David may be crocked but Mrs B is dressing Madonna and conquering the fashion pack. This, she says, is her job for life
It may be indelicate. But if you’d choose to describe Victoria Beckham as a “hot mom”, then fair enough. However there are better times (and better places) to do this than to her face at 11am on Valentine’s Day in the £19 million townhouse on East 63rd Street where she is showcasing her latest ready-to-wear collection.
Sadly, nobody pointed this out to the campish American fashion hack who did precisely that (in unprintable terms). As Mrs B cried “No!” in a vain attempt to forestall him, he inquired whether she ever worried that one day Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz might discover that their friends had more than cookies on their minds when they came to hang chez Beckham.
In unison, the clutch of top-tier editors — from publications including American Vogue, Vanity Fair and Le Figaro — laughed two octaves higher than is entirely comfortable. Then Beckham neatly defused the situation with an elegant response, and bid everyone — but The Times’s Lisa Armstrong and me — adieu. As they oozed off towards the marbled doorway, she turned to us, held up her hands and said: “Look, my palms are sweating!”
As well they might have been. Because for this, her fourth collection, the eponymous figurehead of the newly christened Victoria Beckham label faced the fashion pack head on — and, for the first time, she won them over completely. From the New York Post to Women’s Wear Daily via Style.com, every review has been a rave or near-rave. And this has been a genuine critical response, unsullied by over-zealous PR or indirect kickbacks: as Beckham is not yet a significant advertiser, none of the reviewers had any reason to be anything but honest.
Beckham, it is belatedly being realised, might yet — in her own way — become just as notable a young female British designer as the vaunted trinity of Hannah MacGibbon, Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo. But because fashion is intrinsically snobby — although most fashion people would call this “discerning” — Posh (as she was never sincerely called), has been a difficult sell for many. Only a few years ago British High Street PRs sniffed that they dreaded seeing Posh wearing their clothes.
Now, though, she has broken them down; primarily through the quality of the clothes, but also via disarming touches such as admitting her relative ignorance. Take this cheery New York confession: “Look, it’s a very basic way that I am doing this. You can see that from the gold dress. The drape has literally been draped on me. We tied it in a knot. And I thought ‘that looks really cool — I like that’. Technically it’s probably not the right way to do things. But there’s a really fun, playful atmosphere in the studio.”
Later, she adds: “I have had to prove myself. But that’s a good thing: everybody has to prove themselves, not just me . . . I want to grow as a designer, I want to learn the techniques and do more and more.”
Part of this self-imposed initiation is Beckham’s decision not to show the collection as a traditional show. Instead Beckham semi-masochistically subjects herself to intimate presentations at which she commentates on each of the 25 or so dresses.
This year, she tells us in a nervily stiff voice, she has taken “a more sophisticated and daring approach to our evening wear”. Which translates into a series of 1930s and 1940s siren-wear-inspired dresses for the modern knock-out. All heavily corseted, in raglan, silk, crepe or wool, they have a confident simplicity zinged up by soft-touch details including neck folds, gold zips, narrow little belts and a Dick Tracy inspired print on her beloved Cloud Dress. Most of the collection comes in either black or fleshy silk, but the odd flash of colour — in sapphire, emerald or ruby — is eye-catching without being brash.
Yes, Victoria Beckham is a (crocked) footballer’s wife, but nobody — even the snobbiest of those snobs — can call this stuff vulgar. The most important critics of all — the consumers — have already worked this out. From Corso Como, to Net-a-Porter, to Selfridges and Bergdorf Goodman, the international outlets that stock Beckham’s dresses all report a near-to-100 per cent sell through.
Next season’s collection has already been swooped on by Beckham’s new celebrity clientele: in the past couple of weeks Cameron Diaz wore the one-shouldered gold jacquard dress to the Vanity Fair Oscars party, Demi Moore opted for the sapphire silk column dress, and last week at a White House do Sarah Jessica Parker went for a Victoria Beckham number in cerise. This is an extremely good hit rate. Or, as Beckham says: “The support has been fantastic. And it’s been great that it’s been on lots of different body shapes as well. There have been tiny people wearing the dresses, such as Madonna, and then Jennifer Hudson wore one at the Golden Globes. The way the dresses have been constructed means that they are really flattering.” Flattering to Hudson, and certainly to the super-skinny models at her presentation.
Madonna is the only person to whom Beckham has sent an unsolicited freebie. It was a black-bodiced, ivory-skirted version of a corset dress that she spotted Madonna wearing for an American fashion shoot. And considering the competition it must have faced, that Beckham freebie got an impressive airing: Madonna wore it for her birthday supper last August at the Hotel Splendido in Portofino.
All the Victoria Beckham collection is made in London. And Beckham insists that she now sees design as her full-time, long-term job. “And,” she adds, “I think my middle son thinks that he is going to take over. Romeo likes to get involved.” He certainly has a good name for fashion design. Yet despite her commitment to the company’s London HQ, Beckham says that her family has no plans to leave Los Angeles. “The kids are settled in school, and very happy. And we have a lovely team of people. I travel a lot — Milan, London — and the kids enjoy it, soaking up the culture.”
Creating a red-letter collection of red-carpet dresses is labour intensive. One dress in particular, that Cloud, took up days of Beckham’s time as she and her team strove to get it just so (“it was crazy the amount of hours, days and days, but I was adamant”). And, as Beckham so disarmingly concedes, she is learning on the job: “That’s how it works. I make it on me, to very much what I like.”
This is decadent, yet Beckham says that her fashion business is in profit. “We’ve relaunched the denim and the sunglasses. And we’ve got a fragrance that’s been hugely successful too. So it funds itself.”
As she speaks, her salespeople are with buyers, on another floor of the New York house, showcasing the Cutler & Gross sunglass collaboration and the denim line. The house, by the way, was used as Carrie Bradshaw’s dream penthouse in the Sex and the City film, and Beckham briefly fantasises about buying it — perhaps, one day, to be a New York flagship for her brand. “This feels like the first season where this could be the house of Victoria Beckham, if you like. The first time I went into a Tom Ford store, years ago, I was so impressed. I loved the feeling of it being Tom Ford’s house.”
Even facing the fashion critics close-up, Beckham is confident enough to team her simple-but-sexy new-season dress with unextended hair and straight-up make-up. “Things have changed,” she says, before unveiling dark news for St Tropez, “I’ve downgraded the fake tan and the big hair. I just wanted a more natural look — a much more natural look. And I’m not going back, either.”
Two fashion weeks later, at Roland Mouret’s RM show in Paris, I met the man who has backed both Beckham and Mouret: Simon Fuller. This new-generation fashion mogul (he now owns Storm model agency, the Fashionair website, as well as holding interests in both labels) said: “I have the utmost respect for the individuals. With Roland and Victoria I will not second guess them.” Later he added: “I believe in Victoria, because it is her passion.”
And you can tell. Because why else would Victoria Beckham feel the need to talk us through each dress, or point out again and again that she’s only new to the fashion game, or put up with a bunch of facile questions from a bunch of fashion journalists? It’s not as if she could do with the cash.
Apropos facile questions, when that guy came up with his “do you worry your sons’ friends will think you’re a hot mom” question, Beckham’s response was impeccable. She said: “As long as it’s not their girlfriends wanting to get their hands on my handbags, I don’t really care!” Then she added: “I wouldn’t really say that I’m a sexy mum. I’d say I’m a full-on mum. It’s a balancing act, as any working mum out there knows.”
As we tootle off to the next show, Victoria Beckham waves her now-unsweaty palms around her showroom and says: “This is very much me. I feel more confident in myself because I feel fulfilled, creatively and professionally. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I feel very happy. I’m in a good place in my life. And I don’t feel I have to prove myself as much as I used to have to.”