Kate Middleton"s Reiss Shola dress: The truth about the "sweat shop" outfit

11:29 AM on 30th May 2011

Over the course of 40 years in the fashion business, I have never before been accused of running a sweatshop. To be honest, I’m shocked.’

This is David Reiss talking on the morning this newspaper published a piece about the nude ‘Shola’ dress the Duchess of Cambridge wore to meet Michelle Obama.

The article accused the Reiss fashion brand of paying sweatshop wages (168 a month, which is above the minimum wage) in a Romanian factory, where women work in bleak overheated conditions, behind barred windows and an 8ft wall.

In the press: There have been reports that the nude Reiss

In the press: There have been reports that the nude Reiss “Shola” dress the Duchess of Cambridge wore to meet Michelle Obama was made in a Romanian factory where workers were paid sweatshop wages

Kate bought her dress in Reiss on the King’s Road for 175. The article stated the dress cost just 15 to make.

I imagine that David is feeling a bit green around the gills this morning as we meet for coffee at the swanky Marbella Club hotel on Spain’s Costa Del Sol where he is having a few days’ break. And is Kate, too, perhaps regretting her choice of dress

‘Kate is a very smart young woman and has been a customer of ours for years,’ David tells me.

At 67, he is still very fit, dapper and bursting with drive. Given the flak he’s now getting, I wonder whether he might just prefer to give it all up and sit on one of the yachts moored at the end of the jetty by our table (he has a personal fortune of around 125million).

Fashion man: David Reiss who founded his label in 1971 says

Fashion man: David Reiss who founded his label in 1971 says “I have never before been accused of running a sweatshop”

‘No, I’m not going to give up the rag trade,’ he says. ‘But let me tell you the real cost of the Kate dress.

‘We buy the very best silk and trimmings, the cost of which has rocketed by 25 to 30 per cent over the past few months, a cost we have not passed on to our customers. We have a design team that is 18-strong. We have an atelier in London where we cut all our own patterns.

‘I have teams of people whose job it is to fly all over the world, coming up with new ideas, fabrics, shapes. We have someone whose job it is to source vintage garments, which give us inspiration. And 45 million, which is 45 per cent of our annual turnover, goes on salaries — we employ 1,200 people in the UK — rents and rates on our 100 stores worldwide.’

David, whose company was formed in 1971 when he took over the gentlemen’s outfitters on the corner of Petticoat Lane in East London from his father and which is entirely British-owned, tells me the other brands which use the same family-run factory in Romania.

Flying the flag: Kate in Reiss

Flying the flag: Kate in Reiss

‘Burberry, Jaeger and MaxMara also make their garments there,’ he says. ‘They use the same quality of fabric as that found in the Kate dress, and the same quality of trimmings. The same woman mentioned in the article on Saturday makes their clothes. The difference is, the dress in Burberry costs 1,000, the silk coat-dress in Jaeger 800.’

Kate’s decision to choose Reiss is not looking so profligate, after all.

‘She chose us because we are not always issuing press statements about who is wearing one of our dresses on the red carpet,’ adds David. ‘She has shopped with us for years, and we never once let anyone know. We have always been very understated.

‘I only work with a factory where I know the people. We have production staff who go out to that so-called “sweatshop” in Romania every six weeks. We passed a government inspection last week, where staff were interviewed without any bosses being present, and we were not found wanting.’

But why does Reiss, along with the likes of Jaeger and Marks & Spencer and virtually any other brand you care to mention, no longer manufacture in the UK

‘Because then “affordable luxury”, which is what we try to give our customers, would be completely unaffordable.

‘We stopped manufacturing in the UK ten years ago. There are no longer the skills here. And I think it is our duty to provide jobs in less developed countries.

‘But we are not a greedy brand,’ he adds. ‘When Kate was seen wearing that Shola dress to meet Michelle Obama, I was so proud of what we had done, so proud to be part of history, so proud of not selling out years ago to some big multinational, which is what I could have done. I live full time in the UK, I pay all my taxes here. I don’t live in Monaco; there are no financial skeletons in my closet.

Originally, only 1,000 Shola dresses were made. After Kate met Michelle while wearing it, every store sold out within hours and the company’s website crashed under the stampede to get one. But David is not tempted to cash in.

‘I could have issued a repeat order for that dress of 6,000, 7,000, but I wouldn’t dream of doing that. The Reiss woman does not want to be seen in the same dress as everyone else. I ordered only 600 more to be made.’

And he says he is happy to continue working with the factory in Romania which he chose partly because it is close to home, and therefore accessible. ‘I do not manufacture in Bangladesh,’ David assures me.

He goes on to tell me more about all those brands that proudly have the words ‘Made in Italy’ sewn inside their clothes.

‘I worked in Italy for 20 years. I know what goes on there. I know of an accessories factory in Korea that makes bags and shoes for some very big Italian fashion houses. I know the factories in China where they make their clothes.

‘How the brands get round this is that a dress or a bag is made in Korea or China, then it comes back to Italy to be pressed or polished or finished, which is how it manages to appear to have been “Made in Italy”. They then charge ten times what we charge. We are transparent; they are not.’

Reiss is celebrating its 40th birthday this autumn by bringing out its first new scent, a range of anniversary editions focusing on luxurious fabrics and by sexing up the brand a little, making a few very high fashion pieces to, as David puts it, ‘give us a bit of a wow factor’.

Compound: The run-down factory in Romania where the dress was made

Compound: The run-down factory in Romania where the dress was made

I ask him if he thinks Kate will return to Reiss.

David smiles: ‘I know the British woman very well. I think she is turning away from super-fast, super-cheap fashion because she has learned it is not good value: a 15 jacket will always look like a 15 jacket. She is also turning away from the belief that a 1,000 dress is somehow worth it. So, what is left

‘Kate wants to wear something that hangs beautifully, that is cut well, that will fly the flag for this country, as it were.

‘I think as a brand we are pretty unique. Kate looked a million dollars in that dress.’