When the Duchess of Sussex announced she was to become the royal patron of Smart Works at the start of this year, its organisers and volunteers could never have predicted how much was about to change.

Since 2013, the charity, which has eight centres around the UK, has helped more than 15,000 British women struggling back into employment via sessions combining personal styling and interview training.

But last week, Smart Works launched one of its most ambitious projects yet with the Duchess's "Smart Set" collection, bringing together Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Partners, Jigsaw and Misha Nonoo to sell clothes for their cause.

Last week, 160 people gathered in the rooftop garden of John Lewis on Oxford St to hear the Duchess introduce the initiative. For every dress, suit, shirt or tote bag sold by each retailer, a like-for-like item will be donated to the charity, enabling volunteer stylists to dress another "client", making her feel confident and presentable for an interview that might change her life.


The news went global, and one bag from the collection sold out online within hours.

Kate Stephens, the charity's CEO, says Meghan was hands-on from the beginning, bursting with ideas. Not only did she personally persuade some of the biggest high street rivals to collaborate, but by doing so she managed to get global attention for what the charity is trying to achieve.

So how did they manage to pull off such a coup?

Meghan launches the Smart Works capsule collection at John Lewis in Oxford Street, London. Photo / AP
Meghan launches the Smart Works capsule collection at John Lewis in Oxford Street, London. Photo / AP

"The idea came up pretty soon after she agreed to be our royal patron," Stephens says.

"This collection was one of her first ideas as she had noticed from volunteering with us that there are certain items and sizes that we need a lot of. We're not a shop, we're not ordering in clothes, we rely on people's donations."

Stephens said the Duchess personally contacted the brands earlier this year. Where the charity will typically receive items from stores that didn't sell at the end of the season (eg 40 lilac jackets or orange bags), this way they will have a new set of products made exclusively for them. Marks & Spencer has created a Smart Set crepe shift dress, John Lewis a leather tote bag, Jigsaw a black jacket and trousers and Misha Nonoo, a personal friend of the Duchess, has made her "perfect" white shirt.

"She cherry-picked these brands," Stephens says. "It came from her understanding of which brands on the British high street are familiar to people and can be accessible in terms of sizing, price and regional reach."

For the Duchess it was also about what would count as classics and essentials.


"I thought, what are the traditional and quintessential British brands that I've been introduced to since I moved here and I knew resonated with the Smart Works customer?" she said.

"For me that seemed obvious to be M&S and John Lewis, which I have worn quite a bit in the past year ... and Jigsaw, because I had seen a campaign that they had done ... highlighting the diversity of the UK and how that was a part of the fabric of the nation."

Meghan speaks during the launch the of her Smart Works capsule collection at a department store in central London. Photo / AP
Meghan speaks during the launch the of her Smart Works capsule collection at a department store in central London. Photo / AP

For the big names, it was the direct contact from Meghan that led to an instant "yes" to taking part.

Misha Nonoo said: "It was the first time I've ever made something with truly inclusive sizing, as she wanted everything to be available in a size UK 6-24.

"She [Meghan] was very clear about what the goal was. She's not a micro-manager, she is really trusts you to do your part."

The next challenge was to determine what pieces should be in the range. The bag that was "big enough to carry a CV" was on everyone's wish list.

"The Duchess has been in our dressing rooms trying to find bags for our clients and knows it's particularly hard," says Stephens. "It's a category that we don't get as many donations for. Especially of the right types of bags to take to an interview."

The launch timing was complicated as the Duchess was pregnant with Archie.

"She was thinking at every step of the way about what she could do to boost the project," Stephens reveals. "We had to set a date which worked with the royal calendar."

One stage which the Duchess didn't want to miss out on was capturing the promotional photography. Smart Works clients were invited to take part in the photo shoot in August, and Meghan made a surprise appearance from her short maternity leave.

"It was really important to her to be there," Stephens says. "It was a surprise to the clients, they had no idea, so there was lots of screaming and hugging when they realised who was styling them for the day.

"She was very hands-on and making everyone feel great. It was amazing that she could be there to create that magic."