Victoria Beckham: behind the scenes with the queen of fashion
From pop star to designer: the reinvention of Victoria Beckham.
Exclusive interview by Jess Cartner-Morley
Here's the thing about Victoria Beckham: of any celebrity I have ever encountered, she is the one who in real life is least like her public image. The character of Victoria Beckham is so well established in popular culture – the Spice Girl who made her fortune by pouting rather than singing, the wife guarding her marriage and her lifestyle behind a steely barricade of sunglasses and 24 inch-waist designer jeans – that it is disorienting to find that woman doesn't actually exist. The walking, talking Victoria Beckham is someone different. She's funny, for a start – quick with the banter, a good mimic and with a sharp eye for the absurd. Way more of a girl's girl than you expect a footballer's wife could ever be. Smart, warm and smiley.
This is not to suggest for a moment that she is remotely down-to-earth or just-like-us. There is zero pretence of being low-maintenance. The way Mrs Beckham rolls – well, the lady makes Joan Collins look like a backpacker. It's all grand hotels and blacked-out Range Rovers, wraparound security detail and Louboutins at breakfast time. And one aspect of the folklore that surrounds her is entirely true: in all my time in the fashion industry, I have rarely come across anyone who is so constantly vigilant about their appearance. She requests a straw with every Diet Coke, presumably to avoid dislodging her lipstick. When we met for coffee recently, she had Harper on her knee throughout, and while one hand stroked and petted and rearranged her baby daughter, the other hand just as constantly stroked and petted and rearranged her carefully tonged glossy curls, to make sure they lay just-so over her other shoulder. For breakfast she orders a fruit plate, but without melon or banana. Once, at a ladies' lunch she hosted at Claridge's, we were all served white fish with steamed green vegetables and a few roasted cherry tomatoes – except for Beckham, whose plate arrived without the cherry tomatoes, a detail I can't shake off. Who knew four cherry tomatoes could make you fat?
The question that has fascinated the fashion industry since Victoria Beckham made her New York fashion week debut as a designer in September 2008 is where exactly does Victoria-Beckham-the-fashion-designer fit into this fractured picture of truths, half-truths and fiction? The success of the label, both critical and commercial, has taken the fashion industry by surprise. Reviewers are consistently impressed by her catwalk shows, prestigious department stores compete for the right to sell her clothes and customers, in turn, pay serious money to wear Victoria Beckham dresses – and now, as the company expands, handbags, too. But over this success has hovered a question mark: does Beckham, who has no formal design training, really create the clothes? Or does she just get parachuted in at the end for a fashion week photo op, fronting someone else's work? To put it bluntly, is Victoria Beckham for real?
And so it is that I found myself, one October day last year, embarking on probably the most glamorous work-shadowing assignment going. Victoria Beckham's "people", headed by Simon Fuller, one-time Spice Girl guru and now the backer of Victoria Beckham and Roland Mouret's fashion labels, agreed to our suggestion that I go behind the scenes and watch her at work. We made a plan for me to meet with Beckham at intervals during the period she was putting together the second collection for her Victoria line. (Victoria – or, to give it its full name, Victoria, Victoria Beckham – is a more casual, more affordably priced little-sister line to the flagship Victoria Beckham label.) This is a crucial season for the Victoria line: the spring collection shown to the press last year is about to go on sale and Beckham is hosting a party at Harvey Nichols during London fashion week to celebrate.
Beckham's studio is housed in Fuller's headquarters, and my first thought on walking in is that Fuller clearly never expected this particular outpost of his empire to get as big as it has. A room that could comfortably house four or five desks has more than twice that many, jammed between rails of clothes, piles of boxes and bolts of fabrics. There are three phone calls going on, all in such close proximity that I can hear what's being said on the other end of the line as well as by the person in the room. Mira, the "fit" model on whom the clothes are tried out in the studio, is perched on the desk of someone in the sales team.
Victoria Beckham is in the middle of it all, in layers of skinny black: towering heels, tight jeans, a hoodie under a fitted jacket. "Lovely, isn't it? I told them to tidy up because you were coming," she jokes, watching me take in the chaos. I am here to sit in on a 5pm meeting, and the LA jet lag is starting to hit. Her nails and hair and make-up are as immaculate as ever, but she looks pale and tired. Everyone seems curious about my presence – design studios are notoriously insular places – but entirely comfortable with Beckham. Watching her interact with her team, it seems less and less likely that there is a "real" designer hidden in a cupboard somewhere.
Today's agenda is to decide which of the early ideas for the spring Victoria line will be pursued to production, and which will get left on the drawing board. In a meeting room just off the studio, Beckham sits down with Danny, project manager for the label, Saskia the sales director, Susanne Tide-Frater (one-time creative director at both Selfridges and Harrods, now a freelance retail consultant) and me. Danny is bouncy and puppyish. Saskia is blonde and beautiful, and has one of those extraordinary accents you only get in fashion; I can't figure out whether she is German, or just incredibly posh.
After a preamble about sales of the first collection, which I suspect has been tacked on for my benefit – to precis, everything is selling amazingly well, buyers love everything, etc, etc – Danny starts a process of show-and-tell of 37 potential designs. They are at various stages of development, from a sketch with a fabric swatch attached, to a finished-looking dress. Two things immediately become clear about Beckham: that she has an excellent eye and that she works fast. There is one print that looks the weakest of the bunch and she kills it off straight away. Then she seizes on a swan-print dress, which is very pretty but doesn't strike me as quite right, and points out that the willow trees in the background make it too fussy and vintagey. (She's absolutely right.) Can they remake it with a simplified print?
Beckham's way of being a fashion designer is certainly not in the grand romantic tradition of a tortured artist with his sketchbook. She is not an artist expressing herself in fabric. But as to the authorship of the clothes, there doesn't seem to me much doubt. Her style and her taste is the life force in the room. There is an unashamed vanity to how she considers the collection – she will hold a dress in front of her in the mirror, pouting and fluffing her hair – and she views everything in terms of how it will look on her own body. When she says, about a long-sleeved jacquard dress, "I want to wear that now", Danny smiles happily.
There is a telling exchange after Saskia the sales director suggests that they might consider making one of the dresses with a scooped-out neckline rather than the modest round neck Beckham has decreed.
"If you've got your legs out, you can't have your boobs out," Beckham says firmly.
"I don't mean show cleavage, but how about collarbone?" Saskia asks.
Tide-Frater backs her up, pointing out – accurately – that women don't want to be completely covered up, and many are happier to show a little skin at the décolleté than wear a short skirt. "Maybe we could think about doing some different shapes," she says.
"No. I'm not feeling open necklines at all, I'd rather keep the neck and the hem high," Beckham says, uncrossing and recrossing her pin-thin legs.
"But not everyone has your legs," Tide-Frater adds, a comment that Beckham, sitting six inches away, seems not to hear. The subject is closed.
Fashion designers vary enormously as to involvement in the business and financial aspect. Tom Ford reels off percentage points of sales breakdowns in conversation; Marc Jacobs, on the other hand, is quite open about the fact that he neither knows nor cares about the retail price of his clothes. Beckham is a natural businesswoman, debating with Saskia at length about whether a spring collection should include a long-sleeved dress in wool – spring collections "drop" in January these days, so it makes sense to do something warmer. On the other hand, industry wisdom is that if customers see a wool dress on sale in January, they expect it to be reduced. Beckham decides it is essential that the dresses are print-matched – the panels sewn together so that the seam doesn't interrupt the pattern – but takes time weighing up the cost implications. "If you don't match up the patterns, you use 50% less fabric and that makes a huge impact on the bottom line," she explains. "You end up with a dress at about two-thirds of the price. When I started doing this second line, people told me that to achieve the prices I wanted to achieve, I had to let go of print placement. But I won't compromise because, actually, I don't want my customer walking around with an upside-down cat's arse on the front of a dress."
By now, it is after 8pm, the meeting has taken three hours, and Beckham calls time. Seventeen machinists will be at work tomorrow, running up rough versions of today's ideas, so she can see another set of samples before she heads back to LA.
A couple of days before that visit to the studio, I had met Beckham in the Savoy hotel, where she stays while in London. It was 8.30am but she was dressed as if for dinner at Le Caprice, in an ankle-length burgundy dress from her own collection and high leather boots. The first thing she wanted to know was if I had seen the debut Victoria collection, which I had; I recounted how I had tried some dresses on, behind a pile of chairs in a Milan showroom. "Oh, that's good to hear," she deadpanned. "We do like to treat people well. We're a luxury brand, after all. Getting dressed behind a pile of chairs – perfect. I bet that's how they do it at Tom Ford."
The new Victoria collection, with its simple shapes and fun prints, seems to semaphore a loosening up of Beckham's image, in contrast to the strict hourglass silhouettes of her mainline. "I think as I have got older, I have got a bit more relaxed, although you might not think that if you heard me screaming at my kids." The idea for a cheaper line was in the pipeline for over a year, but the bulk of the collection was designed in the spring and summer of last year, when Beckham was pregnant with Harper. "I was travelling back and forth to London all through the pregnancy. I got home from the final trip on the last day that the doctor had given me permission to travel. I was so pregnant that when I landed at LAX they tried to put me in a wheelchair. Can you imagine? I was like, I don't think so, thank you very much."
When Harper was born she took a week off work, after which her team travelled to LA so that they could finalise the New York fashion week plans. "Stopping work wasn't an option for long, but I took as much time off as I could. I spent the whole summer with my boobs out, breastfeeding. I loved it. It was heaven. She's such a good baby. I love all my children exactly the same, of course, but the boys were hard work. They had colic, they had acid reflux. They never slept. Brooklyn screamed at the top of his lungs, every 20 minutes, 24 hours a day."
At that moment, as if on cue, Harper arrives with her nanny. She is dressed in a fine grey wool tunic dress and matching tights, which look French and expensive. (Harper doesn't do pink.) "Do you know," Beckham says as Harper is handed to her mum, "she just loves fashion. She sat through all the presentations in New York and she just cooed. I was so proud. Finally there's someone in my house who likes fashion more than premiership football. Result." Today, Harper is going with her mum to the studio. "We've turned Simon Fuller's office into a creche: I've got her swinging chair in there, a playmat, her pram so she can sleep."
Beckham is fearsomely organised. "I have to be because I'm in LA and my team are here, so it has to be run like clockwork." The initial ideas meeting for this collection was held in New York, the day after the previous season had been shown on the catwalk. "Since then I've been on the phone, and on Skype, every day. The time difference is a pain – I spend a lot of time on Skype in my dressing gown – but we make it work. Our routine is that I work for an hour before we have to get the kids ready, then I take Brooklyn to school while David takes the other boys, and then we have a few hours before we pick them up again. And I see my team intensively every two weeks – once a month I come here and once a month people come to LA. When I'm here it's full on, we have so much to get through. I am a control freak. Nothing comes out of that studio that I have not designed and approved at every stage. I can't let go. I find it so strange when designers say they don't read reviews – after a presentation I sit with my team, waiting for the reviews to come in. I don't believe anyone who says they don't care what people say about them. Of course they bloody well do."
Three months later I arrive at the Savoy for another breakfast and before I am even inside the building I can hear the sound of a baby screaming. In the foyer a clean-cut young American woman in neat jeans and sneakers is tucking layers of double-faced cashmere into a pram, while a shaven-headed man with the distinctive posture of a keen weightlifter stands silently by. It is the Beckhams' nanny and driver-cum-security guard, preparing to take a cross, jet-lagged Harper out for a walk. Victoria is late down to breakfast today; her public relations director explains that Harper, having started out the very best behaved of babies, "has stopped sleeping". When Victoria appears she apologises for being late and for the (nonexistent) baby dribble on the Prada cardigan she is wearing over a tailored, calf-length navy and black dress from her own collection.
Since we last met at the British Fashion awards a month previously, when Beckham was presented with the Designer Brand award by Marc Jacobs, the Beckhams have decided against a move from LA to Paris. "I left LA to come back to the UK for Christmas, not knowing whether I was leaving for two weeks or 18 months, so that brought with it a certain amount of anxiety. Of course I've got people to help me, but in the end there's a lot that only I can do. Finding new schools for the children isn't something anyone else can do for me. Plus the fact that this season [between the September and February fashion weeks in New York] is such a short one. It got to the point, just before Christmas, when for the first time ever, I wasn't actually sure if I could cope. I was working in London and the day I finished work, I went to bed and woke up at 4 o'clock in the morning with a chest infection and throat infection. I very rarely get sick – I can't remember the last time before that that I had a cold or anything – but I guess I was really feeling the pressure."
When Beckham talks about her home life, she gives the impression that in their household her career and David's carry equal weight. It's cheering to hear a footballer's wife follow the statement, "Wherever he wanted to go, or needed to be for work, I would follow him" with the caveat, "And of course, he would do exactly the same for me." LA Galaxy have the junior Beckhams to thank for David signing a new contract. "The kids are so happy in LA. Brooklyn especially has been moved around a lot, from Manchester to Spain to LA, and that's hard for a kid. David and I both love what we do, and from a career point of view Paris really appealed to both of us, but in the end the children's happiness comes first."
The Victoria collection has changed quite a bit since the last meeting, she says. "I've made it more me. Last season was tricky because I was pregnant so I didn't have my body, so now I've really perfected the fit. The bottom line is if it's not right for my wardrobe, then it's not right for the brand. I realise women come in different sizes, and I do want to reach a larger audience with this line. My sister, for instance – she won't wear the mainline but loves the Victoria dresses. But I have to remember what my customer likes about the brand – what my customer likes about me."
Beckham's personal style reinvention is well documented. The makeover she performed when she launched herself into the fashion world in 2008 was a masterstroke. Only two years after the Baden-Baden World Cup wardrobe of white hotpants and tight red England vests, she appeared in the Waldorf hotel to present her first collection in an Audrey Hepburn pixie cut and minimal make-up, wearing stud earrings and a simple dress. This very refined, polished, classic look became a new trademark, but "my personal style has changed a lot since then. I think the more confidence I gain, the more open I get to things I wouldn't have worn previously. When I started out in fashion, everything had to be very structured and tight and controlling, and now I'm getting to a point where I think – I could wear a great big parka, that could be quite fabulous. I haven't always got to show off my size, show off my shape. It's a turning point for me."
You've been a pop star, and now you're a fashion designer: which is more fun? "Definitely fashion. Isn't that obvious? I enjoy what I'm doing now so much more. God, definitely. Being in the Spice Girls was fantastic, but I was never going to be the best singer and it wasn't my passion. Getting my British Fashion award felt completely different from any other time I'd been on stage. It meant so much."
In the last month, Simon Fuller has moved Beckham's team into a bigger studio. "We've got more space, which is brilliant, although we've only been in there two weeks and it's a bloody tip already. I've got Harper's swinging chair in there, which she loves, but when she swings one way she bumps into a pile of fabric and the other way she's bumping the pattern cutting table. It's mayhem. We have fun, though. My team are brilliant, they really are. And you know what? Contrary to rumour, sometimes I can be quite a laugh." And with that the sunglasses go on, the smile goes off, and the real Victoria Beckham disappears into the Range Rover.
^Since she whips up her own style, I actually prefer her to Tom Ford. And maybe it's the fact that she's British as opposed to American, but she just seems quite genuine. Not just a smooth PR machine.
Also, this whole "he/she is a genius because he/she is a control freak" is completely overrated, not to say erroneous. Being attentive to detail is crucial for a brilliant performance. But unfortunately, people can be attentive to detail and have atrocious notions about what's attractive - whoever doubts that can visit Hollywood or Florida and the victims/patients of plastic surgeons...