The guest list at her recent wedding was more A-list than an Oscars after-party, the Duchess of Sussex calls her a ‘chic badass’ and she is rumoured to have set up Harry and Meghan on their blind date. But there’s more to the British fashion designer Misha Nonoo than that incredible address book, discovers Julia Llewellyn Smith
Misha wears the shirt she designed for Smart Works and her own-label skirt. The 33-year-old New York-based British fashion designer seems to know absolutely everybody
You could spend hours playing ‘Six Degrees of Misha Nonoo’. The 33-year-old New York-based British fashion designer seems to know absolutely everybody. Her recent wedding to oil heir Mikey Hess at the Villa Aurelia in Rome was attended by the likes of Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, Ivanka Trump, supermodel Karlie Kloss, Orlando Bloom and his fiancée Katy Perry. Mikey apparently serenaded his bride, accompanied by Sir Paul McCartney and James Corden.
But two guests trumped all others – Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, with Meghan, dressed in a £9,000 Valentino gown, reportedly carrying out the ceremony’s only reading, the poem Vow by Roger McGough. The royal couple, who had left baby Archie at home, missed the La Dolce Vita-themed party the following day (the dress code was ‘dazzling’) at the Cinecittà film studios to fly home to prepare for their imminent tour of Africa.
It’s no surprise that the royal pair were determined to attend. After all, it’s rumoured it was Misha who set them up, organising their initial blind date; Harry, along with Prince William, was at Eton with Misha’s ex-husband, online auctioneer Alexander Gilkes (whose brother once dated Pippa Middleton).
‘I don’t comment on that,’ Misha says with a broad grin, when I ask if she was the matchmaker. Does everyone ask? ‘Everyone, every time.’ Will she ever crack and reveal all? ‘Not as long as I’ve still got everything going in the right way,’ she chortles. ‘But I’m happy that Meghan and Harry are happy. They’re very, very happy.’
Whoever played Cupid, what’s remarkable is that Meghan and Misha’s friendship remains as close as it ever was. After all, since that fateful night three years ago when Meghan, now 38, and Harry, 35, met for a drink, apparently in a London branch of private members’ club Soho House (Misha and Meghan are both close friends of Markus Anderson, who works for the organisation), Meghan’s life has changed beyond recognition. Then she was a carefree actress living between her native Los Angeles, New York and Toronto (where her TV drama Suits was filmed). Now she’s a member of the Royal Family, living in the grounds of Windsor Castle with a tiny baby, and every move she makes is subject to intense scrutiny.
‘I know you’d think all that would make a difference to our friendship,’ says Misha. ‘But she hasn’t changed as a friend at all, which I’m so grateful for. She remains exactly the same person as always; equally committed, equally involved, incredibly thoughtful. And it’s a great pleasure to be able to say that because friendships can change over the years: people move countries, they have children, they get married – it’s the natural course of life. But she has been incredibly loyal.’
I suggest that it must blow Misha’s mind to see her friend on every magazine cover in the world. ‘I actually don’t pay much attention to all that,’ Misha says firmly but with a megawatt smile.
Very diplomatic, but I don’t buy it. Not least when I ask Misha, who was a guest at Meghan’s New York baby shower – which many criticised for being overly lavish – how she feels about some of the harsh treatment meted out to Meghan in the press and on social media.
Misha and Meghan at the launch of the duchess’s fashion collection for Smart Works
‘It’s very unjust,’ she says. ‘People should focus on the good. She’s such an incredible person and I am so proud of the work that she’s done, because she has always been someone who has wanted to help other people. That was one of the first things we bonded over. That and dogs – she loves dogs!’
If Misha’s so fiercely loyal – and discreet – about her friend (she won’t say if she’s met baby Archie, or if she’s one of his ‘secret’ godparents), it’s clear why she inspires equal devotion from Meghan. On the Duchess’s now deleted blog, The Tig, she describes Misha as ‘chic, badass and cut from the cloth of women who don’t take themselves too seriously, the kind of woman you instantly adore’, which certainly echoes my first impression.
Willowy and blonde, with a Grace Kelly air about her and dressed in her eponymous label’s white Husband shirt (Meghan wore one along with a pair of ripped jeans for her first public date with Harry at the Invictus Games) and black Ivy trousers, Misha has a ready laugh and down-to-earth manner, unaffectedly chatting away about her adoration of her eight-year-old cavapoo dog Thatcher. (‘She’s called that because she’s the antithesis of the Iron Lady, the cutest little thing in the world.’)
Misha is in London to launch the project that she and Meghan had been secretly collaborating on since the beginning of the year, a clothes collection for the charity Smart Works, which helps women who’ve suffered various knockbacks in life to secure employment.
Part of the charity’s work is dressing women for interviews and the workplace using donations or surplus stock from fashion brands. But when Meghan became patron, she was immediately struck that many of these outfits were not the style classics that can really boost a woman’s confidence.
‘What Meghan did was very clever. Smartworks had a lot of lilac blazers, which were lovely but weren’t really what these ladies needed – they weren’t the kind of staples to nail a job interview,’ Misha says.
So Meghan persuaded John Lewis to design a tote bag, Jigsaw a trouser suit and Marks & Spencer a dress, while Misha came up with a version of her trademark white shirt – all capsule items that last for decades. For every item purchased, the brands donate an identical garment to the charity.
‘It was very important for the Duchess, from the get-go, that this was about a one-for-one model rather than making a financial donation, because that makes us all feel equal,’ Misha says. ‘Meghan said, “You may not know these women but every time you wear that shirt, those trousers, that dress, you can know that you’ve helped another woman.”’
The fact that Meghan chose Misha’s eponymous US-based label (which ships to the UK via her website) alongside these British retail giants tells you everything about the strength of their bond, as does the fact she wore the £125 shirt that Misha designed to the collection’s launch. ‘I was really touched,’ Misha beams.
Meghan and Misha’s collaboration involved weekly conference calls and occasional face-to-face meetings (‘The Duchess isn’t a micro-manager, that’s not her personality at all. She asked what I was going to do and then said, “You nail out the design details.”’). It was the natural culmination of the two friends’ shared passion for women’s rights, something they discovered when they first met at a lunch at the international art fair, Art Basel, in Miami five years ago. (‘And by “met”, I mean danced the night away and sipped cocktails with,’ Meghan wrote on The Tig).
Since then, the friends have been there for each other during some profound life changes. When they met, both were married – Meghan to film producer Trevor Engelson, Misha to Alexander, whom she’d wed in a lavish three-day event in Venice, with singer Lana Del Rey performing. But two years later, Meghan got divorced, while Misha and Alexander split in 2016 after four years of marriage (he’s now dating tennis player Maria Sharapova).
Misha with Mikey, who she wed last month, at Meghan and Harry’s wedding
Both women are only children and it’s clear their friendship sustained each other; one Instagram snap of the friends on holiday on the Spanish island of Formentera three years ago (it was on the London leg of the same holiday that the infamous blind date is thought to have happened) is captioned, ‘When only children find sisters’.
‘I always said I wanted to have siblings but I have such incredible friendships that I no longer think so much about it,’ says Misha. ‘I’m exceptionally lucky to have the support system that I have. I feel the relationships I make go very deep.’
Immediately after we met, Misha was flying to Rome for her wedding (on which a social-media ban was placed). She was giggling nervously about whether her self-designed dress would be ready in time. ‘Creating it has been so challenging, because there are no limits to what you can do with a wedding dress, so at times the choice has been almost paralysing. But I think I’m there now.’
After all, Misha’s design philosophy is about cutting down on choice. Her clothes are mostly in black and white, with an occasional touch of red or grey. ‘When you’ve got a wedding and you can’t wear black or white I really struggle,’ she laughs. At Meghan’s wedding she wore her own pale blue creation, wearing a red version to Princess Eugenie’s nuptials.
The daughter of an Iraqi Jewish financier father and Newcastle-born English mother, Misha (the surname is pronounced noo-noo with equal stress on both syllables – ‘everyone gets it wrong,’ she laughs) spent her early years in Bahrain, where the sight of Muslim women everywhere shrouded in abayas made an indelible impression. ‘I’m sure my passion for empowering women comes from growing up seeing that a lot of women can’t choose how they dress,’ she says. ‘And what’s been amazing is my dad, who’s 77, and a very traditional, old-school Middle Eastern man, has had to adjust to having a very progressive daughter. Now he really flies the flag for women’s rights.’
When she was ten, the family relocated to Surrey where ‘strong-willed, very independent’ and fashion-crazy Misha attended an international school, providing her with a worldwide network of friends. After studying business in Paris, at 23 she moved to New York, to work for a small fashion business.
Eight years ago she started her own label, but trying to stay afloat in a cut-throat market brought ‘some really soul-destroying moments’. With her marriage also on the rocks, she admits to ‘struggling’ both personally and professionally.
At one of Misha’s lowest points, she read Sheryl Sandberg’s working-women’s manifesto, Lean In, and with characteristic chutzpah, sent the Facebook chief operating officer a fan email. ‘I never thought she’d read it, but she replied within about four hours, inviting me to a monthly women’s night at her home in San Francisco.’
Misha went along and also had a tour of Instagram HQ [Facebook had just acquired it], inspiring her to become the first designer to abandon traditional catwalk shows in favour of showing her collections on social media.
Since then, she’s had several more lightbulb moments, such as having all orders made on demand in China. ‘It means we don’t have any waste, which then either has to go to landfill or be burned,’ she explains. ‘The customer has to wait seven days for her order, but that feels plausible for clothes that are wardrobe staples, not just something you’re buying to wear on Saturday night and then throw away.’
Of course, having your brand endorsed by one of the most famous women in the world (last year Meghan wore Misha’s Saturday skirt to launch a cookbook raising funds for survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire) has given the business a boost no amount of advertising could buy. In return, her allegiance to Meghan is touching. ‘She’s a beautiful, gorgeous, stunning woman,’ Misha says passionately. ‘At the Smart Works launch, everyone was saying, “God, she’s so lovely, she’s so well spoken.” To have someone like that championing British charities is extraordinary. Someone said, “We’re so lucky to have her in the UK,” and I was like, “Yeah!”’
- For more details on Smart Works and its fashion collection, visit smartworks.org.uk
- Make-up: Caroline Piasecki. Hair: Narad Kutowaroo at Carol Hayes. Producer: Ester Malloy