When your friend becomes a royal, the clothing designer said, "nothing changes." You just can't discuss logistics.
You are likely either to know at least two or otherwise none of the following things about Misha Nonoo:
1. She is a clothing designer.
2. She is a part of that sliver of society whose members constitute what is known as "society": that is, people whose personal milestones are often honoured by private performances from world-famous musicians, but who are not themselves world famous or musicians.
3. She is a close friend of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and is considered a plausible candidate to have set up Prince Harry and the former Meghan Markle, who have said they met on a blind date.
If you knew none of that, you are even less likely to correctly guess the pronunciation of her surname: noo-noo.
"When you've grown up with a name as absurd as mine — Misha Nonoo — which, it really is. I mean, it's absurd," she said, tucking into an outdoor lunch at a New York City French brasserie, "it is kind of character building."
Nonoo, 33, who grew up in London, was born in Bahrain to an English mother and an Iraqi-Jewish father. (The Nonoos are a prominent Jewish family in Bahrain; her cousin Houda Nonoo was the first Jewish ambassador posted abroad by any Arab country, in 2008, when Bahrain's Jewish population numbered 36 individuals.) Her surname is a transliteration of an Arabic term Nonoo translates as "little one."
According to Nonoo family lore, the word was so widely used to refer to a diminutive several-greats-grandfather that it just "became the family name, if you can believe it." Nonoo estimated that someone gets it wrong "pretty much" every day.
Nonoo does not normally discuss her friendship with the Duchess of Sussex. (She could not recall having done so in public since Markle's engagement was announced.) While she said she has never been asked not to share details about Markle, it could be observed that she spoke of her on that summer afternoon with the cordial nonchalance of someone who had been granted special dispensation to do so, and also that she retained her own digital record of the conversation.
Up for discussion was her charitable collaboration with Markle, announced in the September issue of British Vogue. The conceit: a workwear capsule collection from three British retailers (Marks & Spencer, John Lewis & Partners, and Jigsaw) and Nonoo, who works in New York.
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Last month, The Duchess of Sussex surprised Smart Works clients during the capsule collection shoot in west London...Today, The Duchess, alongside @SmartWorksCharity - in partnership with @InsideJigsaw, @JohnLewisandPartners, @MarksandSpencer and @MishaNonoo - are incredibly proud to reveal to everyone, #TheSmartSet - a five piece capsule collection that will equip the Smart Works clients with the classic wardrobe pieces to help them feel confident as they mobilise back into the work space. • “Since moving to the UK, it has been deeply important to me to meet with communities and organisations on the ground doing meaningful work and to try to do whatever I can to help them amplify their impact. It was just last September that we launched the ‘Together’ cookbook with the women of the Hubb Kitchen in Grenfell. Today, a year later, I am excited to celebrate the launch of another initiative of women supporting women, and communities working together for the greater good. Thank you to the four brands who came together in supporting Smart Works on this special project - placing purpose over profit and community over competition. In convening several companies rather than one, we’ve demonstrated how we can work collectively to empower each other - another layer to this communal success story, that I am so proud to be a part of” - The Duchess of Sussex The collection – which features a shirt, trousers, blazer, dress and tote bag – will be on sale for two weeks starting today, with the objective of selling enough units to give Smart Works the essentials they need to help dress clients for the coming year! For every item bought during the sale of the collection, one will be donated to Smart Works, this 1:1 model allows customers to directly support the Smart Works women by playing a part in their success story - how they look and more importantly, how they feel. Photo © @JennyZarins
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For each item bought, another one would be donated to Smart Works, an organization that provides clothing and interview training to unemployed women re-entering the workforce. The collection would, in Markle's words, per British Vogue, offer wardrobe options more universal in design and appropriateness than "a potpourri of mismatched sizes and colours, not always the right stylistic choices or range of sizes" assembled from donations alone.
It could be observed also that Nonoo was lovely to talk to — that she was as warm and bright as sunshine winking off a private pond, and that words delivered in her crisp accent piled up like stacks of freshly laundered percale pillowcases. She was friendly and self-deprecating and dressed in a shirt (the bestselling Husband) and skirt (Billie) by Misha Nonoo with luminous Lucite earrings she described as "old Celine," by which she meant approximately one year old.
When a waiter appeared at her shoulder in the thick of a thought, she cut herself off midsentence and said, "I'm still working!," in a way that sounded like a compliment, a secret and a "Hello from the flight deck." ("I always have that fear when people try to steal my food," she said after the waiter retreated, then imitated a panicked sob: "'I'm still going!'")
It was easy to see why anyone would choose her for a friend. Here, in her own words, is how Markle did:
"We met at a lunch in Miami during Art Basel," she said (then murmured, "I think this is all pretty well documented"). "And we sat down and we started, actually, right from the get-go, talking about a shared passion for equality, women's empowerment and our love of dogs."
Pressed about the plausibility of two strangers at Art Basel —
"Well, we were at a lunch."
— of two strangers at a lunch at Art Basel spontaneously declaring their love for equality, Nonoo said, "Well, we got there pretty quickly, I'll tell you that much!"
Could context explain how pleasantries veered to equality? Asked what the party was for —
"Well, it was a — it was a seated lunch."
— Nonoo said she could not "remember exactly," but suggested, "I guess if you're sitting next to somebody at a seated lunch, there's an opportunity to, kind of, get a little deeper than at a cocktail party or something where you're, like, standing and your feet hurt and you're like, 'Ooh, ooh, where am I going next so my feet aren't hurting anymore?'" She and Markle, she said, "were introduced through a mutual, very close friend."
Nonoo dated this occurrence to around "eight years ago," though a 2015 post attributed to Markle on her deleted lifestyle website, The Tig (accessible via archive), recounted that the two had met the previous December. ("And by 'met,' I mean danced the night away and sipped cocktails with,'" Markle wrote, describing Nonoo as "the kind of woman you instantly adore.")
Photos captured in Miami in 2014, sold through Getty Images, reveal that both women attended a nighttime beach party of which one host was the founder of Soho House. (Soho House's London location is the rumoured site of Harry and Markle's first date.)
Nonoo said that she and Markle began discussing a Smart Works collaboration "ages ago," before the duchess's formal connection to the organization was announced. "Because of the friendship," Nonoo said, the idea "was a conversation before it was, I think, fully formed.
"She said, you know, 'I am going to become royal patron of a charity that I think is right up your alley. It's all about empowering women. It's all about professional women, women getting back into the workforce, and I haven't figured out what we're going to do yet, but I would really like for you to be a part of what we do,'" Nonoo said. "And I said, 'Great!'"
Despite not having "a totally clear picture of what I was agreeing to" — she didn't see the other designs in progress, or learn details of the release until later ("I had absolutely no idea") — she said she told Markle, "I love you and I will absolutely do this."
"She's such a consistent person," Nonoo said, "that you can speak to her about personal things and, you know, a work situation like this, all in the same breath."
In subsequent conversation, Markle outlined the idea, and which items she hoped to feature. She had famously worn Nonoo's signature piece — an oversize white cotton shirt with stud buttons — at her first official public appearance with Harry. "'And I would like for you to be the white shirt that's a part of this,'" Nonoo recalled her saying.
The shirt, they agreed, would have to be "something that would work for a lot of different body shapes and sizes" and make the wearer "feel good every single day when they put this piece on."
The resulting garment is a cotton/spandex blend shirt, priced US$125, that Nonoo described as "more tailored" and "really, really, really close to the body" compared with the Husband, which she admitted some find "too oversized." Her monogram, MN, is embroidered on the nape of the neck.
Nonoo characterized Markle's touch as light. "I think, really being the person that she is, for each brand that she's working with, she's really entrusted us. She's not a micromanager. She's not that type of personality," she said.
The items will be available for "at least two weeks," according to a document provided by a royal communications officer. Nonoo said that because each contributor will handle the sales of their designs individually, the shirt will be sold exclusively on her website and in her New York City pop-up store according to her standard practice, by which pieces are manufactured as they are ordered.
While Nonoo did not consult with the other designers, "she," she said, meaning Markle, "was talking to everybody.
"I was never concerned from a control aspect of the other pieces because ultimately the filter was always going to be Meghan's tastes, and I trusted that implicitly — and the messaging — and that it would all be right." The two discussed the project "mainly when we were together" in person; otherwise, "we'd text about it.
"Obviously, my experience is different to probably a lot of the other partners. All I can say is that she is the most generous, the most genuine person," Nonoo said, describing Markle as "such a sister in the sense that, you know, if you're her friend, she'll do anything for you."
Over the course of lunch, Nonoo emphasised repeatedly that her friendship with Markle remains unchanged post-royal wedding. Assuming Nonoo's reliability as narrator, this a minor miracle.
In the past two years, Nonoo's friend has moved from a major metropolis to a secluded country home enclosed within a private estate on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean; replaced her job with what is essentially a public commitment to perform documented acts of charity for the rest of her life until precluded by grave infirmity or death; likely undergone anti-kidnapping training; remarried; become a person with no legal last name who attends church services on Christmas morning for a religion she converted to only last year, and who then gives a present directly to the queen of England; given birth to a son; and deleted her Instagram.
And yet, if anyone's life shows evidence of having been charmed and fortified by minor miracles, it is Misha Nonoo, inasmuch as it can be considered a minor miracle to find oneself marrying into a family of billionaires (her fiancé is Michael Hess, as in the energy company); to pose with wet hair for a picture on a yacht next to a smiling Beatle (Paul) who is using one's shoulder for support as he stands on tippy toes (perhaps to appear taller in the photo); to be continually blitzed with a calibre of advertising that money cannot buy when a young member of the British royal family wears one's designs frequently at public events; to have "recently stayed at a castle in Italy," but have the actual point of the sentence be that it "may have been haunted," etc.
"Nothing changes," Nonoo said at one point with a laugh.
"From, you know, the handwritten thank-you letters that you receive, to never missing a birthday, an occasion, checking in. You may think because someone's so busy that they're not there, but that has never changed, how genuinely thoughtful she is," she said at another point.
"I'm sure people probably think, like, 'Things must be so different!' et cetera, et cetera. 'That must affect her friendships!' But all I can say is that from my perspective, she has not changed as a friend," she said at another.
"From when I first met her, to a text that I would send yesterday or today, nothing has ever changed. Nothing."
Asked if their relationship had changed at least logistically, a curtain fell over Nonoo's openness. "I definitely can't speak about logistics," she said.
For the most part, however, she displayed no more apprehension to speak about her friend than occasional fleeting pauses before saying her name. In fact, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, seemed to be one of the least off-limits topics of the day.
By contrast, Nonoo refused to share details about the size and location of her upcoming wedding. Asked to say one thing about David Geffen's yacht, which she and her fiancé have been depicted enjoying multiple times on Geffen's Instagram, Nonoo demurred. "I don't think I can," she said.
It is actually quite difficult to look someone in the eye and politely yet firmly refuse to answer her question. It is harder, even, than telling a breezy lie. It requires a high tolerance for awkwardness and a steely nerve. It is a skill well suited to those whose friends travel with armed security teams.
And while this was, on the surface, a chat about her princess friend's fashion collaboration for charity, it was also a conversation fraught with tension, requiring, as it did, Nonoo to appear to casually discuss the terribly normal life of a woman whose efforts at privacy, alongside her husband, have caused national uproar in Britain.
Back at the headquarters of Nonoo's label, in the NoHo section of Manhattan, the faultlessly polite designer betrayed a hint of relief as the conversation wrapped. Asked what she had been dreading, she responded that her worries lay not in the questions, but in her answers.
"It's more about, you know, 'Keep it together, Me! Don't get all crazy and you say something that you're like, 'Whew, I did not mean to say that!'" she said, and chuckled.
The collection is available now.
Written by: Caity Weaver
Photographs by: Andrew White
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES