She was the Princess with the eyes of the world on her; Elizabeth and David Emanuel were the anointed designers charged with making her the perfect wedding dress. At a time when Diana's marriage has come under scrutiny once again, Bethan Holt talks to Elizabeth about the couple's not-so-happy ever after...
Just before 11am on 29 July 1981, Lady Diana Spencer stepped out of the Glass Coach at St Paul's Cathedral. After some unravelling, her bridal gown was finally revealed following months of speculation. Embellished with 10,000 pearls, it had sleeves that looked like fluffy clouds and it came with a dramatic 25ft train. India Hicks, one of Diana's five bridesmaids, later said that the noise from the crowd as Diana emerged was "absolutely extraordinary".
In the cathedral were 3,500 guests. A further 750 million people were watching on television around the globe. Each will have had their own opinion on the dress of the century. In his book, Diana Style, the fashion commentator Colin McDowell described the gown as "pure romance. We were all invited into a child's picture of what a Princess should look like in the modern world."
Yet many were unimpressed by how creased the fabric had become after being crammed into the tiny state carriage. "She should have come to us, we know about such things," an insider at the Queen's couturier, Norman Hartnell, noted haughtily.
As the 40th anniversary of the wedding approaches, that day remains firmly in the spotlight. As news that reporter Martin Bashir breached BBC guidelines in securing a Panorama interview with the Princess continues to reverberate, the iconic dress is also set to be the main attraction at the new exhibition at Kensington Palace.
In his wedding sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, said, "Fairy tales usually end at this point with the simple phrase: 'They lived happily ever after.' Our faith sees the wedding day not as the place of arrival but the place where the adventure really begins."
And boy, was this the start of an adventure – not just for the Waleses, but for Elizabeth and David Emanuel, the young couple who were catapulted to global fame as the designers of Diana's gown. For them, like Diana, there has been no fairy-tale ending, and while their work on the dress made them, it also broke them. And the fallout continues.
You only need to take a glance around Elizabeth's basement studio in London's Maida Vale to know that this is the workspace of a woman who still lives and breathes the ultra-femininity of Diana's dress. Mannequins are swathed in ivory silk; rails heave with intricately draped dresses dripping in crystals.
Elizabeth, 67, a diminutive figure dressed in leggings and flats, seems an almost unlikely creator for these exquisite pieces. Apart from, that is, her signature hair extensions which are as artfully haphazard as ever and have always made her instantly recognisable. "I don't feel like me if they're not right, you know?" she says, ruffling her hand nervously through the choppy layers.
It's more than a decade since Elizabeth showed at London Fashion Week, and lockdown has not been easy. Her latest project is a T-shirt collection and although she's keen to show me samples, it soon becomes evident that she is going through one of the trickiest times in her life – and there have been a few. "It's all been so stressful," she sighs, "it's a bit of a mess."
The turmoil stems from the legal battle she is embroiled in with her former husband, from whom she has been divorced since 1990. The subject of the battle is That Dress: specifically who owns the copyright. Elizabeth claims that her ex-husband has been taking credit for a design that was originally hers. When David, 68, still a designer and now also a TV presenter, was enlisted by Netflix to consult on The Crown last year, Elizabeth believed he had no right to help recreate the dress without her permission.
Her argument is being made to counter David's own case against her, seeking to bar her from selling sketches of Emanuel outfits that Diana wore. He claims that to do so infringes his copyright, and goes back on their separation agreement, where they both vowed not to use the Emanuel label in their future work.
It is a disagreement that has been going on since last year and is still very much in progress – which is why neither Elizabeth nor David want to get into specifics with me. The tabloids have picked over the details and the fall from grace it represents for the designers. After years of difficulties with investors, plus the ramifications of Covid, it's clear that this is the last thing Elizabeth needs. The difference from those booming early '80s days could not be more apparent.
Elizabeth and David first met at the Harrow School of Art in 1974, when she was 21 and he was 22. He was the exuberant boy from Bridgend; she was the painfully shy but obsessively creative child of American businessman Buddy Weiner and a British mother, and had grown up in London. Opposites attracted and they married in 1976. "I was very conscious that David was very good-looking. People would say, 'How is he with you?' I just felt that I was so lucky to have this very handsome husband. And I'm so shy, I can hardly get a word out," she says, reminiscing more fondly than you might expect given the circumstances.
In the year of their wedding, the pair became the first married couple to be accepted to the Royal College of Art. Then in a stroke of luck, they were able to show their final collections one after the other at the end of the graduation show. "In a rather dull show of final year students' work their clothes shone – David's stark and tailored; Elizabeth's frothy and feminine. They could not have been more different but both were outstanding," the Daily Telegraph fashion reporter Ann Chubb wrote at the time.
And therein lies the clue to the dispute. While both were gifted designers, it was her instinctive aesthetic that tapped into the New Romantic look everyone wanted at the time. Elizabeth's graduation collection was stocked at Browns on South Molton Street. Bianca Jagger bought a white lace dress which she wore to her 32nd birthday party, where she was pictured surrounded by a dole of doves, at Studio 54 in New York. "It was like somebody pressed a green light," Elizabeth tells me. "We were inundated, and the whole business just took off because of Bianca wearing that dress."
The Emanuels started their label as soon as they graduated in 1977, opening a studio opposite Claridge's, and began serving clients – from Bond girl Barbara Bach, who married Ringo Starr in a puff-sleeved, lace-embellished Emanuel dress, to royals Princess Michael of Kent and Princess Anne – who all loved their flamboyant confections. "We had all sorts of wonderful and strange commissions," Elizabeth recalls. "One member of the Royal family asked us to make a dressing gown for the Queen."
It helped that Elizabeth's father was backing the establishment. "I took it for granted completely that my dad was funding us," says Elizabeth. "I didn't realise that we wouldn't have been able to do it without my father putting some cash in."
By this time the Emanuels had two children – Oliver, born in 1978, and Eloise, born in 1979 – and had settled into a way of working that seemed to suit them both. She says that she was "in awe of David. He was very outgoing, chatty and looked like a rock star. I wasn't confident in myself, I was overweight. I was happiest when I was just designing and creating things." He dealt with clients and oversaw the workroom.
Then along came Diana. The 19-year-old girlfriend of Prince Charles discovered them when she was styled in an Emanuel candyfloss-pink blouse for a portrait in Vogue's February 1981 issue. The picture was later used to mark her engagement, which was announced on 24 February that year.
Diana then came to the couple in search of a dress for her first formal engagement with Charles – a fundraising concert at Goldsmiths' Hall in March – choosing a strapless black gown. "She hadn't been seen in a grown-up dress before, and suddenly she looked like a movie star," Elizabeth remembers. The dress's revealing décolletage caused a stir – McDowell wrote that there were "audible gasps" from onlookers, with the photographers "beside themselves with excitement" at this glimpse of Lady Di's "more daring side".
After that, it was to the Emanuels that Diana came for her wedding dress. "That was the phone call that changed our lives."
Unlike protocol today, Buckingham Palace announced they had been chosen to create the gown, despite designers from around the world inundating Diana with sketches. "Diana put her trust in both of us to come up with a beautiful wedding gown. And it fell on my shoulders to design something amazing," Elizabeth says, with a gentle emphasis on the "my".
David, meanwhile, recalls it being "a magical time" collaborating with Diana, "who had such a sense of humour, we could always have a giggle with her". The trio discussed where to place frills and how long to go with the train, which they decided to make the longest in royal wedding history.
Elizabeth adds, "I think Diana saw something in me a bit like her in the shyness department. It's one of the reasons we didn't want to ask her if we could photograph her during fittings. I knew about her life outside where she was getting followed by the paparazzi all the time with people asking questions. I thought, when she comes here, it has got to be an oasis for her."
Not that the Emanuels weren't having their own hard time with the press – photographers stationed themselves in the flat opposite their studio and their bins were searched for clues so, Elizabeth says, "we'd leave them false trails, bits of old fabrics and different coloured threads".
When it came to cutting the train, there was only one location that had the space to accommodate them: Buckingham Palace. It fell to David to banish the "footmen and flunkies" and "cordon off the entire floor" to ensure secrecy. When they'd finished, Diana asked how they were getting back to their studio. "We said we'd grab a cab, but she insisted on driving us, so went off down the Mall. She was as sweet as pie."
After months of intense pressure, the wedding day arrived. "It was the most unbelievable thing. It was like setting out to climb Everest and reaching the summit. There was a sense of euphoria," Elizabeth remembers. Both the Emanuels, who spent the morning with Diana at Clarence House watching the preparations on a tiny TV in her bedroom, recoil at the memory of that creasing episode, but insist that it was quickly remedied with a little smoothing out. A highlight for David was when the Queen made sure he had a glass of champagne after the ceremony.
That evening, David and Elizabeth returned to their studio on something of a comedown. "Everything was quiet. We were thinking, 'What do we do now?' Then there was a phone call and it was Diana," Elizabeth says. "She spoke to both of us and said she wanted to thank us for doing her dress and making her so happy on that day. She knew that we'd be on a bit of a downer afterwards. It made our day."
One of the reasons Elizabeth believes Diana's wedding dress has remained especially iconic is because of how it was photographed on the day. "It shows this ultimate transformation into a princess, with the veil flying and the train cascading down the steps." It transformed Diana into a fashion icon – and made the Emanuels household names.
Over the next few years, the Emanuels rode the wave of the immense fame. "At the beginning of the '80s, we were on a roll," Elizabeth remembers. "It was the most amazing time." Jane Seymour, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor were all wearing Emanuel-designed clothes, while magazines and newspapers sought their tips on everything from how to host a great dinner party to how to dress one's children.
Elizabeth designed costumes for the Royal Ballet, which was, she says, how she met Freddie Mercury, "a great fan of the ballet", and came to work on 1985's Fashion Aid, part of Bob Geldof 's famine relief efforts. The spectacle's finale was a kind of camp version of the royal wedding, with Jane Seymour as the bride in one of the frothiest Emanuel creations you could imagine and Mercury as the groom in one of his military jackets and an Emanuel cummerbund. "People just went crazy for that," she says, wistfully.
Diana ordered many more outfits from the Emanuels after her wedding, including a one-shouldered gown which she wore on the famous evening in Australia in 1985 when she repurposed Queen Mary's art deco emerald choker as a headband, reportedly irritating the Queen.
But then there was a period of time, in late 1985 and early 1986, when the couple didn't hear from the Princess. Elizabeth puts this down to Diana exploring her style with different designers, such as Catherine Walker and Bellville Sassoon. Certainly, fashion was moving on from the frou-frou decadence of the Emanuels towards sharper power dressing. Diana herself was also gaining a new sense of confidence – Vanity Fair's Tina Brown called her "the mouse that roared".
During this period, Elizabeth, who insists that the Emanuel aesthetic had evolved to reflect these new trends, "felt terrible. All we wanted to do was to make her happy, look out for her. To think that we might have done something wrong or inadvertently upset her… I actually got quite physically ill about it." Press speculation began to mount, so Elizabeth's father called the Princess's private secretary, for reassurance. It soon came; the Emanuels got a call from the Princess asking them to create a wardrobe for her forthcoming Middle East tour, and to be photographed with her. It was to be the last time they dressed her.
By 1987, the differences that had once made the Emanuels a strong team were causing a chasm between them. Elizabeth was still shy, but the driving design force, while David was the face of the label. That year, he went on a promotional tour of America, while Elizabeth stayed at home. When she saw David's name all over the press from the visit, she realised that she "had made a mistake". While she doesn't wish to go into details, their relationship began to fall apart.
Having spent years "turning people away" because they were too busy to take on new clients, the business started to run into trouble, not helped by the financial crisis sparked by Black Monday in October 1987.
The pair were in New York in 1989 on a work trip when they heard that the label would have to close. "My dad called and said, 'I'm afraid, it's all going down, you've lost so much money.' David just walked away, and left the business with me. Those designs were my blood, sweat and tears, I couldn't leave them – but there were debts, too." Unwilling to hand over all their assets to the liquidators, she took on the business liabilities "because I didn't want to lose what I'd created".
To make things worse, Elizabeth's parents sided with David. "They believed that I'd wrecked the marriage, that it was my fault that David and I had split up [because she had refused to walk away from the business]. I was left on my own dealing with bailiffs. He couldn't wait to leave and start up his own business, which my father helped him with. The children had to live with David [because she didn't have anywhere permanent to live] and I didn't speak to my parents for three years. I had to beg money from people to try and live day to day." She depended on help from friends, eventually moving to a houseboat in Little Venice.
"Nobody in the outside world knew what was happening. I was trying to raise money without anybody thinking that I needed money, because I felt it would all be too damaging. I didn't want to upset Diana. I didn't want her to know about it." By now, the Princess's own marriage was also coming to an end.
In the 31 years since her divorce from David, Elizabeth has skipped between different projects and backers. It has not been a path littered with successes. Perhaps the worst of the deals came in 1997, around the same time that Diana died, when her grief was compounded by the implosion of a business partnership with the Joe Bloggs founder Shami Ahmed, which led to her losing control of the name she'd already fought to protect. "My entire world crashed, it was just awful and I don't think I grieved for Diana properly until months later because I was just in shock."
Other investors have come and gone, from former QPR chairman Richard Thompson to the fraudster Edward Davenport, who conned Elizabeth out of a considerable amount after he'd promised to loan her £1 million. She was locked in a legal battle over the right to use her own name for years, taking her case to the European Court of Justice in 2006.
"It has been a very traumatic thing," she says, catching her breath. "After lots of legal wrangling, I've now got my name back in America, and I've been fighting to get it back over here." She doesn't deny that she's often been blinded by her unerring optimism. "I look at the world through rose-tinted glasses," she admits. "I don't know what I'm going to do if I can't get through this."
One happy constant has been her partner of 25 years, the writer Tony Drew, whom she met through the landlord of the houseboat she lived on, and was able to introduce to Diana before she died. "She said, 'I hope you're looking after her,'" says Elizabeth.
Not everything business-related has been bad. Elizabeth dressed Madonna for her Madame X tour in 2019. The pop icon had seen Cher wearing an Elizabeth Emanuel jacket and tracked her down. "I felt like I was coming back to life again. I could put all that detail into it as we did with Princess Diana's gown, but in a completely different way."
As for David, he's remained as smooth as he was when Elizabeth fell in love with him, still designing but also forging a career as a presenter. He is currently best known as the host of TV's Say Yes to the Dress UK. In 2019, it emerged that David was in a relationship with his business partner, David Byrne.
'I remember the whole royal wedding as a wonderful time,' David says now, happy to speak about 'the charming, sweet, typical Sloane Ranger' who walked into the Emanuels' studio all those years ago but preferring not to comment on the ongoing legal case with his ex-wife.
In spite of her difficulties, Elizabeth still feels lucky to have had the honour of creating Diana's dress. "It's defined me. We were in the right place at the right time, that experience would take a lot of beating." She does pause for reflection, however. "I often think if I hadn't met Diana, what would my life be like now? Would our partnership have been a success?"
Elizabeth met the Queen again in 2010 at a Palace reception. "She said, 'And what do you do?' I did want to say that I'd designed Diana's wedding dress," Elizabeth confides. "But I just thought maybe I shouldn't, so I just said, 'I'm a fashion designer.'"