Ever since Kate Moss wore her “Ginsberg is God” sweater back in 2003, Bella Freud’s limited edition knitwear collections have earned her a loyal fashion following as well as a who’s who of celebrity devotees. TWENTY6 caught up with the illustrious designer in her beautiful art-filled West London abode to talk fashion psychology, John Malkovich and Jiu Jitsu.
Thank you for inviting us into your home. What do you enjoy most about living and working here?
One of the things I like about it is that you can’t tell what’s going on from the outside. I suppose in a funny way that’s the same kind of ethos for my fashion as well. I don’t know if it’s a hangover from my childhood, but we moved a lot when I was a child, and now I hate travelling, so home is a place I enjoy being more than anywhere else; it’s private and it’s interesting to me, I’ve got all the things I love around me.
You’ve described your style as a kind of “upmarket irreverence”; what kind of girl epitomises that for you?
I suppose it’s often people I know, certain girlfriends who are quite different from each other but then I love it if they wear my clothes. And then people like Charlotte Gainsbourg and Alison Mosshart. You know girls who seem to be able to look really brilliant without having made much effort. It’s obviously very specific, the way they’ve dressed, and I love that. And then it comes down to what I want to wear; because actually that’s quite a good barometer. So instead of going off on a fashion fantasy I think, “Ok well I’m not going to wear that”, so I don’t.
Tell us about your SS11 collection, “English Boy”
My collections are so small, so there’s always a story behind them; a story becomes more important when a collection is really tiny, and SS11 is only four styles. “English Boy” was this model agency in the sixties that involved some friends of my mother’s, and they had these sort of glamorous-looking upper class boys. From there the collection became about an English Boy being David Bowie and so it became more focussed on that. We have the lightening bolt jumper and there’s one with Starman written on it, which was actually my son’s idea. I played him some Bowie and he said, “Why don’t you do that?” so I did, and it worked out really well actually. The “1970” jumper is just the moment really, I just loved the way that date looked, and in black and white it reminded me of early punk or something, a bit Patti Smith.
How did your limited edition knitwear collections come about?
Well I didn’t really intend to do it; it was around 2003 and I was doing consultancy and not really doing my own collections, but I’d done a film with John Malkovich where I’d made these slogan jumpers. I wasn’t going to sell them and then somebody, you know, begged me to make a tiny run. And that was where “Ginsberg is God” came from. I did sell a few others, but it was a really tiny selection. What I was surprised by was that buyers love to buy something very small like that, and they said that it worked as a sort of interim thing between other collections. And I also realised that I didn’t want to do a big collection any more because I don’t want to have that kind of business.
You’ve been making fashion films since the 90s, did it feel like a renegade thing to do at the time?
There’s so much emotion in fashion, but people often talk about it in a kind of derisory way as though there’s nothing to it; but really there is a lot to it. For me, fashion is about how clothes make you feel. I’m really interested in that; how clothes can make you feel good and make you feel better, or even make you feel safe, and then you can kind of come out from behind the shield. I love all that and I think I can get that across more through film or photography.
My first film, which I’d actually forgotten about, was made for my second collection in 1991. We just got some models went to Newbury race track and filmed them with Super 8. But it all really came about after the last catwalk show I did in 1999. I’d really put everything into that show and afterwards I just felt like I’d got nothing out of it, I felt so unsatisfied, so I thought, “Fuck it”, I’d rather do something different.
Sam Taylor Wood had done these 3D films and one was up for the Turner Prize and I thought, “That could be interesting.” I liked the idea that you could hold it still for a moment and really see the clothes. I find with a catwalk show, it’s over and you want to talk about it, but everyone has gone to the next show, and I wanted to be able to see it myself. Sam couldn’t do it in the end, but then I started thinking, I’m sure it’d be fun for a film director to do something with fashion, because there’s so much to play with, and then someone suggested approaching John Malkovich. I’d met him once before and I knew he was really into fashion. He asked me to meet him in Paris so I went, but he had come to tell me that he couldn’t do it and to suggest I ask Spike Jonze, who I’d never heard of then; and then we just chatted and by the end of the conversation, John said, “OK, I’m going to do it.” He had one and a half days in between films and we shot then. And it was so much fun and we had such a good time and he was brilliant.
He had this idea from something he’d read in a magazine about a Japanese guy who was obsessed with tsunamis so he’d made himself some rubber underpants that inflated in case something happened, and he wore them all the time, then on the underground in Tokyo which is incredibly squashed, they blew up and people got injured. And I thought, “Okay…?! You’re John Malkovich so I’ll believe in anything you suggest”.
And so I set it up and I got all the actors together for him and so it became this young boy and the train was top models only and eventually his underpants blew up. We didn’t really have any special effects but it was just great. We did another film together after that and then a year later, Bloomberg gave us art sponsorship so we shot another all in black and white on film and we had amazing people in it like Peaches and Skin and Emelia Fox and Anita Pallenberg; and that’s where the Ginsberg and Godard sweaters came from.
We hear you’ve been shooting another film for your new AW collection…
Yes, for AW12, Christian Louboutin did some drawings of these shoes and so I knitted those into the jumpers and made a collection that’s called “Fetish”, which to me just suggests that world. I just love that whole thing of shoes making you feel very special and particular, and if you put a heel on you’re like, “there” (clicks fingers) and you can work upwards.
My next door neighbour, Martina Amati, is a film director. She makes short films and she has already won a BAFTA, so she’s clearly just going somewhere. She’s so talented and I’d fantasised about working with her and then I got the opportunity. Jo Malone gave a small amount of art sponsorship, and I asked Martina if she would direct a film, a 'mini film' she calls it, for the new collection; and we shot last Sunday.
Her films are very much about sport, so it was set in the world of Jiu Jitsu. In Jiu Jitsu you use your opponent’s strength to overcome them and so that was the underlying theme. I didn’t want to make Jiu Jitsu clothes or sports things, but rather something that’s somewhere between fashion and grappling, and so I ended up making some leotards and some tiny little body-con shorts that stretch and these knitted bands that can be put on any part of the body.
We had great people in it. We had four fighters from the gym, we had Susie Bick, who I love to work with on anything, and we had an up and coming actress Antonia Campbell Hughes, and this very young girl called Olympia Campbell who was in Tim Walker’s film and a newcomer, Phyllis Wang, who’s a friend of mine who went to acting school; You know when you meet people and you think, “Oh God they’re wonderful!” she was one of those people. And then we had Abbey Lee Kershaw who flew over from New York and arrived on Saturday night at midnight, and we shot on Sunday, and then she left the following day, and she was incredible, just incredible.
It’s funny, you know, you don’t need to have a big collection to project an idea; you can represent it with suggestion. And in that sense, with a small business it forces me to be resourceful in other ways. I love to work with other creative people and so to work with Martina, and also to bring something for her too, the whole thing was just really exhilarating, and we haven’t even cut the film yet.
It’ll launch on the 6 September, and we’ll have a screening. I mean it’s very short, it’ll be five minutes or something like that, but it’ll be a good five minutes.
We can’t wait to see it. Have you begun thinking about your next collection?
I’m hoping to do something much bigger for next winter. I’m not going to do summer, because summer for knitwear sometimes feels a bit like a token thing, so I’ve decided to skip that. I’m planning to do something with some tailoring because I really love doing tailoring, so I’m just planning that at the moment, working out, you know, what it is, or what to choose really.
Where are you finding your inspiration?
I went through my archive, and there are things automatically I know I want; you know to say, do that jacket again, or to do something that goes with it. I’ve been having certain crushes on, say, grey flannel, and then there’s a velvet that I used to make a jacket ten years ago that I want to redo. And then thinking, “So what’s the newness? Where’s that going to come from? How is it going to represent itself?”; so I’m just at that point now. But it’s nice, it’s like having a shape in my head, it’s there, waiting to be made and I’m really looking forward to that. And it’s quite nice working in that way; there’s not this relentless deadline, it’s quite far ahead and I’m working towards that specific goal, so it feels quite luxurious really.
What were your ambitions and aspirations at the age of 26?
I was working for Vivienne Westwood then and all my energy went into doing as good a job as possible for her and also nurturing my own ideas for the future. I also dreamt of going to work for Christian Lacroix but I ended up starting my own label instead.
Pick a word beginning with the letter "B" which best sums you up...
For each letter of the alphabet, pick a word that inspires you
A - Absolutist B - Baby C - Cunt D - Daring E - Esther (my sister's name) F - Fuck G - glaring H - hideous I - Irreverent
J - Jimmy (my son's name) K - kleptomaniac L - Love M - Mum N - Nightmare O - Outrage P - Palestine Q - Queer R - Rebel
S - Strange T - Terrible U - Unhinged V - Veiled W - Wild X - XXXXX Y - Yes Z - ZZZZZ
See the full TWENTY6 SHOWCASE of Bella Freud's English Boy Collection here.