More than an icon: designer Elizabeth Emanuel remembers Diana


LONDON (AP) — Elizabeth Emanuel cradles the massive scrapbook to her chest before placing it gently on the table and opening its Prussian blue covers to reveal a personal time capsule of her relationship with Princess Diana.

Emanuel met Diana during the months she and her then-husband, David, spent designing the princess-to-be’s wedding dress. Four decades later, there is a sense of intimacy as she flips through sketches, swatches and photos of Diana, displayed alongside images of the designer’s mother sewing embroidery on her dress. It’s like looking at a family album.

That sense of connection helps Emanuel understand why Diana’s death in a car accident in Paris 25 years ago on Wednesday, August 31, 1997, resonated with so many around the world.

“I think people felt that she was like family, that she cared,” Emanuel told The Associated Press. “They felt close to her because you knew every detail of her life. She was in all the press, all the time. And all these things were happening. And you felt, you know, a very important part of her life in a way. And so, when her life was taken from her, there was this great emptiness left. … It was like a light went out.”

But for Emanuel, Diana was not only the icon that appeared every day on television screens and on the front pages of newspapers. He was a real person who played a central role in his life and career.

The scrapbook documents that story: the story of a designer and a future princess.

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The story begins with a pale pink blouse that the Emanuels sent to British Vogue for an emerging beauties photo shoot. Unbeknownst to them, the beauty destined to wear the blouse was Lady Diana Spencer, soon to be engaged to Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne.

Diana liked the blouse so much that she asked who the designers were and then called them. Emanuel answered the phone and made the appointment, but did not get his name.

So he was surprised when Diana showed up at his door. By then the engagement had been announced and Diana was famous.

But she didn’t act like that. Emanuel remembers her in a little sweater and skirt and maybe a pearl necklace.

“She was so young and so sweet and shy, and it was so much fun,” said Emanuel, who was only a few years older than Diana. “It was quite an adventure for her to suddenly see all of her clothes in the showroom. And she put a lot of trust in us, really, to find clothes that fit her. And for us, I mean, wow, it was so great to meet her.”

When it came time to make the wedding dress, Emanuels’ 12-member team worked in secret to keep the details of the garment under wraps. Security guards protected the dress, which was locked in a safe every night.

Newspapers offered thousands of pounds (dollars) for an advance, but staff members turned them down out of respect for Diana, Emanuel said. In an era before smartphones and Facebook, wedding dress design remained a surprise until the big day.

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Emmanuel compared Diana’s royal wedding on July 29, 1981 from St. Paul’s Cathedral to the transformation from a chrysalis to a butterfly, or in this case, a nursery school teacher in cardigans and fancy skirts into a fairytale princess.

It was the 1980s. Big was inside, and Diana walked down the aisle draped in yards of lace with a 25-foot train flowing behind her.

“We completely crossed the line,” Emanuel said. “I mean, we were young, we just got out of college. (We said) ‘Let’s do it. Let’s do crazy things. St. Paul’s (has) this huge, big hall. Let’s put all the frills on the lace, everything, and make it the best fairy princess dress ever. And that we did. And I don’t think you’re going to see another one like that.”

The wedding, which was televised around the world, was just the beginning of the public’s fascination with Diana. She was rarely out of the headlines for the rest of her life, earning a reputation as “The People’s Princess” as she hugged AIDS patients, befriended orphans and defended old-fashioned topics like landmine clearance.

When their marriage finally ended, the collapse unfolded for all to see. Daily. In detail. That also struck a chord with the public.

“I think when someone dies young, it really has an impact,” Emanuel said. “And Diana was the most famous woman on the planet. And she still is, really.”

Emanuel has had a long and successful career, creating designs for celebrities such as Madonna and Rita Ora. But he’s not bothered by the fact that “The Dress” remains a constant topic of investigation.

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“It was a great privilege and an honor to have been a part of all of that, to have been a part of history as well,” he said. “I will never get tired of it because it was an extraordinary period in my life and it was just wonderful!”

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