Published Date: 14 September 2010
By Ruth La Ferla
VICTORIA Beckham talks the talk.
Guiding a visitor through her autumn/ winter 2010 collection, spread on a rack in her studio in Battersea, she draws out a dress worn recently by Cameron Diaz, identifying its fabric authoritatively as a metallic jacquard. Another, lavishly draped and shapely, is underpinned by domette wadding, she says, to hold its folds in place. Still another, crisp as cornflakes, was made of gazar. "Gazar, I love it," Beckham murmurs, savouring the term like a vintage Bordeaux.
A quick study, she has mastered the argot of the cutting room with the same alacrity that has marked all her most ardent pursuits — the voice and music lessons that laid the foundations for her career as the pop idol known as Posh Spice; her marriage to David Beckham, an exercise in family branding; her wardrobe, engineered to show off her whippet frame and improbably lusty chest.
"I don't do anything by halves," she says, an edge in her voice. "If you're going to do something, do it properly, I think. Otherwise there is no point in doing it at all."
That resolve has paid off. In recent months Beckham has emerged as an industry force, the wily maverick of the forthcoming New York Fashion Week.
Written off not so long ago as a pneumatic Barbie of the hinterlands, she has been a fixture in the front row at such presentations as Chanel and Marc Jacobs. Her sinuously curvy cocktail dresses have been worn by Jennifer Lopez, Drew Barrymore and Diaz and are showcased in stores alongside luxury labels like Narciso Rodriguez and Vera Wang. "Don't underestimate her," says Anna Wintour, among the many editors and retailers who have embraced her, pointing out that Beckham has managed, in a scant four seasons, to shed her dubious standing as the girl least likely to succeed.
"She's growing up," says Ken Downing, the fashion director of Neiman Marcus, the luxury US fashion chain, and an early advocate of Beckham's designs. "Her knowledge of dressmaking is impressive. She understands how to bring out the best in the female form, and that's one reason our clients are drawn to what she does."
Good clothes are a necessary adjunct to a life spent basking in the public eye. Beckham has cavorted for the camera in the Mediterranean-style villa in Beverly Hills, California, that she shares with her husband, a home filled with art by Damien Hirst, Sam Taylor-Wood and Tracey Emin. She has sashayed along fashion runways, modelled in high-profile advertising campaigns and appeared on TV shows like Ugly Betty, Project Runway and American Idol.
Her life — the spending sprees, the turns on the red carpet, the clamour for her designs — may be enviable, but she wants you to know it has left her unspoiled. "Doing diva," she says "that's completely pointless."
Insiders powerful enough to score an invitation to her intimate spring 2011 showing today in a town house on East 63rd Street, New York, may well take her at her word. They will be greeted by a woman aglow in, though not overtly dazzled by, her own success, one who serves as the commentator for her shows — confessing, rather disarmingly, her relative ignorance. "Look, it's a very basic way that I am doing this," she said last season. "Technically, it's probably not the right way."
Her dresses, once so corseted they gave off a whiff of kitsch, are loosening up, exuding at times a patrician breeziness. Whisking a visitor around her London headquarters, she says: "My style has relaxed a bit. I think you will see that in this next collection."
One part inspiration, three parts aspiration, she is quick to disclose the great source of her drive. "I am a control freak," she says calmly. No Ghesquiere or Galliano, she does not claim to be an innovator.
"She takes conventional dresses and makes them stand out," says Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue. But a dedication to perfection has played a big part in the advancement of her fashion career.
Yet Beckham, by her own account, is a wobbly work in progress. "I'm very aware that I'm working my way up the ladder," she says. "I have a long, long way to go."
With her business partner, Simon Fuller, American Idol creator and onetime Spice Girls manager, she presides over a luxury brand encompassing dresses, denim, sunglasses and a line of handbags that makes its runway debut this week. Her dresses, built on a contour-perfecting inner scaffolding, are magnets to well-heeled clients whose allegiance has contributed to sales in excess of $7 million (£4.5m) last year.
Not so impressive, perhaps, by the standards of industry behemoths who tally their sales in the billions of dollars. But Beckham sees a measured growth for her brand. "We are moving in baby steps," she says of the line, mostly financed at the outset with proceeds — less than $1 million — from the sales of the Beckhams' fragrance line.
The collection is tightly distributed; the dresses are made in England and carried in 20 stores worldwide. New denim and eyewear collections are sold in 100 stores and free-standing Victoria Beckham boutiques are in the offing.
Beckham is certainly integral to the design process, draping her dresses on herself. "I might get a piece of fabric and tie it around me, then ask an assistant to pin it for me," she says. "I'm not claiming to be a master draper. The bottom line is: Would I wear this?"
Her beaver-ish attentiveness to the fit, construction and marketing of her line has just won her a British Fashion Council nomination as Designer Brand of the Year. It has also secured her enviable retail real estate. At Bergdorf Goodman, her dresses, which sell from roughly £1,000 to £2,500 are among the highest performers. What's more, there is a waiting list. It's not unusual for a dress to be reserved three deep.
Her sauciness has endeared her to no less a cultural arbiter than Marc Jacobs, who befriended Beckham and featured her in an ad campaign, in which she allowed herself to be photographed upended, her legs projecting from a shopping bag and waving in the air. Jacobs' public embrace went some way to redeeming her in the eyes of the fashion cognoscenti.
Yet she is still being held to the coals by some insiders who tagged her from the beginning as an upstart, just another in a long line of pop confections to brand her initials on someone else's frocks. Scepticism has dogged her since she announced her intention to create her fashion label.
The barbs sting, Beckham acknowledges, but not enough to deflect her from her purpose. "I want to build something that's very respected," she says with a pleading urgency. Her career, "is about getting things right. I want to make sure I'm in this position in 20 years' time."
You believe her, even feel for her. Still, it's tough to forget that Beckham is a skilled performer. Holding forth at her London studio, she dabs at the corners of her mouth, perching or alternately rocking on the edge of her chair like a schoolgirl in a scratchy pinafore — her propriety evidently conceived to disarm the greatest cynics.
Her persistence is ingrained. "Nothing has ever come easy to me," she says wryly. "At school I was never the brightest child. I had to work really hard." Acutely aware of her shortcomings, she can be her own toughest critic. "I'm no Mariah Carey," she says of her time as a Spice Girl. As a designer, she thinks of herself as still being in a formative stage. "I find it really boring when people are afraid to change," she says.
The label of WAG seems to leave her unfazed. "I was probably responsible for creating that look, the long hair extensions, the fake tan, lots of make-up." But unlike her presumptive peers: "I've never really been a true WAG," she says quickly. "I've always had a career."
There are still great gaps in her catalogue of accomplishments. "I would love to be Lady Beckham," she once joshed. But you suspect that her remarks are only half in jest.
"You can't buy class," she says. But a string of good works may not hurt. "I grew up obviously admiring Lady Diana's style, the amount that she gave, the charities," she says. The Beckhams have helped raise millions in support of cancer research and children's education. The Victoria and David Beckham Charitable Trust serves children in need, providing wheelchairs, prosthetics and other forms of assistance.
For all her ambition, Beckham is not ready to slough off the last remnants of her working-class past. In the 1980s, her father, an electrical distributor, celebrated his success by trading up from a van to a Rolls-Royce and dropping her off at school in it. Beckham was mortified. "Daddy," she remembers begging him, "can we please go in the van?"
"I just wanted to fit in," she recalls, cringing at the memory.
She takes pride just the same in being her father's daughter, self-made to the core, the product of an unwavering optimism. She is aware her career isn't bulletproof. At least not yet. It was built, after all, on "not taking no for an answer. My whole life has been that way," Beckham says proudly. "I've always enjoyed proving people wrong."
• This article appeared in Scotland on Sunday, September 12, 2010