Lauren Ho boards the Queen Mary 2 for a glamorous crossing to New York that recalls the golden age of cruising.
As I smoothed my embellished, one shoulder feather-trimmed dress into a plush sofa in the Champagne Bar, two women sitting on either side of me raised their delicate Waterford Crystal flutes in a spontaneous toast.
"To the golden age of cruise travel," said one, her diamond necklace shimmering in the soft evening sunshine. Her friend, wearing silk organza, her silver hair piled loosely on top of her head, told me that they cross the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 every year, but this was the first time they had experienced Cunard's Transatlantic Fashion Week cruise.
"There's no better way to relive the heyday of cruising than on a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary," she said. "And if there's going to be a fashion week cruise event it makes complete sense for it to be on this voyage."
It was day two of Cunard's seven-night eastbound journey from Southampton to New York, timed to arrive in the city for New York Fashion Week. My new friends, along with the tuxedoed men and elegant women in taffeta gowns wafting down the impressive double staircase, served as a reminder that ocean liners were once the epitome of glamour.
Last century, such luxuries as champagne bars, lavish ballroom parties and fine dining lured the leisured classes to sea, with film stars including Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall joining voyages — sometimes cruises to "nowhere" (those that don't dock) — with a de rigueur range of extravagant travel accessories, from personalised Goyard trunks to hatboxes, vanity cases and garment bags overflowing with haute-couture finery, furs, tiaras and precious jewels. Dietrich frequently crossed the Atlantic and was often photographed wearing the latest fashions.
Daywear, in turn, led to the birth of the cruise collection, a concept originally created for those in need of a wardrobe for their mid-season travels. High fashion houses including Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Ralph Lauren now use it as an opportunity to introduce a must-have mid-season collection into the market.
The berets, Mary Jane flats, stripy high-waisted trousers and crop tops shown in Paris in May by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, were modelled against a life-sized ship built inside the city's iconic Grand Palais (sound effects included seagulls and creaking ropes). After the show, guests including Margot Robbie, Kristen Stewart and Lily-Rose Depp crossed gangplanks to party inside a mock ballroom complete with grand piano, swimming pool and caviar bar.
"It was like the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but with better clothes," said a Telegraph fashion reporter.
Although formal wear is no longer essential on board the QM2, the Cunard passenger's predilection for dolling up is still on point. "Shorts, T-shirts and baseball caps should be banned," sniffed Doreen, a petite 80-something, from behind her menu at the ship's Britannia Club Restaurant.
Part of the cruise line's special "event cruises" — for which other themes include the Genealogy Cruise and The National Symphony Orchestra — Transatlantic Fashion Week is now an annual affair. Curated by Gail Sackloff, former London-based merchandise director of Saks Fifth Avenue, and historian and style commentator Colin McDowell MBE, the event combines fashion shows and "audiences with special guests"... an intriguing proposition that left me with mild wardrobe anxiety.
I needn't have worried. It soon became apparent that this voyage — as with the cruise line's other themed events — is masterminded with the Cunard passenger in mind: an experience that embraces their interests, such as a fondness for a sense of occasion, while bringing something different to the table.
"There's no doubt that Cunard guests take great pride and interest in fashion — especially during our much-loved black tie gala ball evenings," Cunard marketing director Angus Struthers told me.
The cruise is a fascinating glimpse into a world usually open only to fashion industry insiders. For example, Julien Macdonald — designer to stars including Jennifer Lopez, Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian — who headlined last year's cruise with two shows, prompted much excitement. One woman gleefully told me it was a dream come true: "the perfect first fashion show to attend".
The chance to travel on such an iconic voyage was not lost on Macdonald. "I have never been on a transatlantic crossing before," he told me. "I will probably never have an opportunity like this again. It's very rewarding to show my favourite designs to people who would not usually have the chance to see them."
Elsewhere on the ship, events included an exhibition of fashion illustrations featuring never-seen-before works by the likes of Bil Donovan, Dior's artist in residence; film screenings; and talks and workshops by McDowell.
All were insightful, entertaining and clearly popular, given the number of times both McDowell and Sackloff were stopped in corridors by enthusiastic well-wishers. A sign of the pair's passion for the industry, they continue to champion young designers. On our sailing, graduates from New York's Parsons School of Design had been invited to showcase their work on board.
"We decided early on that we wanted to engage with fashion colleges and give some young designers the opportunity to show their work," says Sackloff, who can be credited for launching Jimmy Choo in the US. "You never know who's going to be in the audience. And we like graduates."
Fashion graduate Samantha Richardson from Wales was especially interested in 96-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel (who was unable to attend due to personal reasons). "I was disappointed when I found out she wasn't on board but it's been fantastic."
Away from the fashion week programme it was business as usual: bridge games, ballroom dancing, afternoon tea and brisk, windblown walks along the outdoor track that encircles the ship, followed by lazy, sun-drenched deck days as we approached New York.
Evenings were dressy affairs. "Oh, I do love a tux," guffawed a flamboyant American, who, out of the 4000 or so people on board, I kept bumping into. "What's the point of crossing the Atlantic if you aren't going to do it in style?"
We were on our way to Julien Macdonald's after party at the ship's late-night venue, G32 — always a crowd pleaser. Duties over, Macdonald was in high spirits as he bounced on the dance floor with his family (who also joined him on board), models, the Parsons School graduates and other partygoers still going strong at 4am.
In a world typically known for its aloofness, there's something very refreshing about Transatlantic Fashion Week. Devoid of any high-maintenance drama, the aim here is simply to bring fashion to the people.
• This year's Transatlantic Fashion Week cruise departs Southampton on September 2. The 2018 line-up includes Colin McDowell and Gail Sackloff alongside author and designer Hal Rubenstein, photographer Richard Young, vintage fashion queen Virginia Bates and journalist Jeremy Langmead.
A 7-night Transatlantic Fashion Week cruise from Southampton to New York departs on September 2 and is priced from $1969pp, twin-share.