'Meghan's very sleek and petite and loves her figure-hugging clothes ... I think she'll be a real showstopper'
Ahead of Meghan Markle's wedding to Prince Harry in May, fevered speculation already surrounds her choice of bridal gown. Belfast fashion designer MaryRose McGrath, who famously produced a replica of Kate Middleton's wedding dress in 2011, tells Una Brankin how she thinks the American actress will look
MaryRose McGrath grabbed worldwide headlines for her remarkable replica of Kate Middleton's bridal gown - the first to be produced in the UK and within 24 hours of the royal wedding on April 29, 2011.
Now the award-winning Belfast-based designer is planning to repeat the feat in May, when she'll be standing at the ready with her tailoring scissors for the first glimpse of Meghan Markle's arrival at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, for the actress's marriage to Prince Harry.
As most fashion commentators are predicting, MaryRose (44) expects the American to appear in a contemporary wedding gown.
"Kate and Pippa's dresses were very romantic, along the lines of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, but for Meghan I would lean more to Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's stunning wedding dress and the one Marla Maples wore for her wedding to Donald Trump," she says.
"Meghan is very sleek and petite, and she likes clean lines - she's not a lace and embellished detail girl.
"She wears beautifully cut, figure-hugging clothes, although she might surprise us all and wear something unexpected.
"I'd guess that she'd have a detachable train - the Windsor venue is smaller than Westminster Abbey, but she'll still need to make an impact.
"I think she'll wear her hair down with a beautiful veil. She'll be a showstopper."
MaryRose, a Downpatrick farmer's daughter, has collaborated with leading designers Bella Freud and Matthew Williamson, as well as designing for Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and Arcadia, the fashion empire owned by tycoon Philip Green.
This year, she brought her skills to the Game of Thrones wardrobe department, and her elegant designs will be seen in more than one high-profile television series over the coming 12 months (confidentiality clauses mean her lips are sealed about the stars involved for the time being).
MaryRose and her team will create the replica of Meghan's wedding gown in a beautifully appointed studio in Belfast's Conway Mill, where she specialises in womenswear, children's occasionwear and bridal gowns.
For the shade of the wedding dress, she predicts pale ivory or a warm white.
"I don't see her in pure white or a strong ivory - she's more likely to choose what we refer to as 'bridal white', which is a soft pearlescent shade, more of a winter white," MaryRose explains.
"It's flattering to all skin tones, dark and fair - most of my brides wear it.
"The winter white coat Meghan wore for her engagement announcement, for example, suited her so well. It was fabulous and gorgeous, and I loved her green dress too.
"I completely disagree with the critics who said she shouldn't have worn nude shoes with white. Nonsense. The heels looked like Jimmy Choos.
"I recommend nude heels to most of my customers attending VIP events at Buckingham Palace and so on."
As one of Northern Ireland's leading bespoke designers, MaryRose always has reams of luxurious fabrics in stock. For the replica of Meghan's gown, she'll have her full collection of materials at hand.
"I don't think she'll go for shine - maybe a beautiful crepe or a mikado fabric," she says. "Not a duchess satin, something more matte, with a tiny bit of stretch.
"She has such a beautiful figure, but she also has class, not like these celebrities nowadays who flaunt all they've got.
"I don't like that see-through look - it's cheap and there's not much elegance to it. Meghan is very luxe and understated but still 'wow'.
"I've been studying her style and I notice she doesn't really go for prints. She seems to prefer block colours.
"The tone-on-tone oxblood dress and leather jacket she wore recently was amazing, and she didn't have those dreadful over-the-knee boots on, like the Kardashians. I don't like their look at all. People will get bored with it."
MaryRose's replica of Kate Middleton's dress (designed by Sarah Burton for the Alexander McQueen label) went on display at the Belfast branch of House of Fraser the day after the 2011 royal wedding.
She and her team had taken on the challenge for fun, never thinking they'd end up with the first high-street version.
"The second Kate began to emerge from the car, I knew we could make that dress," MaryRose remembers. "It was very much my style. At exactly 10 minutes past 11, I started sketching and my head seamstress, Lorraine Cunningham, worked out the fastest way to make it. We worked right through the night and we were finished at 8.50am the next day."
The replica was made from ivory duchess satin, with a bodice of French chantilly lace and a plain train.
Once it was mounted on a plinth in House of Fraser, word went out on social media and people began travelling from around the UK and Ireland to see it.
"We got enquiries from all over the world, from India to Australia," says MaryRose. "I also got all these messages from recent customers thanking me for foreseeing the look and sending them up the aisle in a trend-setting design.
"One client had worn a similar design of mine at her wedding the previous November, with the same lace sleeves, the same strapless dress and sweetheart neck.
"Her mother told her to call me and get a legal patent for the pattern."
More recently, another famous bride who influenced trends was Christine Bleakley, now Lampard, who wore a Suzanne Neville design.
She looked magnificent," says MaryRose. "She went for lace too, and there was a very strong Spanish influence in her look, especially with her mantilla veil.
"Her dress was very much Hollywood glamour, moving on from vintage to a very glam look, with a silk organza skirt.
"She had a structured lace bodice with a dropped waist, and I liked the skinny lace sleeve - it framed her neckline beautifully.
"It was very much a romantic but sexy, structured and glamorous look."
Although she always seems frantically busy designing for her own label, MaryRose "absolutely loves" teaching sewing to over-16s at her classes in Conway Mill, and continues to freelance for high street fashion brands.
For spring next year, she believes black and white will be a key trend.
"Last season it was pink, and in the early spring you'll see monotone in the transition period, then fresh pastels from Easter," the designer says, "and lilacs and cornflower. Pink is still around. Orange and reds too. And feathers and tassels will continue."
Apart from good taste, MaryRose has impeccable Catholic schooling in common with bride-to-be Meghan. A former pupil of the well-regarded Assumption Convent in Ballynahinch, she excelled in art with the encouragement of her course tutor and mentor, Peter McCann, and graduated with a first-class honours degree in design from Manchester Metropolitan University. Named one of the top graduates in the UK, she went on to design womenswear for high-street brands such as Oasis, House of Fraser and A-Wear. Her designs have been featured in all the major glossies, including Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire.
"I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer from the age of seven or eight," she explains. "I'd make stuff for my Barbie. My mother, Norah, is a former midwife and a ridiculously talented dressmaker - she taught me to sew. We'd have the two machines going at the same time in the house.
"Mum made the most beautiful wedding dresses and all my formal dresses. I'd give her a sketch and away she'd go. She and my dad, Ronan, are separated, and I have a lovely stepmother, Anne."
With creativity in the family's blood, MaryRose wasn't in the least bit surprised when her son, Christopher (17), set his sights on product design for a career.
The teenager was born in London, during one of the busiest periods of his mother's career. MaryRose's marriage to Christopher's father, who is half-Spanish, lasted four years.
"I was travelling around the world every two or three weeks and, unfortunately, my ex-husband was away for three of our four years of marriage," she explains.
"I was technically a single parent. In London. That was really hard, but I managed it. My mother would take time off work to come over to mind Christopher when I had to travel. I loved my job - it was a joy to go to work. Marks & Spencer, especially, was great old-school training at the time, when they were kings of the high street.
"But it came to the point where I was going to have to hire a nanny, so I decided to come home and it was the best decision I ever made. Christopher adores his grandfather - he's been a father figure for him."
Evidently hurt by the circumstances that led to her marriage break-up, the designer nonetheless tries not to harbour bitterness.
"I don't regret the marriage as such. All I can say is, beware handsome foreign strangers", she says. "But Christopher is my pride and joy. He has a real flair for design and his drawings are fabulous.
"He went everywhere with me as a child - he knows exactly how the studio is run and he knows all the machinists. We're incredibly close."
Christopher has applied to study at his mother's alma mater in Manchester. She was recently appointed the university's fashion ambassador in recognition of her successful career in design.
MaryRose recalls her days as a student as some of the most fun times of her life.
"I remember blagging my way in with a couple of friends to see Stella McCartney's final-year show as a student of Saint Martin's College in London, and it was about an hour late starting, which was unheard of," she says. "They had to wait on Paul McCartney arriving. There was a whole big drama, then out comes Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell on the catwalk in Stella's collection, and those girls, they can walk.
"It was such a moment, I'll never forget it. Stella got a lot of negative reaction for having supermodels at her college show, but why not? They were her friends. She wasn't brought up with a silver spoon in her mouth and she has proved herself as a phenomenal designer and ended up with an OBE."
Currently single, MaryRose will spend Christmas at her home in north Belfast with Christopher, her mother and her older brother, Connor. She also plans to see her younger brother, Barry, his wife, Katy, and their two year-old, Ivy, over the holidays.
Does she envisage designing a wedding dress for herself in the future?
"Well, I'm on the lookout," she laughs. "I hope Santa brings me something lovely - like a boyfriend. That would be very nice."
For appointments with MaryRose and information on sewing courses, telephone her Conway Mill studio on 028 9521 5683, or visit maryrosemcgrath.com or MaryRoseMcGrathDesigns on Facebook