By Sarah Lyall
Past the closed-circuit cameras, past the nondisclosure-agreement-wielding security guard, past the Damien Hirst pictures, past the hyperorganized assistant and the bold monochrome walls and the sumptuous gray sofas and the three giant orchids — past all the accouterments of the celebrity household — a toddler sat on the floor, playing with her nanny.
The toddler was plump and adorable, her hair in a little bun that just then was being decorated with a chain made of tiny flowers. The nanny, a minute, seemingly nondescript person in a careless ponytail, was doing the decorating. She looked up. “I’m sorry — I’ll be looking after her while we do this,” she said, a remark that prompted a moment of severe cognitive dissonance, because this was not the nanny at all, but Victoria Beckham herself, barefoot, T-shirted, skin glowing, so tiny as to appear to be in danger of dissolving into the furniture. She wore baggy, oversize boyfriend-y jeans suspended above her super-slim hips by little more than a casual canvas belt and a prayer, and she was surprisingly smiley.
“Harper and I went to the park this morning and picked daisies, but she didn’t quite understand that to make daisy chains you need to leave some of the stem on,” she explained, gesturing to the pile of teeny flowers on the floor. Harper, 2, is Beckham’s daughter, but of course we know that already. We know it just as we already know the names of Beckham’s three sons (Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz), the name of her husband (David, who, tragically, was not at home), her Spice Girls handle (Posh Spice), and many other interesting Beckham-related facts, both important and trivial.
Beckham seized fame by the collar in 1996, when the Spice Girls emerged to become, briefly, the biggest thing in girl bands since the Supremes; fame in turn grabbed her by the throat when she married David, then a dishy Manchester United midfielder with mercurial hair, boundless talent and a yen for the limelight. They were more than the sum of their parts; he, one of the world’s most famous soccer players, with a deadly free kick; she, the impossibly thin, impossibly high-heeled quintessential wife, followed everywhere, photographed everywhere, even her most banal utterances repeated and dissected.
But in the last few years, a new kind of renown has been creeping up on Victoria Beckham, an unfamiliar phenomenon in a Kardashian world where people are famous for just being famous. This is the renown that comes from having a serious job and being seriously good at it. Five years after she shocked the blasé New York fashion world by unveiling a collection of beautifully made, elegant dresses that were chic and understated and ultraflattering, Beckham has established herself as a powerful force in the industry, proving again and again that she is far more than another celebrity slapping her name onto someone else’s product.
She knows her product intimately — she often says she designs clothes that she herself fantasizes about wearing — and they reflect her tastes: nothing busy, very few prints, color used sparingly, lots of calm clean grays, creams, navys, blacks. Her first collection evoked the work of Roland Mouret, one of whose dresses she made famous when she wore it to David’s official introduction ceremony with the Los Angeles Galaxy, but she has gradually acquired a new boldness, the confidence to find her own style. Her current collection for fall is widely considered one of the standouts of the season, with masculine-influenced coats, long hemlines and skirts and trousers that skim the body rather than cling to it.
Beckham’s ready-to-wear collection is still purposely small, but she is thinking big. She has branched out into sunglasses, handbags and denim. She has started a younger, less expensive line, Victoria, Victoria Beckham, which features clothes that are less tailored, more casual, more colorful. She has taken her brand global and is expanding most rapidly in the Asian markets, particularly China. Her company, based in Battersea, south London, already employs 90 workers, and is due to expand its office space soon. It recently started an e-commerce site, and there is talk of opening the first Victoria Beckham stand-alone store, in central London.
Here she is at the center of all this, a tiny dynamo in skyscraper heels who gives off an aura of calm — how real it is is anyone’s guess — while everything spins around her. Her ambition is endless. “I want to reach as many women throughout the world as I can,” she said. “There are more categories that I want to enter into. I have five categories at the moment. But at some point I would love to do shoes, I would love to do fragrance, I would love to do makeup, I would like to do underwear. There are so many things I want to do.”
At the moment, though, it was time to eat lunch. (Yes, she eats, though on the other hand she spends a large chunk of time each day doing a Tracy Anderson workout with a personal trainer.) We moved to the table. On one wall was a huge collage-y Julian Schnabel; on another, a David Beckham original: a blown-up black-and-white photograph of the four children bouncing together on a bed. The house is a rental, and Beckham said she missed Los Angeles, where the family lived most recently — the climate, the openness, the work ethic. “I am very career minded, and I think my personality is more suited to America,” she said. “I am a working mum.”
She is also a perfectionist involved in every aspect of her company, from the smallest detail on a cuff, to the type of cushions on the spectators’ chairs at her fashion shows, to the largest strategic decision about where she wants the company to go, to a celebrity’s request to borrow a piece for a party (yes to the query from Naomi Watts, she said into the phone at one point during the afternoon). From the beginning, Beckham said, she realized that her work was “not just turning up on the red carpet wearing my dresses.” She has in the last few seasons begun doing proper runway shows, but wisely started out doing small presentations, making a point of introducing each collection personally, walking the buyers and editors and sales reps through every aspect of every piece, dazzling them with her command of her product. She frequently schedules in-store events in which she talks to customers trying on her clothes in the dressing room, advising them even as they advise her right back. “I’m involved in everything,” she said.
Lunch — corn soup followed by a salad of greens and fruit for Beckham; sushi for Beckham’s assistant and me; and a fruit platter for everyone — was prepared and served by a chef. “You are going to think this is real — this is what I get every day!” Beckham said. But it is not, apparently. “Chris” — that is the chef — “comes in a couple of days a week and might make a giant lasagna so I can put it in the freezer and then do it myself,” Beckham said. “David does the cooking.”
David does the cooking? “Yes, he’s really good,” his wife said. When David was playing soccer in Italy a few years ago, she explained, the family was living in L.A., and he was left alone on his days off. “So he decided to go to culinary school.”
She says he is a hands-on father, just as she is a hands-on mother. The nanny apparently works just a few days a week, too, and so Harper sat with us at lunch, trying on my shoes, wandering off with pieces of fruit, and at one point grabbing a piece of paper, covering it with Post-it notes and announcing that she was going to her office. If they can, either Victoria or David always drives the children to school — three boys, three different schools — and collects them. At least one of them, she said, is at every parents’ meeting, every play, every sports event.
Beckham said that she has never missed a birthday, and that it is important to her to keep the children grounded and unspoiled. Both she and David come from close, hard-working families: David’s father was a gas-company engineer, and hers was an electrical wholesaler. She contrasted her attitude toward that of some of their friends in L.A.
“We have what I consider to be normal birthday parties,” she said. “I’ve been to parties in L.A. that are mind-blowing. I mean, quite literally mind-blowing. People get cellphones in the party bag, that sort of thing. Fabulous, fabulous parties. Ours aren’t like that. They are normal kids’ parties. We’ll have a bouncy castle, a face painter.”
After lunch, Beckham put Harper down for her nap, the nanny having materialized; sat for hair and makeup; and changed into her work outfit, all in black: slouchy Isabel Marant trousers, a skimpy sleeveless silk top, a Balenciaga leather jacket and a pair of towering leopard-print stilettos. The ordered taxi failed to show up, so an operative from the on-site Beckham security detail drove us to Beckham Ventures Ltd., where the various teams — the handbag group, the denim group, the financial group — all work in a big open-plan space, and where Beckham was due to have her photograph taken by Juergen Teller.
Teller has shot Beckham before. He was responsible for the witty 2008 Marc Jacobs ads in which, among other things, she lay inside a shopping bag, with only her splayed legs visible — and she appreciates his no-fuss approach. “Normally in a fashion shoot you’d be plastered in makeup, in amazing clothes,” she said. “I find it embarrassing when you don’t look like yourself, when you’ve had tons of retouching.”
At the same time, Beckham is incredibly controlling of her image. Even in supposedly candid photographs, she is invariably shown posing as if she were on the red carpet: one leg in front of the other, body leaning back so that her hips jut forward and emphasize the slenderness of her form.
She never smiles — it is almost as if someone once told her that she looks better scowling — and instead affects a mien of distant hauteur that can come across as snobbishness but in person reads more like shyness and insecurity.
“I dunno,” she said, when asked about the no-smiling phenomenon. “I smile in family pictures.” Perhaps, she mused, the reputation she got for being moody during the Spice era stuck. Also, she said, “When you’re in a position to be paparazzi-ed just walking down the street, you’d look a little daft if you were smiling all the time.” (Apparently, the eternally sunny-seeming Kate Middleton never got that particular memo).
She says she is relaxed about how she looks in pictures. “I don’t want to be made to look like I’m 25,” she said. “I’m 39. I don’t have any issues with my age.” That is what she said, at least. But she fretted a bit before the session, and as Teller prepared to take her picture she asked — jokingly, but not — that he go easy on her wrinkles (not that she has any noticeable ones).
For the shoot, Beckham reclined on her office floor, surrounded by fashion chaos: swatches of fabric, soda cans, sketches. She declined the suggestion to include a plate of grapes or some such in the picture. “We don’t want anyone to know I eat,” she said. “Why ruin that?”
David, who spoke on the phone to his wife several times during the afternoon but, alas, never appeared in the flesh, is no slouch in the fashion department, either. “He might sometimes ask advice if he’s going to be late — ‘What should I wear?’ — but generally speaking, he has a really good sense of what works on him,” Beckham said. “I think he looks great whatever he does. He literally always looks really, really good.”
They work well together, she said, and then began talking without irony about the brand — the brand she and David have fashioned together, along with Simon Fuller, creator of “American Idol”— as if being part of a brand was the most normal thing in the world, as if that is simply what people do.
“You know, we don’t look at it as a big brand,” she said. “It is, but it happened very, very naturally. It seems that now everybody wants to make a brand; everybody wants to build a brand. Ours happened very organically.” And then she said: “The most important thing is each other and the children.”
The Beckham brand is one thing; the Victoria Beckham brand is another. “I just wanted to create beautiful clothes, good quality clothes I wanted to wear myself,” she said. “And then I wanted to create handbags, because I couldn’t find the right handbag that I wanted to carry. Then I couldn’t find the right sunglasses, so I decided to make my own sunglasses.”
There is no stopping her. “I want to get bigger and bigger,” she said. “I absolutely want an empire.”