LUNCH WITH FT: Victoria Beckham: ‘Love or hate us, we work really hard’
We drink mint tea. And gossip about marriage. And getting older, and the fact neither of us cook. ‘Give him a bowl of cereal. That should do the job’
Victoria Beckham has 24-million Instagram followers, a global fashion brand, four children, a football legend for a husband and a fame so intense she has booked our lunch at Nobu under a pseudonym. But I am first to arrive at the celebrated sushi restaurant on Old Park Lane in Mayfair. And so I snag the sprauncy banquette.
Beckham arrives four minutes later looking more or less as you would know her from the paparazzi images that have documented her entire adult life, from international pop star, to wife of David and partner in the multi-million-pound business of Brand Beckham, to chief clothes horse of her eponymous fashion label. Today, dressed in a mannish overcoat, a black long-sleeved top and trousers of her own design she looks reassuringly on-message, though smaller and more vulnerable in the flesh.
Perhaps it’s because she has dispensed with the oversized sunglasses she usually wears in public. Neither is she sporting the trademark pout. The pout was first affected in the 1990s to get her into character as Posh, the haughty, stiletto-wearing member of the Spice Girls — still the biggest-selling girl group of all time. Somehow it became stuck along the way, and has defined her reputation ever since; the popular press has always loved to paint her as being icy, and she, in turn, has happily worn the mask of froideur.
The restaurant, one of the London outposts of the haute Japanese gastro-empire founded by chef Nobu Matsuhisa and actor Robert De Niro, has been serving its signature black cod with miso, lobster tempura and sashimi slices to celebrities since 2005. Yet the dining space is pretty low on ambience this lunchtime: white, airy and open plan. It exudes an air of minimalist sterility but for the scent of umami that wafts across the floor.
Is it true she only took a week off after Harper’s birth in 2011? No, she laughs. It was far less than that
While I am a relative newcomer to the Nobu menu, Beckham is a pro. She swiftly orders a bowl of edamame, yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño peppers and a piece of “plain white fish” — a sea bass, which she will have steamed. I also want some edamame, but recall that Beckham is a self-described “germophobe” and might not be too comfortable with my picking beans from her plate. So I order another portion, the shrimp salad and some spicy tuna, which is served on little cubes of deep-fried rice. Beckham also asks for steamed broccoli and shiitake mushrooms. She is very hungry, she explains.
No wonder, when her day began at 6am with a 90-minute workout. “I do about 7.5km [on an incline] on the treadmill, and then my trainer comes,” she tells me. It sounds absolutely punitive, but Beckham isn’t bothered. “I am quite aware that I’m really very disciplined. And it does start to make me sound very strange. But, it’s just the way that I am. And, also, [working out] is one of the only things that I do for me. I go to work, and I come home and I’m with the kids. So it’s just my thing.”
‘Way too much good wine’
While I order a glass of Champagne, Beckham tells me that she and David are on “a little detox” following a half-term ski trip to France where they drank “way too much good wine”. Her conversation is peppered with references to her husband, whom she married 20 years ago, when she was a global superstar and he a midfield phenomenon at Manchester United.
Together, they have built one of the most powerful brands in the world, with estimates of their combined worth in the hundreds of millions of pounds: she and David were paid £30m in dividends from their holding company in 2017. For the duration of their relationship she has weathered media scrutiny and constant speculation that their marriage is in crisis. But in conversation she always talks of their union, and their business, as a deal in which the bond is ironclad.
“Me and David, love or hate the two of us, we work really hard,” she says. “We’ve always worked really hard. Getting success is one thing, maintaining it is a whole other thing.”
Is it true she only took a week off after Harper’s birth in 2011? No, she laughs. It was far less than that. “Let me tell you. I was still in hospital. I couldn’t feel my legs because of the bloody epidural, and I’m being asked to approve lookbook images. So, I didn’t have a lot of time off. But it’s hard when you have your own business.”
Two bowls of edamame have arrived, to which Beckham adds more salt, as well as the yellowtail sashimi, which is so delicious that we quickly order more.
When Beckham launched her line in 2008, with a small collection of 10 dresses, she was unusual for being one of a handful of designers who hadn’t studied fashion. Today the market is full of celebrity brands, from Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty to Kylie Jenner’s billion-dollar cosmetics empire, but the accusation of inauthenticity, or that she might not be a “real designer”, still stings.
“I was very aware of people’s preconceptions,” she says of the early incredulity that surrounded her label. “At the beginning, a lot of people would ask me who I was working with.” Roland Mouret, whom many credit as inspiring the aesthetic for her first figure-hugging dresses, was a mentor, as was the American designer Marc Jacobs. “He said: If the quality is good, then people can always say they don’t like it because it’s not their personal taste, but no one will be able to say it’s rubbish.”
I think that right at the beginning, I overpaid for things unknowingly. I don’t think anybody was taking advantage, I just think that my people didn’t know they could have pushed backVictoria Beckham
It was sound advice. Her clothes are impeccably tailored and beautifully made, even though her collections have changed tremendously over the years, reflecting her own shift away from Spandex into tuxedo trousers and sweeping coats. She celebrated the brand’s 10th anniversary last September with a homecoming show in London and dozens of front-page features.
And then, in December, and despite a 17% increase in sales, Victoria Beckham Ltd reported an operating loss of £10.2m in the year to December 2017. After a decade in business, Victoria Beckham is still in the red.
She knew it was coming. It was part of the reason she took on a £30m investment from NEO Investment Partners in November 2017, in return for a 28% stake in her business. It is now co-owned by NEO, Simon Fuller’s XIX Entertainment, and Beckham Brand Holdings, which owns her business and the David Beckham brand. The investment came with a new CEO, a stringent overhaul and the promise she would cut a significant number of jobs.
“It was no surprise to me. It was no surprise to my investors.” Building a luxury brand, you have to invest heavily in your team, she says, adding that she faced particular scrutiny “because it’s me”. “Fame is a double-edged sword. Sometimes, it’s great there is that spotlight on me. But there’s a downside to that, and, well ... that’s the downside.”
It’s true that building a luxury brand can be expensive. However, so much spending could look complacent. Where was the slack? “We didn’t have anybody who was challenging suppliers, and mills, and factories,” she says. Had people priced higher because they knew she had more money? “I think that right at the beginning, I overpaid for things unknowingly. I don’t think anybody was taking advantage, I just think that my people didn’t know they could have pushed back.”
For 10 years, Beckham was effectively CEO. “I never asked for that role. But I was wearing a lot of hats. This isn’t a vanity project, and if I want this brand to still be here in 10, 20, 30, 40 years’ time, I need to break even, and then I need to be profitable. We’re on the right track to do that, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow.”
The white fish has arrived, which Beckham opts to eat with a knife and fork. I munch through my salad, which while being super tasty is, with its tiny strands of parmesan, shards of seaweed and raw spinach, not the most glamorous of eats. It’s far easier, I discover, to pop fried cubes of tuna-topped rice into my mouth.
Victoria Adams grew up in suburban Hertfordshire, in London’s commuter belt. Her mother, Jacqueline, didn’t work, and her father, Anthony, ran an electrical wholesale business. “I remember my dad set up his office on his own, one day, on the kitchen table. Just my dad and a phone. He was always so driven — he’s always had to work, and work hard. When I phoned home from theatre school and said I don’t want to do this any more, my mum said: ‘Come home, and we’ll go to Lakeside [shopping centre] and buy a pair of shoes.’ And my dad said: ‘No, you don’t. You stay there, and you work hard’.”
She stuck it out and got her qualification as a dance instructor — “so should you need some tap-dancing lessons, Jo, you know where to go” — and then, in 1994, she replied to an advertisement looking for young women to audition for a girl band. As a Spice Girl, she went on to fulfil her ambition to become “more famous than Persil” washing powder, and in the process the group sold more than 85-million records worldwide. Not bad for a performer who, by her own admission, brought a lot more attitude to her stage persona than she did vocal range. But Beckham, who has always done things “out of the box”, has never let a lack of experience or qualifications stand in her way.
Is she as ambitious for her own children’s success? None of them are especially academic — “dyslexia doesn’t run in our family, it gallops”, says Beckham, who is a “self-diagnosed dyslexic” herself. Brooklyn, now 20, wants to be a photographer, Romeo, 16, would like to be a professional tennis player, Cruz, 14, is a performer, and Harper, 7, is “a real little tomboy”.
“All three boys used to have contracts with Arsenal,” she says. “They were going to be footballers so they were signed at a very young age. And they were all really good. Brooklyn was the first to say that he didn’t want to play any more. And then Romeo decided he didn’t want to do it either. I remember Romeo sitting in the bath getting really upset, saying ‘I don’t want to let daddy down’. So I told him daddy just wants you to be happy. And now he’s playing tennis. Every day.”
For no reason in particular, I think of Andy Murray, prepared to undergo successive hip operations before retiring so his kids might see what “daddy used to do”. “Oh, we’ve all been down that one,” she says with an eye roll. “I dragged my kids along to Madison Square Garden [to see the Spice Girls’ first reunion tour, in 2008]. ‘This is mummy as a pop star.’ It isn’t happening again.”
It doesn’t matter what shape and size you are. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but the great thing about make-up is you can make women feel like the best version of themselvesVictoria Beckham
Isn’t she even a tiny bit tempted to join her Spicey sisters when they go on tour again this Easter? “It was nice to get that opportunity,” she says of the last reunion. “But for me, no. I think it will be great, and I’m looking forward to it. But no. So much has changed.”
The embodiment of girl power is 45 next month. “I don’t mind how I look at 44,” she says. “But I don’t like how it sounds. ‘Victoria Beckham, 44, went shopping.’ ‘Victoria Beckham, 44’, for everything that I do.” She certainly comes across as a walking advertisement for the Tracy Anderson training method, vitamin supplements, fish oils and medical spas. Her next venture, the Victoria Beckham beauty line, based on “clean” cosmetics, fragrance and skincare, will launch in September, and will only be available online.
Presumably this new focus on beauty has to do with the boom in beauty bloggers who have found global fame online. Beckham already has a huge social-media platform, and launched her own YouTube channel last month. It’s millennial thinking even though she is squarely Generation X. “It doesn’t matter how old you are,” she says of her next act as a wellness guru. “It doesn’t matter what shape and size you are. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but the great thing about make-up is you can make women feel like the best version of themselves.” It’s certainly more accessible. If there has been any major obstacle in building brand Beckham it is that her label, with its thousand-pound handbags, has always been a bit too Posh for her target base.
We drink mint tea. And gossip about marriage. And getting older, and the fact neither of us cook. “Does your husband mind that you don’t?” she asks me, before deadpanning. “Give him a bowl of cereal. That should do the job.”
Beckham describes herself as a girl’s girl, but she says she most often turns to David for advice. Would she ask him whether he found a piece of clothing attractive? For professional purposes at least? “Actually, we did have this conversation a few months ago,” she says. “Someone asked if I liked how David dressed. And I said: ‘I think you look great in everything.’ Because he does. And then I asked him: ‘Do you like the way that I dress?’
“And here’s where I’m thinking: I’ve got this. I’m married to David Beckham, but of course he’s going to like how I dress. And then he says: ‘Well, now you mention it, why do you wear those jumpers with those big sleeves? And why do you wear such baggy trousers?’ She laughs. “Mr Beckham didn’t like it.”
I hope it prompted her to have another chat about his waistcoats. “Yeah,” she says. “Let’s open up this conversation again... ”
After two hours, four bowls of edamame, a shoal of fish and two flutes of Champagne (both mine), the lunch is nearly over. When she gets up, a dozen heads swivel. Does the constant barrage of attention and paparazzi coverage bother her? Not really, she says, because “I’m my worst critic anyway.”
“Don’t you think the ultimate goal in life is to feel content?” she asks me. It depends, I say, on what that means. “If you’ve got a family, and a job that you enjoy, and you’re successful, and you have good friends, and you’ve found that work-life balance, and can accept who you are?” And does she have those markers of contentment? She looks me squarely in the eye and answers: “Yes.”
• Ellison is the FT’s fashion editor
© The Financial Times Limited 2019