From the archives: when I met Victoria Beckham
There are certain designers around whom there is a veil of secrecy, a shroud of care and attention dictated by minders, bodyguards and PR professionals, scuttling around like worker bees ensuring that everything goes off without a hitch, while the boss (presumably) lazes around in the background, lounging on a chaise longue, being fed cherries by small, pudgy children.
Victoria Beckham is one such designer; when I am invited, with 20 or so other press attendees, to an intimate showcase of her A/W brands at Brown Thomas and a Q&A with Beckham herself, conducted by RTÉ’s Claire Byrne, there is very little chance that I will say no. And the PR at Brown Thomas knows this. She also knows that, when I receive my email with timings, rules and regulations and the running order for the day, I am going to stay in line (until the very last minute, when, knowing that no one is going to chuck me out, I throw caution to the wind and do my worst*). We all are.
So, when, after roughly an hour of sparkling water, teas and coffees, mini Danishes and chin-wagging, not to mention our allotted 15 minutes in the “world of Victoria Beckham” that Brown Thomas has carefully laid out in its first-floor designer showrooms, we are ushered to our perspex seats, I am expecting fanfare. I am expecting bodyguards. I am expecting an entourage, no eye contact, lots of whispering and concerted frowning from “minders” – at people wielding smartphones, smiling at Victoria, looking too long at Victoria … Instead, what we get, with very little to-do, is a ripple of excitement when Victoria finally emerges, from behind a screen in the corner of the room, hand in hand with a chubby, smiley, walking Harper Beckham, the youngest of Victoria’s four children, and the only other female in the Beckham clan.
Beckham smiles, Harper smiles, there are choruses of oohing, aahing and excited cooing from the assembled journalists. It’s a testament to just how taken aback we are by this laidback, relaxed vision of fashionable motherhood that the only photograph that exists of this moment is the one, above, taken by Caroline Kennedy of Kennedy PR and reposted all over the world as evidence of Harper Beckham: walking. (A favourite headline? Harper Beckham: et maintenant, elle marche.)
Dandling Harper on her knee, Beckham chats to Kennedy and to Byrne, beside whom she is sitting and who will be conducting our limited Q & A. “I just want to make women feel good about themselves,” she says, and then, a line that will be trotted out more than once over the course of our 20 minutes with Beckham, and one I suspect she has been fed by her publicity machine as a good sound byte: “I want to empower women. Thank you for your support, for everything you’ve done … Harper is going to be running around, if that’s okay …” (It’s okay; on my audio recording, Beckham is interrupted – for the first and only time – by more cooing.) “Harper, say hi! Say hi!” says Beckham, in an almost girly, high-pitched baby tone. Harper smiles. More cooing. “This is really exciting for me, so thank you.” Beckham smiles. “Okay. Shall we look at some clothes?”
We are shown a variety of Victoria Beckham collection dresses and coats, most of which we have seen before, either at Beckham’s A/W show during New York Fashion Week, or just last week at Brown Thomas’s own A/W collection. Dresses are form-fitting, feminine but unforgiving; cuts are demure but sexy. Coats are military-influenced, with a slightly post-wartime vibe. (For the day that’s in it, Beckham is wearing one of her own coats, a €2,450 wool number with a high neck and a deep, crotch-height slit that threatens to expose her micro-mini throughout the afternoon.)
The girls from Kennedy PR, tasked with ensuring the day runs smoothly, have told us that the clothes are being modelled “by Irish girls, which is great”; it’s not unusual for international designers to stipulate that their designs, at least for events like this, be modelled only be international girls, and it’s no small thing that, more than once, I overheard Beckham tell Kennedy how good they look. “They look fan-tastic,” she says. Throughout the show – 16 looks, and the longest 16 looks of my life; I feel as if the show will never end and we will never hear what Beckham herself has to say – I listen to her chat away to Kennedy and Byrne. “Yeah, yeah,” she says, excitedly, at one point. “I think we’ve met before.” Later, she points to Byrne’s own dress (by Victoria Beckham, of course): “It looks great, it looks great!”
Though she will later tell us that she has no favourite piece from her collection – “I’m lucky in that, as a designer, I’m in a position where I don’t have to compromise. I’m designing clothes that I want to wear myself … I genuinely like everything” – when Thalia emerges in this cobalt blue collared dress, Beckham turns to Byrne and whispers, “this is my favourite”.
The beanie hats, says Beckham, are influenced by “those cool beanie hats David wears”, while the handbags, “are all items I want to carry”. There is no doubt that each and every item in her collection could easily be imagined on Beckham herself – she doesn’t need to have a target demographic when her ideal customer is right there when she looks in the mirror. But, despite the fact that Beckham’s main-line dresses are unforgiving in silhouette, she does not seem fascist about women’s bodies, about the “types” of women who should – or should not – be wearing her clothes.
When Kennedy says, lightheartedly, “when I grow up I want to wear dresses like that”, Beckham looks temporarily crestfallen before replying, sternly, “you can wear dresses like that”. Kennedy is not convinced. “You can! You can!”
When the show ends, once the hurried clapping has subsided, the Q&A gets started with the routine questions about how important it is to Beckham to meet’n'greet her fans-slash-customers. This, crucially, is not an exercise in autograph-signing; Beckham will meet 50 of her customers in Brown Thomas to assist and advise them regarding her new line. The reaction to this has been, unsurprisingly, negative; on Facebook, for example, people who can not afford even Beckham’s “affordable” diffusion line, where dresses cost €800-plus, are disgusted at what they see as her elitism. From another perspective, this could be seen as savvy business. She is investing her time in those who have invested their money: putting her mouth where their money is.
“I like to get to as many of my retail partners as I can and meet the ladies who are buying my dresses,” says Beckham, in one of several lines that could have been read straight off a press release, in as close to the Queen’s English as her undeniable Essex twang can muster. “Why do I do what I do?” Byrne hasn’t asked this question, but it seems as if it is an answer Beckham has learned, Leaving Cert-style, by rote. “I love women. I want to empower women. I want women to feel good about themselves, to feel beautiful. I want to give them what they want, so for me to get in the fitting rooms with them and help them while they’re trying on clothes, that kind of thing is really important. And it’s great to get feedback. I want that, I want to better myself.”
It’s a while before Beckham relaxes; she is one of the world’s most photographed women, but it seems that when the camera flashes die down (or are banned from being exercised), she becomes fidgety, nervous, almost on edge, a ball of self-conscious energy. She scratches at her nails, pulls at her coat, adjusts its collar. Ironically, it is only when handed a microphone that – with something to occupy her restless hands – she seems to relax into her role as object of interest. “It’s been a while since I’ve used one of these,” she quips. We laugh.
And soon Beckham is back – the Beckham we remember from Spice World (surely Richard E Grant’s biggest mistake) and from Victoria Beckham: Coming to America, where she, it is claimed, sent herself up in royal fashion (although the watching world was unsure as to what where parody ended and documentary began). “Was it Coco Chanel … it was someone, anyway, who said, before you leave the house you should take one thing off, an earring or some sort of accessory.” It was Coco Chanel; in a way, Beckham’s lack of fashion knowledge, the kind of encyclopedic knowledge that peppers the chatter of the more “learned” fashion folk, endears her to us far more than anything she’s said so far.
When Byrne asks her if she has plans, now that Harper is that little bit older, for a childrenswear line, Beckham isn’t the only one who anticipated the question going in an entirely different direction. “I thought you wuz gonna say, another baby,” she laughs. “Everyone says that to me! It’s like, goodness me, I’ve got four kids and I’m working as well, it’s quite a lot going on at the moment … Y’know, I tend to do somethink [sic] new when I can’t find what I want. There are lots and lots of people who are doing [childrenswear] very, very well. Never say never – and it would be very cute – but not just yet.”
Nobody baulks at the suggestion that Victoria Beckham’s muse is, well, Victoria Beckham – it seems an undeniable and entirely obvious truth. “I’m designing for me. I’m designing what I want to wear, what I want to carry … I’ve stood on many a red carpet and I think I know how women want to feel. They want to feel … empowered.” There’s that word again; either someone has told Beckham that empowering women is the modern equivalent of girl power, or else she really, really wants to empower women.
What she doesn’t want to do is to work more; when asked if she has plans for a high-street collaboration, Beckham lists out her priorities. “David and the kids are my priority, and having the two clothing lines, plus the denim, plus the sunglasses, plus handbags, and now I’m about to launch optical …” She pauses. “So to answer your question: not right now … but I never say never.”
When the interview comes to an end (far sooner than I feel it should) Beckham says: “Thank you all so much for coming. I know everyone’s very busy, so I appreciate your time.” It’s a gracious and adorable touch. Add to it the Harper appearance, Beckham’s microphone quip and her regular lapses into the pre-David, pre-Elton and pre-TomKat Essex-born Vicky B, and either this is one meticulously orchestrated PR coup or Victoria Beckham is, after all of the palaver, just a regular girl next door who got very lucky and – right before her luck ran out – very, very smart.
* My worst, incidentally, is that snap of Beckham and Byrne shooting the breeze; taking pics of Beckham, mid-sentence, was verboten, but things got so relaxed, so quickly that it felt like a photograph wasn’t going to ruffle too many feathers. And it didn’t.