This is not a story about Victoria Beckham. This is a story about Victoria Beckham, the fashion designer. There’s a difference. A story about Victoria Beckham would begin where our interview began, with her telling me about the incident in her and David’s bedroom last night… One of the boys ‘came running in and slid on the floor because he was so weak, and then literally projectile-vomited everywhere’. This is Victoria Beckham, the professionally seasoned and seductively skilled interviewee who tosses domestic tales into the air like shark bait... ‘In fairness to David, he jumped up; we were like Mr and Mrs Mopp at three o’clock this morning. It’s not quite like a baby being sick – that’s bad enough, but when they’re older… Have your kids had it?’
No, the story about Victoria Beckham, the fashion designer, starts last September in New York where, in the old Cunard Shipping building near Wall Street, in front of an audience of 300 or so, she had a moment. That is to say, she hit her tipping point. To borrow Malcolm Gladwell’s definition of the phrase, she hit ‘the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point’. Or, in fashionspeak, she had just shown her best collection to date, one of the highlights of New York Fashion Week. Slowly, collection by collection – and there have been 13 – Victoria Beckham emerged as the designer we wanted her to be: sophisticated, credible, authentic – which speaks as much of the clothes she sent out that day as it does of the designer herself.
I’ve watched her progress, from the days of Posh (I interviewed the Spice Girls for ELLE in 2000 and even then she displayed signs of fashion nous) to those first shows in New York, in front of a heavyweight audience of retailers, editors and critics, when she would perch in the front row and, ballsy as hell, microphone in hand, narrate every dress. At the VVB presentations (for her sister line, Victoria by Victoria Beckham), she would talk through every outfit while bouncing Harper on her knee. Then came the increasingly self-assured backstage interviews of more recent shows, and her impressively convincing retail pitch when she showed me around her new 7,000 sq ft flagship on Dover Street. Her re-education, from paparazzi-ed clothes-horse and WAG to bona fide designer with a business that last year turned over £30m, culminated in her success at December’s British Fashion Awards. You could feel the shift in attitude among the major league; she hadn’t been invited merely as a cynical ploy to guarantee column inches – she was there to accept the Brand of the Year award because of a genuine admiration for her achievements. Like she has said: before, she was famous; now, she is successful.
Still, people outside the industry ask, ‘Does she really do it?’ Or, ‘Why, with all her money, does she bother to do it?’ Which is why I’m here, to put those very questions to the woman herself on a well-plumped beige sofa in her office in Battersea. She wears – because that’s the first thing everyone asks – black skinny jeans (with a little stain on one knee, possibly toothpaste, hopefully not vomit-related), a cream high-necked blouse by Saint Laurent, a black drapey tuxedo jacket of her own design, and stonkingly high, black suede Azzedine Alaïa boots. She is ‘really obsessed’ with her VB leopard-print tote bag. Her long hair is… just brushed, her make-up softer but still designed to highlight those intense deep-brown eyes, and her hands are indeed manicured – nude polish – adorned with a single giant yellow diamond. She drinks a mug of PG Tips, black, no sugar. And there are no pouts. The opposite, in fact, is true; she is infectiously upbeat. ‘I’m always happy,’ she tells me. ‘I’m a very good morning person.’
As for the second-most-asked question, yes, she really is tiny. No doubt the result of her daily Tracy Anderson workouts and her sushi lunchtime take-outs. It’s impossible to ignore her svelteness when she gets up at the end of our interview to show me around, down the tricky fire-exit staircase (in those heels) and into the ateliers – two vast rooms full of pattern-cutting tables, bolts of fabric, pattern makers and seamstresses – the typical scene in any industrious, fast-growing fashion business. Except that this is Victoria Beckham proudly showing me her world, calling out to everyone, ‘Hiya, hello! How’s the family?’
Do you have your dream job?
Yes, I do. It was always my dream to work in fashion; there’s nothing else that I would want to do, dream of doing, or that I could do. I love what I do, and I’m lucky to have a job I’m so passionate about. I never wake up and think, ‘Oh God, I don’t want to go in.’
Who gave you the confidence to make the leap into fashion?
The confidence came from me. I’ve always been a hard worker, and I’m very optimistic. I believe in creative visualisation, focusing… I knew that I had something to offer women. So it came from me, but also with the support of David and my children and parents.
When did you have that lightbulb moment when you thought, ‘Fashion – that’s my next step’?
Even when we were in the Spice Girls, I was always more into the styling of the shows – the lighting, choreography, staging. The business side of it really interested me, too. I’ve worked with Simon Fuller since I was 18 – he’s my business partner [Fuller’s XIX Management owns one third of Victoria Beckham, the Beckhams the rest]. He knew it was my dream. It was just a case of meeting the right people. So I was introduced to Melanie [who previously worked with Jonathan Saunders and Roland Mouret], who helps me on the design side. She ran the studio and Tracy [who had worked with Luella Bartley] did production. So we started out 14 seasons ago, the three of us, and built it from there.
How about when you were really young – was it always fashion?
Yes, I went to theatre school and I liked to sing and dance, but I was much more interested in fashion. I’d customise my school uniform in the toilets at lunchtime… Oh, just some stupid fashion for wearing two pairs of socks. [Laughs] For me, it created a slimmer leg! My mum was never into high fashion, but she used to love making the best of herself. It was the ’80s and she had big hair and shoulder pads. I loved to sit and watch her getting ready.
You used to narrate your shows. What was going through your mind the first time, at the Waldorf Hotel in 2008?
I’d never felt nerves like it. It was never discussed that I’d talk through the pieces; it wasn’t scripted. I just thought people needed to know the details to fully understand the collections. The girls came out in the dresses, and I couldn’t help it – I wanted to talk about the inspiration and construction. We’d worked so hard on the collection, and it was a bit embarrassing when it was quiet, you know. I couldn’t be quiet – I wanted to talk, I was so excited about it. Then it got to a stage where people would expect it every season…
Why was it so nerve-wracking?
Actually, I get more nervous now when I come out at the end of a show. I don’t even have to do anything, just come out and stand there. I hate that – it really makes me nervous! I don’t want it to be about me. When I was younger, in the band, yes, I was famous and I enjoyed it, but it’s not about that now. I like it to be about the girls looking beautiful in the clothes. I don’t want to come out at the end of the show – they literally have to push me out! I’d much rather have people write about the clothes as opposed to a picture of me standing there – that feels weird. I’m not doing anything incredible, I’m just designing clothes. So I feel silly standing there with people clapping and saying ‘well done’. It’s not necessary.
What previously learnt skills helped you in the industry?
I’ve stood on so many red carpets and been photographed from so many different angles, I knew it wasn’t just about how something looked from the front and back – it was about 360-degree dressing. I’ve worn incredible clothes by incredible designers, and as a woman I know how women want to feel. I’ve learnt so much from being that woman myself. I want to empower women, make them feel confident – the best version of themselves. Also, when I was in the Spice Girls, I wasn’t just singing the songs, I was involved with every single business decision, so I’ve been able to use all that. That’s why I’m so respectful of my past.
Why did the business side appeal to you at such a young age?
I don’t like to rely on anybody else. I always wanted to be totally self-sufficient. I’m not pretending to know everything – I have great people around me, the most wonderful team, and I’m learning. We’re all learning. I find it exciting to be involved in all aspects.
How did you overcome not having any formal fashion training?
There are other ways I can express what I want. It’s about having an initial idea. I love creating mood boards, choosing fabric, and I work a lot from vintage. You don’t need that formal training nowadays – it’s about more than that. I think I’ve proved that.
And to the people out there who still ask, ‘Does she really do it?’…
I do really do it! I have an amazing team: there are 100 people here, including e-commerce, marketing and press. But every designer has a team. I don’t think there’s a designer out there who does absolutely everything on their own, because the industry never stops. We handed over our pre collection about four days ago, and before we handed over the pre, we had to start working on the [catwalk] collection for February. But before we show in February, we’ll work on the pre collection for June. So it would be physically impossible for one person to do all that with a business at this level.
What about those who say, ‘She’s rich – why does she need to do it? Someone else must do the work, then put her name on it!’
You know that isn’t the case. That’s a licensing deal when a person comes in, they stamp their name all over it and off it goes. I work in a very different way. I don’t have any licensing deals – I own everything. Nobody comes to me and says, ‘Here, what do you think?’ We come to each other with ideas, because the collection is so huge now. It’s not just dresses; we’ve got separates, knits, tailoring, eveningwear, shoes, handbags, eyewear, denim, VBV… Each category now has two collections and two pre, so it’s 20 collections a year. That takes a team of people. So I’m not going to sit here and say I do everything, because that would be impossible. But I think I do more than most.
So what are your strengths?
I work hard, I’m a perfectionist, and I think I have a good eye, a very specific eye. I can spot things that are off point. I’d say that’s a strong point – it works in my favour with what I do.
What about choosing the right people to work with?
I have the same team I started out with six years ago, so I’m very lucky that people don’t come and go. I like to think we treat people well: everybody should feel loved and appreciated. We just want people who are talented and work hard. If you’re the kind of person who wants to clock in and clock out, this is not the right place for you. Having said that, everyone needs family time. There are a lot of women here who have children, so they want their holiday time when their kids are on holiday. That’s OK, we can make that work. I think it’s all about mutual respect.
What about their eye? Aesthetic? What are you looking for when you hire?
Ideally someone with the same taste level. It’s also about molding people into what you want. The longer you work with the brand, the more you’ll understand it. You’ll learn my aesthetic, my eye, what I like. We look at things and we’ll all go, ‘Oh, that’s awful, just awful!’ We spend so much time working so closely and intensely together…
How would you describe your aesthetic and how has it evolved?
Not overly complicated or challenging. Quite minimal. There’s a fun side to the way I dress, and a sense of humour. When I first started out, it was very relevant to the way I was dressing at the time. I was younger and there was a lot of corsetry with fitted dresses – very much a silhouette that people could associate with me. That’s what I understood at the time; it was what I was wearing, what I was looking for. As I’ve got older and gained confidence, I don’t feel the need to go out and show off how tiny my waist is. Obviously the signature dress is still core to my collection and I do still wear those dresses, but I’ve loosened up. I wear a lot of separates now, a lot of tailoring – I wear a lot more clothes! I think the older you get, the more accepting you are of yourself and your body shape. You have to be quite confident to cover up. But now people are more accepting of me, so I can push it, fashion-wise.
Like the big sweater and long skirt you wore to the British Fashion Awards. Was that a personal marker, saying, ‘Look how far I’ve come’?
It was so great to be so comfortable! We’d had quite a few red-carpet events that week, and it was great to be standing there with David, who I’ve obviously been with such a long time, and be comfortable in my own skin. Years ago, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to turn up wearing something like that.
Does David like your new style? Or is he like, ‘Make it shorter, make it lower’? Erm, he’s obviously quite sophisticated…
I think so, yes! We don’t talk about clothes so much at home, but he’ll be like, ‘You look great.’ If he didn’t like it, I’m sure he’d speak up!
What about your weaknesses – do you have any?
I don’t know if it’s a weakness, but it’s quite difficult when you’re a working mum, you feel guilty when you can’t be everywhere with your children. I don’t think I do have any weaknesses. There are things I’d like to work on, like having a better social life! I’ve figured out how to have a family and a career, but I’m not sure if you can have a career, family and a social life. I think two are doable, but are three?
What would be your ideal social life be?
I love being with David and the boys and Harper, but seeing more of my girlfriends would be great. I’m so excited about this Friday, because there’s a team Christmas lunch! As much as that’s a work thing, it’s nice to be out of the office, have a few drinks and chat with people you have a lot in common with.
What mindset do you think you need to work in fashion?
You’ve got to be focused, have a strong point of view and be prepared to work hard. It’s intense, so you’ve got to have an organised mind – there are so many collections now, it’s just about getting your head around what you need to do and when you’ve got to do it. Fabric orders, production, deliveries… you’ve got to be on time. You’ve got to have your mind in gear and surround yourself with the right people to help you do that. The show’s a lot of stress, but come on, we’re looking at beautiful people and beautiful clothes, so it’s not all bad! There’s definitely a glamorous side to it, but probably less than people would imagine.
When was the moment you felt accepted by the fashion world?
I can’t remember a specific time. As soon as anything good happens, as soon as I get an award or a good review, it makes me focus even more. I constantly feel that I have more to… not exactly to prove… well, yes, to prove, but to prove to myself. It wasn’t about proving anybody wrong or winning the industry around, it was just about proving to myself that I could give a woman – my customer – what I believe she wants. I would never take anything for granted. I would never sit back, relax and become lazy, and think, ‘Hey, we’ve done it, we’ve made it.’ I take all of the good, put that fuel in the car, and it gives us the energy to put even more work in. I constantly want to better myself.
What do you wish that you’d known the day you launched your brand?
I don’t wish I’d known anything, because I’ve enjoyed the journey, I really have. I wasn’t prepared for the nerves before the show, but then, I’m kind of glad that I didn’t know about that at the start, because it probably would have put me off! I always expected it to get easier, but it gets harder and harder.
Whose career path do you most admire in the industry?
That’s easy! Diane von Fürstenberg. Every time I sit next to her, I just find her the most inspiring woman ever. She has a family, too, and she never trained as a designer either. When I ask her questions, I’m always quite surprised by her answers…
Like, I asked her, ‘Diane, you’ve got kids… did you used to feel really guilty when you went to work?’ She said, ‘Darling, not once did I ever feel guilty! I’ve been the best mother I could be. I’ve worked hard, and feeling guilty is just a waste of time and effort; it’s draining and ageing.’ I came away thinking, she’s right, why should we feel guilty? We’re doing the best that we can for our kids and ourselves and family. I’ve spoken to her about so many things and I think, wow! I’ll tell you the other thing that she told me... We were talking about not being the youngest woman in the room any more, and she said, ‘I never want to be the youngest woman in the room.’ I said, really? She said, ‘Really. Because the older you get, you have a history and experience and that is priceless.’ I got a flashback of her saying that to me at the [British] Fashion Awards. I obviously felt really nervous and emotional, but I was confident and proud and excited. I woke up the next morning and thought, I’m so happy to be 40 years old, because I couldn’t have got any more out of that night. I appreciated every single minute.
I did. And I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I think that comes with age.
We all know about your achievements, but what has been your biggest knock-back to date?
I don’t think I’ve ever had one. I’m very positive: the glass is always half full. There was a time when I wasn’t in the Spice Girls or doing what I’m doing now, but I used all the time I had to really knuckle down and focus on building the brand we know now. I started to work with Coty on our fragrance, and back then I had license deals [Linda Farrow for eyewear, and Rock & Republic for denim], which obviously I now own. I learned so much about that side of the industry, so actually it was a busy time for me, even though no one knew what I was doing.
What’s your coping mechanism when there’s a bad review?
If there are ever reviews that I don’t like, I take it as constructive criticism, to be honest. It’s never nice when you read something you don’t like. But if you don’t like what people say, there’s not a lot you can do about that. It is what it is.
Who do you turn to for advice?
My team. They’re all incredibly talented, every one of them.
Whose opinion do you value the most?
My own. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, but I think it’s important to go with your gut instinct. It’s easier to live with your own mistakes, than with someone else’s.
Who are you designing for? Yourself?
I like to try the clothes on – it’s important. You know, is the seam comfortable? Does the fabric feel right? But I’m not going to be able to design for myself for ever. I’m not going to be wearing minidresses when I’m 60, but I’ll still be designing them. No, I’m not solely designing for me. Having the store has been fantastic, getting to know my customer. She appreciates luxury; she’s sophisticated, and wants to feel empowered.
What has surprised you the most about the fashion business since you became part of it?
It’s funny how people can be terrified of fashion and think the industry is full of awful people – though I don’t want to speak too soon! But, really, there’s a lot of hard-working people in fashion, all supporting each other.
You’ve had two highly successful careers so far and you’re 40– is there a Plan C?
[Laughs] No, no, there is no Plan C. I’m really happy doing what I do now. I can’t see myself doing anything else. There’s another chapter of my life, working with the UN on the charity side of things, which I’m really enjoying. We work on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and AIDS, empowering young girls, teenagers and women.
How do you fit that in?
We have a diary! We went through it all last night, and by the time we’d finished I was coming up for 42! They sat me down with pages and pages – it was like This Is Your Life! [Sings] Dun dun dun! For the next two years, you’re in China… You’re here, there and everywhere… Actually, I don’t like to travel too much. I’m based here with the kids every day. I get them up every morning, get them ready for school, take them to school, pick them up and do homework. Myself and David share that responsibility.
Which pieces from your wardrobe will Harper inherit?
I’ve collected Birkin and Kelly bags over the years, so I’d imagine she’d want those. And the jewellery. And art… mind you, the boys might want the art. We both really like Julian Schnabel.
Your fashion legacy?
You mean what would I want people to remember me by? I’m not going anywhere yet, I’d like to put that out there first! Somebody who understands and respects women, who makes her customer feel good, comfortable… sexy as well.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Goodness! That would have to be from Diane, about not worrying if you’re not the youngest person in the room. I have to say, we’re also not the oldest people in the room. I’m making myself sound geriatric! Also, Simon Fuller has given me so many pieces of great advice, but, more than anything, he trusts me and lets me get on with it. Anna Wintour’s been very supportive, too, and continues to be. She’s definitely one of the first people I ask if I have a question or want some advice. Back in the day, Marc Jacobs was the one who told me that not everyone is going to like everything you do, but if the quality is good, they can never say it’s rubbish.
What advice would you give to any aspiring designer?
Go and work for somebody else. That’s what I did before I could bring everything in-house with denim and eyewear. There’s only so much you can learn when you’re at college or school – you actually need to go and work for a company. That’s very important.
What about self-belief?
If you don’t believe in yourself, no one is going to believe in you. And you’ve got to be true to yourself and take risks – if not, things become boring. I never want to be predictable. I don’t want to be safe all the time. Sometimes it’s good to stir up opinions. That’s why we do it.