Inside the band of Montecito socialites behind Meghan’s Californian ‘rebrand’

The Duchess of Sussex and friend Kelly McKee Zajfen pose in Alliance of Moms charity t-shirts
The Duchess of Sussex and friend Kelly McKee Zajfen pose in Alliance of Moms charity t-shirts - Instagram

If one image could epitomise how the Duchess of Sussex wishes to be seen now, it’s the portrait that her friend Kelly McKee Zajfen posted on her Instagram account on Wednesday evening. In the shot, Meghan can be seen sitting cross-legged beside Zajfen and another friend, Abigail Spencer in a leafy, sun-dappled garden.

The Duchess looks relaxed yet chic, her hair is loose and wavy, her makeup natural, she’s wearing simple “mum-cut” blue jeans and, crucially, no shoes. The choice to go barefoot is a common theme for Meghan, who reportedly met the Princess of Wales for the first time barefoot. There’s an undeniably hazy, Woodstock feel to the images, which is an aesthetic that Meghan has lent into before, most notably in the first released images that showed her pregnant with her daughter Lilibet. Those photographs, taken by Misan Harriman, also used a garden setting.

In the posts, the Duchess is wearing a charity T-shirt that reads, “Love Like A Mother” in a graphic red font. The T-shirt, which costs £30 and is still available online, is being sold by Zajfen’s Alliance of Moms charity to raise money to support pregnant and parenting teens in the local foster care system.

Picture shows Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, with American actress Abigail Spencer (left) and Kelly Zajfen
The Duchess of Sussex, with close friends Kelly Zajfen (centre) and Abigail Spencer (left) show off their fundraising t-shirts

The laidback images were the culmination of several days of activity that have painted the clearest picture yet of Meghan’s fledgling personal brand relaunch and the circle of wealthy, influential friends she is surrounded by. “Meghan’s world is now truly a product of her Montecito life where everything is hugely expensive, but is made to look organic and homespun,” says Sara Nathan, who, as the editor-at-large of the New York Post, has become a close follower of the Sussexes’ stateside ventures. “She’s a Nancy Meyers film come to life.”

Last weekend, Meghan debuted a chic new look while watching her husband Prince Harry playing polo, wearing a cream dress by the Californian designer Heidi Merrick. Featuring a cut-away under the bust and directional long scarf collar, which she had tied at the back, it was a marked departure from her previous more classic, buttoned-up looks. Meanwhile, her accessories – nude Aquazzura pumps (a little impractical for the polo field) and vintage Chanel earrings – emphasised her polished aesthetic. During the event, Delfina Blaquier, an Argentinian socialite and photographer who knows Meghan through her husband, the polo player Nacho Figueras, was never far from Meghan’s side.

Nacho Figueras, Blaquier and the Sussexes at a charity polo match last weekend
Nacho Figueras, Blaquier and the Sussexes at a charity polo match last weekend - Rebecca Blackwell/AP

Then, on Tuesday, we were given our first glimpse of her new lifestyle brand, American Riviera Orchard, when a handful of her closest friends shared images on social media of a jar of strawberry jam that they had been sent by the Duchess, including the actress Mindy Kaling and Blaquier. Artfully presented in a hamper full of lemons and white flowers, the jars featured a traditional cloth cover fastened with string, as well as a handwritten number indicating it was one of a limited run of just 50. The impression? That Meghan might have cooked them up herself.

Any entrepreneur worth their salt knows that “living the brand” is key to its success. In this way, it’s no surprise that Meghan has been playing up her California credentials since the announcement of American Riviera Orchard, particularly by aligning herself with local designers and fellow businesswomen and influencers. “She has a small, tight-knit group of women that she’s surrounded by. Most of them are incredibly wealthy and often married to very important men, but they’re doing projects in their own right, usually in charity or philanthropy,” explains Nathan.

What’s especially notable is how these women work together; before she released the garden T-shirt shots on Wednesday, Zajfen posted a picture of the jam jar and lemon basket she’d received from Meghan (hers was jar three of 50 which suggests her extra special status). “So proud of you M!” she wrote. One day, the friend is helping the Duchess to get word out about her first product, the next Meghan is lending her fame to the charity T-shirt initiative. “There’s definitely a level of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’,” Nathan observes. “Whether you love or hate Meghan, there’s no denying that she’s overwhelmingly famous now.”

The jam jar and lemon basket Zajfen received from Meghan
The jam jar and lemon basket Zajfen received from Meghan - Instagram

What this week’s activities mean for the highly anticipated American Riviera Orchard remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, when she next has something to promote (however small it may be), the Duchess will have her new network on hand.

These are the key women in her sphere:

Kelly McKee Zajfen

Kelly McKee Zajfen
Kelly McKee Zajfen attends an event by The Retaility in Los Angeles, California, 2023 - Emma McIntyre/Getty

Meghan and Zajfen met through their husbands, when the Duchess was married to the television producer Trevor Engelson. The 44-year-old and Alliance of Moms founder was also one of just 50 people that Meghan sent her jam to. They were recently photographed on a ski trip to Powder Mountain near Salt Lake City.

Meghan comforted her friend following the tragic death of her nine-year-old son George. Referring to Meghan and Spencer in the caption to her charity T-shirt picture, she wrote: “When we speak about the people in our lives who lift us up when you need it with undeniable force of pure love I think of these two. You inspire me. You pick me up when I need it and you Love Like A Mother!”

Abigail Spencer

Abigail Spencer
Abigail Spencer attends the 17th Annual WIF Oscar Nominees Party in Los Angeles, 2014 - Stefanie Keenan/Getty

The 42-year-old actress Spencer is a long-time friend of the Duchess, after the two met on the set of Suits in 2011. She attended Meghan’s 2018 wedding alongside her co-stars, Patrick J Adams, Sarah Rafferty, Gabriel Macht, Rick Hoffman and Gina Torres. While Meghan has lost touch with some of the other cast members, it’s clear that she and Spencer have remained close. They even share a similar sense of style, with Spencer wearing the same Heidi Merrick design that Meghan wore to the polo last September.

Heather Dorak

Heather Dorak and husband Matt Cohen attend the Sussexes' wedding in 2018
Heather Dorak and husband Matt Cohen attend the Sussexes' wedding in 2018 - Mark Stewart/Camera Press

The 36-year-old Heather Dorak accompanied Meghan and Zajfen on their ski trip earlier this year. A Pilates and yoga instructor, who owns six Platinum Pilates studios in California, she has been friends with the Duchess since the beginning of her acting career. As well as attending Meghan’s 2018 wedding with her husband Matt Cohen, she was also a major source of support during the tense early days of Megxit, when the Duchess was photographed picking Dorak up from the airport in Vancouver.

Delfina Blaquier

Delfina Blaquier
Delfina Blaquier at a Sézane store opening in West Hollywood, California, 2022 - Stefanie Keenan/Getty

Blaquier has been married to the polo player Nacho Figueras for 20 years and the couple have four children together.They were among the guests at the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s 2018 wedding and Figueras is known for being one of Prince Harry’s most outspoken supporters, defending him in the face of his decision to quit the Royal family and amid the fallout from the Oprah Winfrey interview, so it’s no surprise that the two wives are good friends. Good enough, in fact, that Blaquier was also among the chosen 50 who received one of Meghan’s jam jars. She photographed the conserve spread on a slice of toast with strawberries placed on top.

Jamie Mizrahi

Jamie Mizrahi
Jamie Mizrahi at an event in Sunset Tower Hotel, Los Angeles in March 2024 - Stefanie Keenan/The Hollywood Reporter

Speculation is rife that the 35-year-old Mizrahi is responsible for Meghan’s chic new look, having already fine-tuned the wardrobes of Hollywood cool girls Suki Waterhouse and Nicole Richie. She’s particularly noted for her work with Adele (another of Meghan’s squad) and Jennifer Lawrence, honing a polished and glam aesthetic that epitomises the quiet luxury trend, favouring brands like The Row, Toteme and Schiaparelli. The two were sat next to each other recently at one of Katy Perry’s concerts in Las Vegas, reportedly later dining out together in LA. She is married to the venture capitalist Nico Mizrahi.

Tracy Robbins

Tracy Robbins and her husband Brian
Tracy Robbins and her husband Brian attend the Global Premiere Screening of 'Babylon' at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on December 15, 2022 - Emma McIntyre/WireImage

A curious addition to Meghan’s crew is the fashion designer Tracy Robbins, 44, who is married to Brian Robbins, the Paramount Pictures president and chief executive. The two are thought to have been introduced while walking the red carpet for the One Love film premiere, which took place in January in Jamaica. Despite the brevity of their friendship, the two have clearly struck up a bond, as Robbins was another of Meghan’s top 50 friends. She was the first to share pictures of Meghan’s American Riviera Orchard jam delivery, writing: “Thank you for the delicious basket! I absolutely love this jam so not sure I’m sharing with anyone.”