THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY is rife with stories of so-called reinvention, with pop stars and the like resorting to a plan B after their heydays centre stage are over. Fashion tends to be the most popular second career of former notables, who see it as an easy way to make a quick buck with minimum effort, but then realise that staying power is difficult to achieve, especially in such a fickle industry.
Whether you're a former socialite building a lifestyle brand (see Tory Burch), a septuagenarian rock star's daughter who shows during Paris Fashion Week (Stella McCartney) or the heir of a European automotive dynasty who shed his past as a bad boy to start his own company (Lapo Elkann), naysayers will always attribute your success to your privileged upbringing and enviable connections. It's a lost battle from day one, so you'd better be prepared to deal with scepticism and a not insignificant amount of jealousy, and just get on with it.
Victoria Beckham, the former Spice Girl and footballer's wife who turned her marriage to David Beckham into a tabloid-ready fairy tale, has spent most of her adult life showing that a former starlet who married big – in spite of her success as Posh Spice, her husband's fame has always eclipsed hers – can also build a viable business in the cut-throat world of fashion.
It's almost a given nowadays that any red-carpet regular with a minimum of fashion sense, often provided by the behind-the-scenes work of an army of stylists, should try her well-manicured hands at the garment industry: put my name on it, and they will come, the mantra goes.
When Beckham, who'd been living in the US for a few years because of her husband's gig at the LA Galaxy football team, decided to show a collection of dresses at New York Fashion Week in 2008, everyone expected a repeat of the J-Lo/Gwen Stefani/feel-free-to-add-your-own-celebrity-name fashion flop: a one-off extravaganza that would only last a few seasons and then slowly ebb away.
The designer, however, had different plans. Her low-key presentation in an Upper East Side townhouse was a surprisingly civilised and grown-up affair. Her knowledge and dedication surprised jaded editors and buyers, who realised that this wasn't just another vanity project. Talking about her unique and somewhat old-fashioned approach to address her audience directly and talk them through the collection, Beckham, who was recently in Singapore to present her autumn/winter accessories collection at On Pedder, says, “It just happened very naturally. I just like talking, I was proud of the pieces and I wanted to talk about the fabrics, the construction. It was very natural; that's why people responded in the way they did. Nothing is trying too hard, it's all me.”
Although she'd previously collaborated with various fashion houses, Beckham had never before put her name on a complete collection and decided to start with a basic item in the female wardrobe, the dress: “I wanted to perfect the dress, whether it's a day dress or an evening piece. And I just had to wait until my team was ready to take the next step, so later we started working on tailoring. I had to wait until I could do it really well, until I had the knowledge within my team to do it. I don't want to run before I can walk, I think it's important to be focused and do things when the time is right, when you have the knowledge to do it; you have to have a point of difference.”
Beckham's talk may come across as focus-group-tested corporate spiel, but even back when she was a made-for-MTV pop maven, she'd always displayed a natural penchant for fashion. “Before I had my own brand, I'd worked for other houses and I actually designed for those brands as opposed to collaborating, so I learned an enormous amount about the industry and it was great, very valuable for me to do that,” she says. “I've always had a point of view as well, and I think that the fact that I've been that celebrity, standing on the red carpet, understanding that things have to look good from a 360-degree angle, is definitely priceless. And I am a woman, I like clothes, and I know how women want to feel.”
Her body-con and statement-making dresses have become her signature, but Beckham's line has expanded to include beautifully made accessories – her sunglasses and structured bags, all made in Italy, fly off the shelves at retailers around the world – and well-cut separates that aim to flatter a woman's body. “I love women, I want to empower women, I want them to feel the best version of themselves,” she says. “I'm designing clothes that I want to wear. I don't know if the person I have in mind is a real person or somebody that I imagine with regard to who would wear my clothes, but I'm always flattered to see anybody wearing my pieces.”
Beckham displays none of the blasé attitude that someone who's been so long in the spotlight would be expected to project. “I'm staying true to myself, I like to take risks, fashion wise, but it will always come from me. I'm not trying to be anybody else; I want to celebrate women, and I'm very blessed to have a job I love – a job that doesn't feel like a job – and women like it; the product speaks for itself. It isn't because it's me, it's because the quality is good and it's selling phenomenally well,” she says, sounding a bit like someone who's used to explaining herself and her success.
But for an on-the-go businesswoman – a “proud one”, she pointedly adds – is it possible to have it all? With four children, the relentless attention of the media and brand Beckham to tend to, how does she manage to make it work? It's a question that wouldn't be asked of a male CEO or designer, but one can't deny that we still live in a male-dominated society and, girl power aside, it's still hard for a young working mum out there.
“I have an incredible life, four incredible children, a great husband, I consider myself very lucky. I like to work hard, my kids work hard, David works hard, and I think that's a positive message to put out to young people, and I take my position quite seriously. I don't like to use the words ‘role model', but maybe somebody that young children do look up to, young girls in particular, and I take that responsibility quite seriously,” she says, adding that, however, “It's very different in possibly every industry between men and women, but again I try to not focus on that. I like to support women, I like encouraging other women and young girls to speak up, to not be afraid of speaking up. I really admire Sheryl Sandsberg and what she did with Lean In and I love Hilary Clinton; she's a very powerful, strong, incredible woman.”
Building a global brand, with roots in both the US and Europe, has clearly been Beckham's biggest accomplishment. She's not one to look back at her early days – her previous career and the fashion faux pas committed by the Spice Girls are clearly things of the past – but one can't help thinking that her drive and stamina may derive from that long-ago phenomenon of girl power, that empowering message now taken up by women such as Beyoncé and Jennifer Lawrence.
“I think that girl power is definitely in the same vein as empowering and celebrating women, but I think it's different for me from the other [former Spice] girls; I always wanted to be in fashion; this is always what I wanted to do. They love music, and they're still in music so it's very different, but definitely I'd say the philosophy is very similar, it's celebrating being a woman,” she says.
As for whether she still gets the same stage fright before her biannual fashion week outings as she did while performing with the Spice Girls, she's quick to point out the difference: “I firmly believe in what I put on the catwalk each season, but back then everyone was making decisions rather than me so it's very different, but there's no guarantee that people will like what you do, so you just have to be true to yourself and honest with yourself, put the work in, and hopefully people will like it.”
The accolades for Beckham keep coming, not just from women who snap up her creations at places such as Bergdorf Goodman in New York or On Pedder in Asia, but also from fellow “privileged kids” who admire her relentless work ethic and stamina. Lapo Elkann, the Fiat heir and founder of lifestyle luxury label Italia Independent, could have spoken for all this bunch of supposedly spoilt brats when he told this magazine, “It doesn't matter what your name is, if your product is not good, people won't buy it. Having a surname doesn't mean your product is good.
“Victoria Beckham, for example, she works her ass off. I‘ve met her a few times and I have a humongous respect for her. I think a lot of people like to be hypercritical but I can say I have rarely seen someone work so fucking hard. I have maximum respect for her. There's no success without hard work. People touch the product, they see it; you're not selling oil or gas, but a product that has an element of taste and can be in or out of trend in one second.
“She's someone,” said Elkann, “who's done a terrific job.”