On a chilly Los Angeles morning, fashion designer Victoria Beckham is in her element. The luxury American department store Neiman Marcus is hosting a private view of the designer's latest collection, straight from the runway, for 30 of its most prolific customers.
The event is a lesson in PR from the master herself. Beckham enters the room, trailed by her eldest son, Brooklyn, and her husband, David, who is clutching their Chloé-clad daughter, Harper - a snapshot of her picture-perfect family on display alongside a catwalk show of the collection.
I watch as Beckham snuggles up to David, puts her arm around him, rests her head on his shoulder.... Afterwards, she gives a little speech - charming, informal, self-deprecating. By now, the customers (who go on to spend thousands in pre-orders) are as in love with Beckham as they are with the clothes.
She tells them that she's going to hang around for a bit and proceeds to chat and pose for photos. As the crowd mills, David circles the room, chasing Harper through a minefield of stilettos, occasionally throwing her up in the air, blowing raspberries on her bare tummy or dancing with her. If any proof is needed that Victoria Beckham knows how to work her market, it is all here.
So I know that Beckham can be charming to strangers - a skill much in evidence at the trunk show - but it's not something she finds so easy with journalists, who she feels consistently misquote her. When I first met her two days earlier - tiny and deceptively fragile-looking, curled up in a white-leather armchair on a private plane en route from L.A. to Las Vegas for the ELLE shoot - she was wary. She can perform in front of an audience, is at ease putting on a show, is fantastically charming, even inviting us along on her plane-but the minute she comes under direct scrutiny from a stranger?
Her defences come up, despite a visible effort on her part to be friendly. In fact, it takes that one-hour flight, an eight-hour photo shoot, a two-hour trunk show and a good 20 minutes of lunch before she visibly thaws. It is, however, worth the wait.
Once she drops her guard, she is endearingly gobby. Her pet hates are laziness ("I can't stand it. I always think ‘Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability'") and women who hate other women. ("I have no time for it at all, when women just don't like women. I don't get it. I think that women need to support women. [When they don't] that probably pisses me off more than people being lazy.")
But the real surprise is her sense of humour, something so rarely caught on camera or in print. "The media paints this image of [me], and that's fine," she agrees.
"Oh, my God, I even agree. I look at pictures of myself and I think ‘You look so moody.' I get it, I get it. But I really do laugh quite a lot. My team make me laugh. My kids make me laugh. We were driving around in the car the other day and Cruz wanted to listen to the Spice Girls, and afterwards he said, ‘Mommy, why is it all you ever did was sing background?'" She cackles.
"I like to have a laugh." She leans forward. "You know, I've been called comedy gold. I'm just saying." If the public image of Beckham is control-freak workaholic business obsessive, the private Beckham is overenthusiastic with a highly developed sense of the ridiculous. She babbles with joy when the restaurant manager agrees to give her five Yorkshire puddings to take home.
"The kids are going to love me when I walk in with these," she says excitedly, patting the doggy bag. "You know what they say to me because I'm not the best cook, although I try really hard? They always say ‘Mommy we know that the main ingredient in what you make is love.'" She roars with laughter.
Her home life sounds as chaotic as her work life is structured. One-and-a-half-year-old Harper, who travels everywhere with her and is thus prone to jet lag, is still waking her up in the night. Once Beckham's awake, she checks her emails, gets dressed (in a tracksuit - "a nice tracksuit, but it's a tracksuit") and has done a couple of hours' work before she makes the kids' breakfast.
When I say that David told ELLE UK that he makes breakfast, she rolls her eyes. "Well, he lied," she says. "He lied. Let me tell you now, he is not the one. I'm always like, ‘Go and shake Daddy and get him out of bed; tell him that he has to take you to school.'"
Beckham is sweetly grateful for the support David has given her, but it's also clear she knows that now is her time. "There was a time when David was playing football, not just for a club but for his country, so he was very busy, and it was just the beginning for me. He wanted to go to Spain, so great, we all went together. When he wanted to play in Italy, we all went to Italy. Well, the boys and I were based here - we had to be because the boys were at school - but were there all the time.
We are here to support each other and make each other happy. He is so respectful of what I do. I couldn't do it if he wasn't. Now David has finished playing for L.A. Galaxy and we are starting a new chapter in our lives; as a family, we are all very excited about what lies ahead."
In the fashion world, Beckham has a sense of belonging she never had before. "When I was onstage with the Spice Girls, I thought people were there to see the other four and not me," she says. "And when I go out with David and people take pictures, I think ‘They're here to take David's picture.'"
But in fashion, she has found her groove. She is incredibly proud that no part of her brand is licenced. (Anything with her name on it has been produced by Victoria Beckham, not a manufacturer who has paid for the right to her name.)
She oversees every creative and PR move ("Not one dress goes out to a celebrity or shoot without me approving it") and also has sign-off on every business decision. She runs a team of 78 - from interns to seamstresses - and is involved at every level.
(At our shoot, she was negotiating staff holidays between set-ups.) She has an accountant, but she can tell me what every fabric used in the last collection cost, what the lighting budget was. It's a good job her team adore her - and they very clearly do, gossiping with her about boyfriends and Barbra Streisand - because it can't always be easy working for her.
"You've got to trust people," she acknowledges. "And because I am a control freak, sometimes that's difficult for me, because I want to micromanage absolutely everything." When pressed, she can't think of one single thing she has handed over.
"Okay, I can't. I can't hand over. But I'm trying to do that more. It's hard because I have such a specific vision. For instance, we were doing a lookbook shoot for the bags, so I took pictures on my iPhone of how I wanted it to look and gave it to the photographer. Then that night I saw the pictures. They'd spent all day doing them and it wasn't right. So we had to shoot through the night to get it perfect. I couldn't let it go."
She never switches off, she says. Ever. She hasn't had a holiday in four years. "A lot of people don't have holidays. I'm a workaholic, David's a workaholic. We joke and say ‘One day, when the kids are grown up, we'll start with holidays.'" Why she works quite so hard is another matter. She doesn't need to, financially, and she's adamant it's not to prove a point to skeptics who didn't believe she could do it.
"It was never my intention to prove anybody wrong," says Beckham. "I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I don't have to work; I need to work. All these people [her fellow fashion designers], they've not just been given anything. They've worked hard. And I've never been given anything either. But I have a good work ethic; David has an incredible work ethic. I want my kids to have a good work ethic. I believe you can achieve anything if you work hard enough to get it."
And why wouldn't she? Look where it has got her. That Beckham loves fashion has never been in question, not since her days as Posh Spice, when every other word she uttered was "Prada" or "Gucci." That she is quite so good at producing fashion came as more of a surprise. Beckham launched her eponymous ready-to-wear line just five years ago, and it's already a massive success.
"I hear things like that and it almost frightens me," she says. I have noticed that when she's caught off guard, her voice rises and she starts speaking really fast, and she does that now: "I almost don't want to hear it. I find it incredible, and it frightens me."
Beckham puts her meteoric rise down to and the public gave her a chance: "That's all I wanted people to do at my first collection," she says. "Forget about the Spice Girls; just judge the collection for the collection. And they did. They left their preconceptions at the door."
However, that's not strictly true. The launch of Beckham was brilliantly masterminded in its modesty. For those who need reminding, there was no fanfare, no big show with big-name stylists attached. In her first season, she didn't have Guido Palau - who does Prada, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Lanvin - doing hair or Diane Kendal - Dolce & Gabbana, Saint Laurent, Chloé - doing makeup.
"I didn't," she says. "I refused to use my name, if you know what I mean." (For Beckham's spring/summer 2013 show, she did, of course, have Palau and Kendal.) The collection of just 10 dresses was presented to small groups of retailers and journalists in a hotel room, while Beckham talked them through it. She disarmed them all - the purists, the skeptics, the snobs - with her knowledge of every tiny detail and, perhaps the greatest weapon in her armoury, her humility.
Preconceptions were not so much left at the door as shown it, by her, as soon as she started compèring. "It wasn't planned," she says, when I ask how much the style of the presentation had been mapped out in advance (by Beckham's business partner, Simon Fuller - the strategic genius who launched the Spice Girls and Pop Idol [the U.K. version of American Idol], manages the careers of both Beckhams and Roland Mouret and owns the majority share of Storm model agency).
"It was real. It was natural. I just started talking. The girls would come out and I'd stop one and open up the back of the dress so people could see the corsetry. I was proud of it, and it was important to me that people understood why I did what I did. I love fashion. I'm proud of what I do and I could talk about it day in, day out. I just wanted to talk."
She starts laughing. "I was talking to Japanese buyers who didn't even speak English. But, hey, you know what? If you're listening, then I'm going to talk." She's not wrong. Beckham talks fashion in a way most fashion insiders do not. She remains, at heart, a fan. There is no intellectualizing, no conceptualism.
When she discusses other designers, it's fun, like she's gossiping about colleagues. For instance, when she tells me about the time Marc Jacobs came over to compliment her when she first launched the Victoria Beckham line, it is with glee, at high tempo.
"When he was talking to me, it was a little bit like ‘It's Marc Jacobs! It's Marc Jacobs!'" Karl Lagerfeld, she says, is the funniest man in fashion. "He doesn't try to sugar coat things. To be honest, he can say what he wants because he's Karl Lagerfeld."
He has also been very supportive of her. "It's a big deal when he says ‘I really like what you do, I really like your clothes.'" "And Manolo Blahnik.... He's such a genuinely nice guy. The fact that I'm working with him now on the shoes for my ready-to-wear is a dream come true. I mean, who'd have thought? If you're gonna make shoes, who do you want to collaborate with? Duh. Manolo Blahnik, right?"
The fashion idol she has still to meet is Miuccia Prada. "I'm at a loss for words when I talk about her. [Her collection] is always so relevant. You can't wait to see not only what the clothes are like but also what the hair's like, what the makeup's like, what the accessories are like. How many brands do that? She's another level. I'd love to see the world through her eyes."
Beckham's latest challenge is the launch of her new website (victoriabeckham.com), which offers customers the opportunity to shop her own personal edit of her collections as well as accessories, denim and pieces from an exclusive Icon collection.
The slick site has been three years in the making and, for a control freak, hard to finalize. "I want it to be functional, easy to shop on and look around. I want it to be different from what is out there. I'm doing this and I'm doing it properly. Because there's no point otherwise."
Perhaps that's her secret, the thing that has taken her from a potential novelty on the New York Fashion Weekschedule (but turned out to be far more impressive than anyone had expected) to a designer whose collections are respected and anticipated.
She knows she's good. But underneath it all is the need to prove herself-to herself. I ask her if she can pinpoint the moment when she realized that she'd gone, in the eyes of the world, from being Victoria Beckham the former pop star to a celebrity with a fashion line to being a serious fashion player.
"No," she says, shaking her head. "I can't. And it makes me smile because I probably still have those preconceptions about myself."
Victoria Beckham's fashion
There is nothing minimal about Victoria Beckham's life. When I interviewed the designer last spring at Holt Renfrew in Vancouver, she was surrounded by masses of excitable fans, many frowning security guards and - nearest of all - the adorable Harper, whom Beckham held close, lips hovering protectively close to her head as they moved through the maelstrom.
You might expect some of that madness to transfer to Beckham's sartorial sensibility, in the form of OTT prints or a fringed headdress or two. Instead, Beckham has emerged - along with Nicolas Ghesquière, Francisco Costa and Phoebe Philo - as a leader of the new minimalism, a trend that has been percolating for several seasons and reached its apotheosis this spring.
Modern minimalism has none of the chilliness that the term can imply - sure, the silhouettes are sharp and the lines are clean, but the ruling principle is richness.
Beckham's Spring/Summer 2013 collection was all elegant sportif, featuring luxe fabrics (lace, silk, georgette) and ultra-saturated solid colour brightening perfectly cut jackets and A-line skirts. For Fall/Winter 2013/2014, Beckham's minimalist message got a menswear inspired twist, most notably in a coat featuring a swath of shiny-blue pony hair.
Beyond the style and craftsmanship, something about that coat seemed significant. Maybe it was simply that, while you couldn't picture Posh Spice throwing it on over her signature strapless LBD, it seemed to be the perfect piece for the modern Victoria Beckham - designer, mother, celebrity - who understands that paring back is the way forward.
Victoria Beckham's beauty
A less-is-more beauty mood emerged as an early theme at New York Fashion Week fall/winter 2013/2014. Backstage at Victoria Beckham, hair maestro Guido Palau issued a clarion call to simplicity. "Victoria is a very modern woman, and she wants this new minimal mood reflected on the runway," he said.
"Natural hair is very much a trend of the moment. Silky-smooth blow-dried hair isn't fashionable; it doesn't feel relevant to fashion at the moment. Hairdressers have to create a new vision for what it means to have rich hair. It's a whole new way of thinking about hair." The pony he created for the show was decidedly undone.
"It's not a clean one," he said. "I pulled it together with my hands so it almost feels like an accident. A little ear will be showing, and there are wisps around the face. It's those subtle nuances that create the overall impression of ease."
M.A.C makeup artist Diane Kendal brought the same minimal, clear vision to her look for the collection, choosing to quietly play up the girls' features using light-coverage foundation, some coffee-walnut sculpting cream in the crease of the eyes and a thin black line close to the lashes. The eyebrows were slightly filled in and brushed, and the lips were muted or "taken down" with foundation.
"It's a simple, fresh look," she explained, adding that the impact comes from the "subtle-or nuanced-contouring." M.A.C nail artist Marian Newman also got the go-minimal memo, calling her understated, clean look the "power manicure."
The nails were glossed and had white pencil under the edges. "The look was clean, healthy - done but not trying too hard. - Laura deCarufelThank you ELLE CANADA