From Jane Birkin to David Bowie, Bella Freud draws inspiration from some of fashion and music’s most iconic stars. But it is her cult sweaters, decorated with doodles, that have put her on the fashion map. Whether brightly coloured or monochrome, they slot into the modern girl’s wardrobe with ease, as attested by legions of fangirls, from Kate Moss and Alexa Chung to the Wardrobe ICONS team.
Curling up on her velvet sofa over green tea at her beautiful Chiltern Street store, Bella Freud has much to discuss. There’s the velvet and corduroy suits that will become our autumn/winter staples, and her brand new collaboration with J Brand jeans, but also a special Wardrobe ICONS in-store event. It’s the perfect excuse to sit down with the designer and discover what makes her idiosyncratic brand tick.
You set up your label in 1990; did you always want to be a fashion designer?
No, not until I was about 21 and then I just wanted to go and learn how to do art – but I knew I didn’t want to be an artist.
What led you into design?
I went to college in Rome, but it wasn’t very good and I didn’t speak Italian. So I left there and went to a tailoring school and that was great. It was much more about interlinings and stitching, how to make a handmade thing. In Rome there’s a whole snobbism about how things are made and put together.
What are your earliest fashion memories?
One of my early ambitions was to be a bus conductor and to be able to wear the uniform. The way my father dressed influenced me as well; he dressed in rags when he was working but then he would wear a grey flannel suit that he’d had made for him and he looked incredible. So I really noticed clothes and how useful they were and how they changed things, especially tailoring. I’ve always loved a uniform, whether it’s a Savile Row suit or a school uniform. I went to this progressive school where they abolished the uniform just as I started and I had to pretend to be really excited, but really I was disappointed.
You are renowned for your worded sweaters. What inspired these iconic pieces?
I had been making short films with John Malkovich about beatniks and poet gurus when Jane Birkin’s agent left a message on my answer machine saying she loved my ‘Ginsberg is God’ jumper and I thought, well I don’t want everyone to be God, otherwise it’s a boring thing. When I was at school everyone carved stuff on their desk, so I thought ‘Je t’aime Jane’ would be a bit of schoolgirl adulation. And then somehow or other that took me into words.
My instinct now is to do what I think looks good; what I believe in
Your t-shirts and sweaters are always thoughtful and considered. How do you manage this in your design?
I’m always conscious that it can never be an instruction, or a cute slogan – I just don’t want to do anything like that. To think lightly is as much of a pleasure.
You design the most desirable suiting. When did you decide to add tailoring into your collection?
It’s about having the soft centre with a jacket or a suit. It’s how I dress today and it’s been nice to see who comes in and how it fits, and then grow it little by little. It takes the pressure off, not doing a huge collection. I like the restraint and it’s had a good response, so I can be a bit more daring and a bit more playful as I go forward.
Have you always been into fashion and style?
I was aware at around 10 that clothes could hide and reveal things as you wanted them to. If you got your clothes right they could make you feel good about yourself, safe and daring – all these things that you want to be. I was very aware of it as a kind of armour.
Who inspired you growing up?
There was this girl living with us – we shared a house with various people – and she had tiny little feet. I remember trying on her platform clogs, and I just never looked back. She had this jersey dress, I can remember it as if it happened yesterday, it was so glamorous.
Who was your style icon?
I didn’t have much exposure as we didn’t have a TV, but I had occasionally seen pictures of Anita Pallenberg. Somehow she didn’t behave like you were supposed to behave if you had those types of clothes on – lying on the sofa, walking the dog… it was mesmerising how she wore things.
Pallenberg recently passed away, but her granddaughter Ella Richards modelled for your new J Brand jeans campaign. How did that come about and how did that feel?
I had always wanted to work with Ella, she is a great model, and being the granddaughter of my friend Anita felt like an extra connection. I was heartbroken to hear of Anita’s death.
Most women think that basics equal black and grey. How would you encourage women to introduce colour into their everyday wardrobe?
For ages I wore a fluorescent orange or pink t-shirt underneath things so I’d have a bit showing. I wear a lot of colour – I’m not afraid of it. I see something and think, ‘I couldn’t wear that!’ But then I’ll put it on, on purpose, just to see what it does. I force myself to try it on because it can make you rethink how to put things together.
How do you design with your customer in mind?
I want my clothes to bring out their best qualities. The suggestion is a very important thing and the way things fit. I like things that aren’t too overt. [My customer is] someone who is happy to show off discreetly.
When you are not working, what do you like to wear?
Sometimes I go through long phases of wearing almost the same thing every day. I want to wear my oldest, tattiest jumper; I don’t know why. At the moment I wear my corduroy coat every single day underneath my other coats. I like the thought of having two coats on, or two scarves, because then I’ve made good use of it even though it wasn’t really how I imagined how it should be worn.
Where do you get your style inspiration?
I like the guys down the Portobello Road. I love the whole reggae and Rasta look. That thing of wearing a sports zip-up under a tailored jacket, sort of the way Bob Marley dressed, I find really stylish.
You live in every piece of your collection. What essentials would you recommend to the Wardrobe ICONS reader?
T-shirt: I wanted something that was boyish, but if you looked carefully it was feminine. If you do a straight t-shirt, it sort of bunches where your waist goes in and as a result makes you look paunchy. So ours skims in, it’s not too short, not too boxy on the arm.
Jeans: I just made these jeans with J Brand based on a couple of pairs I had long time ago. One’s a wide pair of jeans with a slightly higher waist and the other is a straight leg with a low waist. One in a very boyish cut and one quite feminine. I like the way denim behaves when it doesn’t have stretch. They’re in washed-out black and a medium blue. There are also skirts, and a jumpsuit which is a bit like a fitted Formula One racing suit.
Cashmere: My favourite cashmere is in soft, tantalisingly pretty colours with some gold sparkle in. I love this whole thing of wearing cashmere tracksuits on aeroplanes. Sporty but luxe.
Wedges: I like high shoes, but I don’t really suit stilettos any more. I have some amazing Louboutins with a platform. No dainty shoes – I find that they make me look more ladylike than I want to look. I like clunky shoes, I’ve got some amazing ones from Céline. My favourites have a very high crepe sole wedge with a lace-up. I bought two pairs, which I’ve never done before.
Trainers: My favourites are white trainers by Nike called Cortez. They remind me of baguettes, they’re these fat white spongy things.
Colourful socks: I have a thing about striped socks, I get them from Portobello Market. I also have Sonia Rykiel socks at £60 a pair. I have two pairs which are special.
If you could only wear one handbag, which one would it be?
I don’t really like designer bags. I like canvas bags. I’ve got this great bag which I bought in Jordan airport. People do design amazing things, but for some reason I just don’t want to spend that money on a bag.
Fashion is a way of having fun, enjoying and expressing yourself and being clever
Who did you collaborate with when designing your Chiltern Street store?
I worked with the designer Maria Speake. She has this amazing reclamation place called Retrouvius. She did my flat and we decided we wanted to bring a feeling of my place to the store. I wanted it to be like the old way, where people used to hang out in stores. Maria had great ideas, especially with budget limitations. She came up with this idea of putting strips of brass on the floor; we couldn’t afford to do a fancy floor and I much prefer this.
Some of our lucky readers will be able to shop at the Wardrobe ICONS event at your store – what should they expect?
It’s a lovely atmosphere in my shop, I think people will have a good time as it’s fun to hang out there.
Your father, the artist Lucien Freud, famously doodled your label. Have your family always supported your fashion career?
My family couldn’t be less high-brow. My father thought it was great, he was always really supportive and interested. No snobbishness in my family. Fashion is a way of having fun, enjoying and expressing yourself and being clever. Clothes are an absolutely superb way of making you look and feel good about yourself. If you can get that sorted before you leave the house, things can be a lot easier.
What inspired your infamous 1970 logo?
I was looking through a book of these very scruffy, upper-class boys, a bit Keith Richards and David Bowie wearing girls’ undersized jackets, and in the corner was a date: 1970/1. I used to do lots of drawing and blowing up on a photocopier because I love the rawness of how it looks. It had a feeling of early Patti Smith, New York punk rock, this sort of gritty feeling.
Your friends Sam and Aaron Taylor-Johnson made such a fun birthday video for you, where they wore your clothes and took them off layer by layer. Did you enjoy such an ingenious surprise?
It was all their jumpers! We’ve been friends for a long time, I go and stay with her so I always bring her things. It was brilliant, totally fascinating, they did it in such a genius way – like a little artwork, and I was totally overjoyed and surprised.
What lessons have you learnt having your own label and business?
I’m much more confident now in doing what I really like. When I first started, I was trying to be fashionable and it was distracting. My instinct now is to do what I think looks good, what I believe in. Having that as a ground rule I find that I’m more adventurous.
You have made quite a few short films – would you like to move into filmmaking?
I will never be tempted away from fashion, but in a way fashion provides me with a way of going into different worlds. I have more flexibility, as I can make a film without knowing anything about filmmaking. It gives me freedom to experiment.
What are your beauty tips?
Make-up: I don’t wear a lot of make-up, but I love Charlotte Tilbury’s Wonderglow; it’s a bit like very light Photoshopping.
Face cream: Sisley Black Rose Precious Face Oil. This stuff is like something a goddess would use, an elixir that imbues radiance and power. The smell is divine, irresistible.
Nutritional supplement: I take 8 Greens when I’m tired and dehydrated, which is most days. It is energising, but not from a sugar high. It is very tasty too, quite moreish.
Lastly, who do you love on Instagram?