."
Once a talented dressmaker in her spare time, Norah began to feel unwell last Christmas.
"Her brilliant doctor had a hunch something was wrong, so he sent her to a consultant, who ordered an MRI scan," MaryRose recalls. "That showed up terminal pancreatic cancer and two days later she was told she had liver cancer, too. It was the most horrendous week, but also really beautiful in a way.
"Mum didn't want her last days to be sad. She had the whole family and close friends and a lot of love around her. We had some laughs and carry on in that hospital room. The staff at the Royal and the Northern Ireland Hospice were phenomenal. She was in pain sometimes, but pancreatic cancer is almost kinder, in that it's short, and she didn't have too long to suffer."
A guest fashion degree lecturer at Ulster University and Belfast Met, MaryRose also teaches all aspects of design and tailoring to both adults and children, from eight years old, at her elegant studio in west Belfast's Conway Mill. She first learned to sew as a child, while sitting beside her mother at her sewing machine in the family's farmhouse in Downpatrick.
"Mum taught me so well that I could sew an applique cushion faster than my home economics teacher at Assumption Grammar School in Ballynahinch," laughs MaryRose. "I love teaching and I was very annoyed when I realised sewing wasn't being taught at schools any more, so I started classes for kids from eight to 11, and, with the popularity of the Great British Sewing Bee and the trend for upcycling clothes during the recession, that led on to classes for adults as well.
"I teach from scratch to industry level, advance pattern cutting and so on. I have had several hundred students - many professional women and a few gents also. I love being able to pass on the tricks of my trade."
At present, MaryRose is inundated with bridalwear commissions and first communion dresses - she had 40 orders for last weekend's communion ceremonies alone. And although she was disappointed not to have had the time to have made a replica of Meghan Markle's dress, she was pleased that her friend Shauna Fay was able to reproduce both the day and evening gowns within 22 hours of the beautiful Windsor Castle wedding.
"I'm so delighted both the Kate and Meghan replicas were both made in Northern Ireland and I'm mega proud of Shauna - she's very talented and I wouldn't have expected anything less of her," she says.
"I would have loved to have done a replica of Meghan's glorious, amazing dress but I had to take so much time off when Mum was ill, I just couldn't manage it. But I made a dress for a mother of the groom very recently with the same dropped waist and the neckline sitting on the shoulder, so that lady was way ahead of the trend we're going to see coming in now."
MaryRose was spot on with her predictions for Meghan Markle's minimalist wedding dress when the Belfast Telegraph interviewed her after the announcement of Prince Harry's engagement last year.
"Megan's dress absolutely showed that it is all about the cut - no need for embellishments," she remarks. "I think it was an unforgettable masterpiece of modern couture and it will go down as one of the best royal wedding dresses in history."
As for the price tag, MaryRose estimates that Givenchy's creative director Claire Waight Keller would have charged between £50,000 to £60,000 for the perfectly structured white gown - a mere snip compared to the rumoured £250,000 for Kate Middleton's lacy number.
"Some people will say the dress was far too simple, but it's really hard to cut that style of neckline - and the nipped in waist - so beautifully," she says.
"You pay for the bespoke couturier's knowledge, as well as their time. The dress emphasised the bride's lovely long neck and slender frame. It was cut on minimal lines - six panels, but there were many foundation layers underneath, to keep it sitting on the shoulder.
"It would have taken hundreds of hours to create from start to finish and it wouldn't have been easy to replicate. It was all about the sleek silhouette, and it takes a lot of confidence to carry off that look. It was a very expensive, silk Cady fabric, which has a lovely soft matte lustre - not shiny - with a silk organza underlay."
An expert in bridalwear, MaryRose also gave her seal of approval to the exquisite detail of Meghan's sweeping veil, which flowed from the back of her minimalist dress in soft folds, cushioned by an underskirt in triple silk organza. It was held in place by a filigree bandeau tiara, which belonged to Queen Mary and was loaned to Meghan by the Queen for the occasion.
"The train were squared and gilded over her with such elegance," she says.
"The details, with the floral references to the Commonwealth, were so beautifully done. She very much reminded me of a European royal bride, such as Princess Victoria of Sweden or Princess Mary of Denmark.
"It was all clean lines and she wasn't afraid to go for white. It wasn't a real blue-white though, and it suited her skin really well. I loved the Stella McCartney halter-neck dress she wore afterwards, too. It was beautifully sleek heavy crepe - perfect for the after-party. And the Cartier earrings were to die for.
Not forgetting the groom, MaryRose also approved of Prince Harry's ceremonial tailoring and the Savile Row, James Bond-style tuxedo he wore for the evening event.
"Harry looked great and I squealed when he lifted up Meghan's veil! He's obviously dying about her. And it was such a beautiful ceremony, and very respectful," she says.
While acknowledging Meghan as the world's current leading style trendsetter, MaryRose isn't concerned that the new royal bride chose to have no bridesmaids, a choice that could influence the future income for bridalwear stores at home and abroad.
"The flower-girls and page-boys were stupidly cute and I liked the way she broke away from the norm," says MaryRose.
"I suppose she didn't want to upset anyone, choosing a maid-of-honour and all that, and she avoided the Pippa effect when Kate got married. Also, she doesn't have any sisters, as such, so I think she made a good choice. But every bride and every wedding is different, so I don't think we're going to see bridesmaids suddenly disappearing."
MaryRose was less impressed by the overall style of the A list royal wedding guests - although one glamorous lawyer, a musician's wife and an American actress stood out, in her opinion.
"Amal Clooney was a walking dream in her Stella McCartney outfit," she says. "That saturated honey yellow was so beautiful on her. James Blunt's wife looked great in her Valentino tapestry, with the Peter Pan collar and scalloped trim, and the girl from Meghan's TV show, Suits - Sarah Rafferty - looked stunning in her Lanvin outfit. It was gorgeous simple chic and the leg-of-lamb sleeves were so beautifully detailed.
"I was disappointed in the guests' fashion overall, though, Some were awful. I was dying to see what Victoria Beckham would wear, but it was very disappointing. She went for navy again - like she did at William and Kate's wedding - but it was so saturated, it looked black and almost funereal.
"As for Princess Anne's weird winter dressing gown thing? Words fail me. The Queen's lime green was a bit harsh but she's a clever lady - she knew people would want to see her standing out in the crowd, and that colour did it.
"And I'm sure Mum was up there on Saturday with Princess Diana, having a couple of gin and tonics and watching the proceedings. She wouldn't have missed that for the world."