Fashion designer Bella Freud was born in London and studied in Rome. She is renowned for her signature jumpers Je t’aime Jane, Ginsberg is God and 1970. Fans of Bella Freud include Alexa Chung, Laura Bailey, Kate Moss and Alison Mosshart.
You just came back to London after being in LA. Do you consider California the centre of creativity today?
No, but something is happening there. Lots of people are moving to LA. I have only being going in the last 6 years, but it’s very soothing and quite stimulating, and I enjoy the languid feeling. They have great vintage shops, the museums have all sorts of good things, it is fun. I like going somewhere relaxing with a chance of finding something extra special for an idea.
You have dedicated your professional life to fashion, working with Vivienne Westwood and then creating your own label in a world of conglomerates. How would you describe your work?
I think that because I am still not owned by a big conglomerate it’s quite easy to have the benefits of feeling I am a separate entity. I don’t have the infrastructure of those big companies. For the last 15 years I have worked in an unconventional way, making small collections, but in a way, just by calling it “a collection”, you can make it something. In 2003 I had no backers and no investors, I just carried on making knitwear, doing some journalism, and making two short films. About five years ago, when I had investment from bankers, things changed.
How did this investment come about?
The real reason was that Laura Bailey suggested I needed this person to back me, and when I met Peter Dubens he just liked my work and the way I did it. We got on very well and he proposed to be my business partner. It has been a real success working with him. To have a business partner who gives you support but recognises it is not their business is the right balance. When he invested my business grew 1200 percent in the first season! Doing things my own way seemed to be paying off.
Would you like to become part of a large group?
It’s hard to imagine, but who knows. My concern would be to keep individuality. I would like to be able to keep it under my control.
Do you consider that nowadays there is a particular British fashion style?
British style is to do with not being overly concerned about what people think are good or bad results, a kind of lack of concern of if you are correct or not. Your ideas shrink down if you are too preoccupied with being smart or acceptable. British people have a weird lack of respect for convention, which I believe is quite creative.
Is London a good city for fashion?
Yes, it’s very tense, which is good for working. There’s a lot going on and it’s exciting. There are such interesting people everywhere. It is a great place to live.
Who are the designers who have influenced you the most?
The first person was Coco Chanel. When I was 19 I read a book about her and was fascinated with the way she changed everything. And then, through Loulou de la Falaise, I became very interested in Yves St Laurent. And then I worked for Vivienne Westwood as her assistant.
What did you learn?
Especially from Chanel, I was learning how to use everything in your life as part of your work. For instance, I liked the way she appropriated the Duke of Westminster’s clothes into her designs. She never ever thought you can’t do that, or people won’t like that. She tried everything, especially the use of jersey and other fabrics for high fashion, and Vivienne did that in a different way as well. They had no constraints, and Yves St Laurent also did things that people had never done before. I am not trying to be new, but I feel I must push myself forward as far as I can go, all the time.
You were recently touched by the untimely death of your friend Anita Pallenberg, whose husband Keith Richards wrote his biography with your husband James Fox. How did Anita strike you?
I was terribly touched and moved by her death. She was the first person I hero worshipped. I saw her on the cover of a newspaper when I was 12. I thought she shone out and was so beautiful, I was fascinated. When I saw the film “Performance” I was obsessed with her. We became friends when I lived in Rome in the early 80s. We worked together and she was very, very good about fashion; artistic and creative, with a very rigorous point of view. Nothing weak got past her, ever. If something was not a strong idea she was dismissive and contemptuous. She was never taken in by gloss, and had a brilliant eye. She would see something that no one else was seeing. She was great.
You are also friends with Kate Moss, like Anita was. Do they have something in common?
Kate is incredible. They both have a complete star quality, and an irreverence, incredible energy and curiosity as well. I met Kate because she agreed around 1996/7 to be in one of my shows, and we became friends. She is extraordinarily fascinating and very funny, so full of life, and interested in everything rather than just being an object of interest.
What is your idea of chic, of elegance today?
I never have a formula. It is always to do with the person and their lack of rules about how things can be worn. People wearing strange things almost by mistake can be very elegant. For instance, the other day I saw a strange looking person asking for money in the street and he looked amazing. He certainly had not tried to be chic, but he was incredibly stylish. My friend Amanda Harlech looks very beautiful, adorable, chic. The kind of thing that makes you melt when you look at her.
You come from a very creative family, you are the great granddaughter of Sigmund Freud the inventor of psychoanalysis, the daughter of Lucian Freud the great artist, the sister of the novelist Esther Freud who wrote “Hideous Kinky” about your gypsy trip to Morocco when you were very young, and you married the writer and journalist James Fox. Has this influenced your own work?
I suppose with my father I was influenced by his way of working, by his dedication to his work, especially if I was sitting for him. If it didn’t go well, he went on and on until it was right. I found it a very useful example of not giving up. I remember him persevering and trying and trying again. For me, the right thing never comes from inspiration; it comes from the habit of working. I sit down with no ideas and do all the things I know and eventually something works. I try to catch it and ride on the back of it, and after a while it becomes possible to harness it quite quickly. Action is crucial, doing something to coax out the right thing. One other thing to do with my great grandfather is that I am producing a new perfume called “Psychoanalysis” which is just about to come out. I am really enjoying being influenced by him after my father was avoiding absolutely any reflected glory of his grandfather.
Has it been difficult to be “Bella Freud”, carrying a name like yours?
Not at all, much easier than being the daughter of a pop star, especially growing up when on many occasions I noticed that people did not know who Sigmund Freud was. My father was resolutely interested in his own work and not talking about the family. I always thought you can’t travel on someone else’s coat tails. Now I suddenly became very interested in Sigmund Freud and his work, and I am getting a lot of pleasure out of it and feel lucky to have him as a relative.
Your father was a controversial person and a very famous artist. What kind of a father was he for you? Did he teach you something special?
I found him a great father, incredibly loyal, very funny, and exciting to be around. He was not conventional. I never had an argument with him because I did not grow up with him and so I did not have that familiarity. His love and belief in me made me very strong. He was very interested in me, he cared. He was wonderful. Every time I spent time with him it was fascinating. From him I learned to be discriminating in its best sense, fastidious and rigorous and being definite in what I believed in.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
I hate that word. I don’t think about it, I just want to do the best work I can. That is what I care about.
Today fashion and contemporary art are all mixed up together. With contemporary art and fashion so very close, what do you think about Jeff Koons, for example, designing ladies handbags?
I suppose that fashion is quite arty. It seems quite OK that they merge together sometimes, but it depends how well it is done. If it is done well it is modern and totally beautiful. If not, it is cynical and clumsy. That particular combination seems a bit cynical.
You also had a very special mother Bernardine Coverley, who brought you and Esther up in a sort of gypsy childhood. How was your childhood with your mother? What remains in your memory?
My mother was very single minded. She was incredibly courageous and took a lot of risks to shake off the way she was bought up, which she really hated. She was fantastic. She was great. Maybe she had some of my father’s qualities and never made any compromises, but unlike him she had nothing, she was very poor. The main thing is, even if she had no money and no support financially, she was very proud, and the way that translated was very different from how my father lived. For my mother it was much tougher to pursue her ideals, a woman unmarried with small children, but she never ever compromised. Certainly, as I got older I admired that more and more. She had no money as I said, but she sold a painting of my father’s that he gave her and bought a tiny cottage and in the end she was independent and free.
What kind of mother are you to your son Jimmy?
I am very attentive and very aware of what was missing in my upbringing. I take a lot of care to make it possible for him to explore his interests, rather than leaving them to chance. I am very close to him, and get on very well with him.
Are you very close to your family?
Yes, especially Esther, who is more than a sister, she’s a soul sister as well.
Do you do things together?
We occasionally go to plays together, but mostly we love to talk about everything. I trust her more than anyone else, and we both accept each other’s advice and feedback. We like to walk on Hampstead Heath with our dogs. She is honest and sensitive, and I hope I am the same with her.
You are of Jewish origin from your father and on some occasions took a very strong position against Israeli politics. What is your position today?
The same one, more than ever. I am against the occupation for anybody. That hasn’t changed until the situation changes. There is nothing more awful than being occupied, so I could never stop objecting to it.
Have you been to Israel?
Yes, I have been there quite a few times, and I was deeply disturbed.
What kind of a woman do you feel you are today?
I feel good. I am happy with myself, much more so than when I was younger. I am good at acting on my ideas and excited by life more than I ever was before. I hope I am a force for good.
Your father was not like this, was he?
My father was a very, very good friend to a lot of people but he didn’t talk about it. He had a reputation for having lots of women, but in fact he liked to be very private.
Was he a force for good?
Yes, he was so dedicated as an artist. It’s a good way to live life, a constructive way of being. I think it is good to be able to stand up for things in a way that people can follow without damaging everything around them.
Is success very important to you?
In my fashion business, yes. The fashion business does not function well without success. It is important for me to work and be productive, as much as possible.
What kind of perfume will “Psychoanalysis” be?
A smell of cigars and leather, cedar wood, and an undertone of romance. I wanted it to have the romantic obsession that goes along with psychoanalysis, as well as the traditional deep smell of a study. I wanted it to have the sexuality and sexiness and warmth of a really great intellect.
Are you going to use it?
Yes, I hope so. Sometimes anyway.
Is your husband going to use it?
He does not really use scent, but this is a perfume for men and women.
ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND.