Victoria Beckham, Fashion Transformer
Imran Amed sits down with Victoria Beckham to learn how she has proven her critics wrong and become one of fashion’s fastest rising stars.
Victoria Beckham’s private office in the London headquarters of her fledgling fashion brand, just south of the river Thames in Battersea, is a calm oasis of earthy hues and understated designer furniture. But just outside her door, spread across two floors and two separate, fully-staffed ateliers — complete with in-house patternmakers, sewers and cutters — is a buzzing office with more than 100 people working across design, product development, sales, marketing, operations and finance.
It’s not at all fancy. There are piles of boxes everywhere and mismatched desks are crammed together in every which way. Phones are ringing off the hook and couriers are trailing in and out, with delivery after delivery. A fabric meeting is taking place in the reception area as all the other meeting spaces seem to be fully occupied.
“I’ve only actually just had an office that has windows. I was downstairs in the cupboard!” Ms Beckham jokes as she shows me around the office. “There are no airs and graces here. Nobody treats me as if I’m a famous person. It is what it is.” The crowded workspace has all the signs of a rapidly growing young fashion company.
The Victoria Beckham business turned over a respectable £30 million in sales (about $50 million) in 2013, an impressive 91 percent increase on the year prior, according to figures provided by the company.
But critically, Beckham has also managed to create a brand profile that is significantly larger than the current scale of her business. recently, she has been everywhere. In December, Beckham guest-edited edgy Vogue Paris and appeared on two smouldering cover spreads with her football star husband David. (In total, Beckham has appeared on the cover of nine different international editions of Vogue, with the notable exception of the American edition.) Then there were two simultaneous Vanity Fair covers in Italy and Spain in January, the March cover of Allure in the United States, and a ubiquitous collaboration with Skype, documenting her personal fashion journey. How many other designers can regularly land cover stories on fashion magazines around the world?
“It’s a double-edged sword really,” says Beckham, when asked what role her fame has played in the success of her business. “The most valuable part of being famous is that you have a voice and people will listen. I mean I can get a lot of attention. I don’t have to rely on advertising campaigns,” she admits. “But I don’t like to use that card very often. I like to keep my head down, work hard, focus on what I’m doing business-wise. I like to try and control how much I’m seen. I don’t want to go out and be photographed every day, you know.”
“So, I think that as much as one might say, ‘it has helped,’ I’m not so sure,” she says, “I’ve had to overcome lots of preconceptions, and that’s okay.”
Indeed, it would be too simplistic to credit Victoria Beckham’s phenomenal rise in fashion to the power of her celebrity alone. For years, Beckham actively courted the fashion industry, making red carpet appearances in high-end designer clothing and gaining global media attention on both sides of the Atlantic, simply by going about her day-to-day life.
But she was shunned. Insiders remember a time when brands would call her representatives to ask that she please not wear their clothes, even if she had bought them herself. They did not want to be associated with the perky breasts, pouty poses and over-dyed blonde bob that had come to define her style in the post-Spice Girls days.
But like a chameleon, Beckham has a knack for transforming herself. From ‘Posh Spice’ to football ‘WAG’ to celebrated fashion entrepreneur, her ability to successfully adapt her appearance has also been key to her success.
Today, she is the epitome of chic understatement, dressed in a beige cashmere sweater, open at the back, with worn-in black Victoria Beckham jeans and knee-high black leather Saint Laurent boots. Her makeup is restrained, with dark kohl around the eyes, and little else. Her only accessories are a statement gold rolex watch and an impossible-to-miss emerald cut yellow diamond ring by Chopard. The only signs of her days as a rebellious and coquettish pop diva are the twin tattoos on her wrists, peeking out from underneath her sleeves.
But perhaps even more important than the physical transformation that took place for all to see, was the personal transformation that she was undergoing in terms of her own taste level and aesthetic. Today, if Beckham can rattle off designer names, construction techniques and fabric specifications in detail, it is because of the effort she has made to learn about clothes, brands and the business.
“For a long time there, I was a bit of a laughingstock,” she acknowledges. “And while everybody was busy laughing, what was I doing? I was laying the foundation to what I have in place now.”
Beckham’s first foray into fashion was through a series of licensing arrangements with Linda Farrow for eyewear, rock & republic for denim, Coty for fragrances, and Samantha Thavasa, a Japanese label known for its accessories collaborations with celebrities including Paris Hilton and Beyoncé Knowles. None of these collaborations could be described as luxury or high fashion, but they gave her basic training in how the fashion business works.
“At the time, I wanted to design and the opportunities came up to work with these people. They had the setup so I went in as a designer and I loved it,” she recalls. “I learnt an enormous amount about how I like things to be done and maybe how I would do things differently, myself. It was an incredible experience.”
But in the end, these deals really just boiled down to a form of celebrity endorsement, and after awhile Beckham says she realised she wanted something more. She wanted to be a part of the creative process, the business decisions, everything.
“When I was in a position to bring everything in-house and own everything myself and fund everything, I jumped at the chance. Yes, I was walking away from a lot of money cutting off those license deals,” she says. “But I had learnt as much as I could learn and I knew I wanted to do things differently. And I had the support from Simon and I had finances to do that.”
The Simon she mentions is Simon Fuller, who has emerged as Beckham’s greatest cheerleader and the first key member of her team as she set out to build her own fashion business. Fuller’s XIX Management owns one third of the Victoria Beckham business, alongside the Beckhams, who together own the remaining two-thirds.
Victoria Beckham first met music impresario Simon Fuller, at the age of eighteen, in the very office space she now occupies. “I sat down on the sofa with the other Spice Girls. Contrary to popular rumours, we looked like that. Nobody put that on us. That was how we all looked,” she says unprompted, smiling with a hint of nostalgia. “Simon had on a pair of navy blue Prada trousers and a lilac Prada top. I remember it so clearly. He was a complete Prada man.”
These days, Mr Fuller also negotiates multi- million dollar endorsement deals for tennis star Andy Murray, Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton, and, of course, Beckham’s husband David. But his first major find was the Spice Girls, a quintet of quirky British girls who went on to become the best-selling female pop group of all time. Mr Fuller also created the Pop Idol television franchise, which has spawned countless knockoffs and been sold in more than 100 countries around the world.
But even Mr Fuller’s involvement in Beckham’s new venture did little to change industry perceptions that it was just another celebrity vanity project.
“Everybody said, ‘Well it’s never going to work because a celebrity can’t do a line.’ There was no pressure because everyone thought it was going to be rubbish. There were no expectations,” says Beckham. “I didn’t expect it to be any other way. I didn’t go into this to prove anything to anybody other than myself.”
Like any savvy entrepreneur, Beckham’s success has also come down to choosing the right partners and team to make it all work, and creating a culture and vision that people want to be a part of.
Instead of hiring a big full-time team, she piggybacked on the back office resources of XIX, which acted as an incubator for her business, and kept her core team lean. At the beginning, there were only three full-time people in total: Beckham; her right hand in design Melanie Clark, who previously worked with Jonathan Saunders and Roland Mouret; and Tracy Lowe, a production and development manager who had worked with Luella Bartley.
“The view was, Simon [Fuller] had the infrastructure and he had other projects that he had been working on. Victoria set up with borrowed resources. I was loaned, finance was loaned, to a certain extent,” explains the affable Zach Duane, the lawyer who hammered out her early licensing agreements and is now the company’s chief executive.
With this bare-bones team, Beckham unveiled her first collection in September 2008 with a series of intimate presentations at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York during fashion week, opening herself up to potential ridicule from a fashion industry that loved to hate her and gossipy tabloids that were ready to pounce.
“I gave up worrying what the Daily Mail said some time ago,” she tells me as I raise the spectre of tabloid media culture. Still, presenting her first collection to the assembled fashion masses was nerve wracking.
“I wasn’t nervous because I was a famous person, but nervous as any young designer would be when building a collection,” she says. “I remember the first day it was mainly press that came to the show. And the press watched the presentation and they’d be writing [notes] and then they’d get up and they would leave. I remember turning to someone who worked with me, and saying, ‘But, did they like it?’” she laughs. “No one told me if they liked it and I had to wait for them to write and to follow their pieces.”
But like it they did, and even some of the toughest fashion critics praised Beckham for her polished, focused debut.
“I can’t quite believe I’m writing this,” wrote Lisa Armstrong in The Times of London, where she acted as fashion editor, a role she now plays for The Telegraph. “It was a very impressive, accomplished collection, with not a single dud. True there were only 10 designs, in various colours, each adhering to the aesthetic the designer has favoured in her own wardrobe of late: slender calf-length fitted dresses with raised waists. But it was the fabrics (silk, wool and organza) and the attention to detail that impressed.”
Her debut collection drew instant comparisons to the designs of Roland Mouret, also part of the XIX family, leading to speculation that he was the ‘real’ designer behind the brand. Beckham insists she has always been intimately involved in the entire design process.
“It makes me laugh even to this day the fact that people used to think I had this little stash of design elves, beavering away,” she says, firmly dismissing Mouret’s involvement. “There was no secret design team.”
“I used to wear Roland Mouret dresses. I think he’s a very talented designer and I have a lot of respect for him personally and professionally,” she explains. “I told him about what I wanted to do and he was very supportive and he was the person who introduced me to Melanie [Clark]. Roland never had anything to do with the design of the clothes, but he helped set up the team.”
But despite the very positive critical reaction, when the collection was picked up by retailers, it faced resistance from customers who didn’t want to buy what they perceived was a celebrity brand. So, the Victoria Beckham team tried to play down the association with her name if necessary.
“In some markets, we were very apologetic in the beginning and what we had to do was get people to forget that this was Victoria Beckham,” explains Duane. “Some of the personal shoppers in some of the markets were ripping the labels out of the dress and saying, ‘Try this one on.’ The clients would emerge from the changing room and say, ‘This is amazing – who is it by?’” he recalls. “And then there would be the reveal.”
“At first, we picked nine stores around the world,” says Duane of the distribution strategy. “Once we were able to get people to believe that Victoria actually had something to say in fashion that is relevant, awareness was not going to be a problem. And, awareness on an international scale was not going to be a problem. So let’s make sure the location is right for that level of awareness so, you know, we knew we had people in Asia, India, America and Europe.”
Even today, Duane’s approach to distribution is very carefully managed – the brand’s ready-to- wear collection now wholesales at about 150 doors globally. “We spend every season turning down far more accounts than we’ve taken on,” he says.
“If anything, ready-to-wear is a category where we’d probably only add another 30 accounts in the next few years. Because it’s about being in the right points of sale where you can actually build the right kind of business.”
In all, the Victoria Beckham brand now boasts four product categories – ready-to-wear, denim, eyewear, and accessories – and there is also Victoria, Victoria Beckham, a younger, quirkier collection of signature dresses, which are emerging into a pillar product for the brand.
Early on, Beckham and Duane also decided to launch a global e-commerce business to reach customers directly. “We started that process in a digital way, with e-commerce, because Victoria had such a global audience,” explains Duane.
So what’s next on this impressive growth trajectory?
“Retail,” says Duane, confirming that a 7,000 square foot London store is set to open on Dover Street this September. “I think you can only doso much as a purely wholesale brand. Victoria’s got a clear vision for her label. She’s got the vision for the experience in the shop so we’ve got to do that. And next to opening our own store, we’re working on opening personalised spaces in some of our department stores.”
“Over a two or three year period, we are trying to anchor what is still a very young brand in international markets where we believe there is a great deal of potential,” adds Duane. “One of the advantages is that we are able to walk into [potential] partnerships and be taken seriously. They genuinely believe there is the potential to create something of real size, and that for me is the focus.”
But what does “real size” mean?
“I think we should be getting easily towards £100 million (about $160 million) within the next two to three years. And then beyond that I would be guessing – it depends you know, we have a retail roll-out plan but it is very much ‘in pencil’ at the moment.”
But looking at the plans in place, the formidable team that has been assembled, the requisite financial resources and the global visibility she can bring through her celebrity, there is still more to Victoria Beckham’s success than what appears on the surface. I inquire about the personal drive that pushes someone like Beckham to continue to try new things, even in the glare of a spotlight that has not always been kind to her.
“I mean, I guess it is insecurity, what drives anyone that is famous and successful,” surmises Duane. “Victoria is the first to admit that she was a kind of ugly duckling and that she believed that she shouldn’t be.”
“Having been a successful pop artist, putting away millions of pounds in royalties and sponsorship fees, with the most famous sportsman as a husband, she could have said, ‘I’m done.’ But you know what – she didn’t,” observes Duane.
“I’ve always had to work very hard,” explains Beckham when I pose the same question to her. “And people say, ‘Why do you do it? You don’t have to do it.’ I’m very fortunate that I don’t have to work, but I do have to work. I have a lot to say – I’ve always worked hard. That’s just part of my DNA.”
“When I was at school, I was never naturally the brightest of students. Then I went to theatre college and I was never the most talented. I have always had to work. Nothing has ever just landed on my lap. I’m a go-getter. I’m not sitting back and waiting for things to come to me, I will go out and get it. I’ve never waited for the phone to ring. I will pick up the phone and I will badger people and make them crazy and I will make it happen myself.”
My final ‘aha moment’ came when a friend referred me to a book I already had on my bookshelf. In his best-selling book for would-be advertising executives, Paul Arden uses Beckham as an example to learn from, citing her as saying, “I want to be as famous as Persil Automatic,” a household brand for laundry detergent in the United Kingdom.