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Bella Freud talks to the Journal about Vivienne Westwood, slogan knitwear and the Marylebone of yesteryear

Words: Jackie Modlinger
Portrait: Mary McCartney
Fashion images: David Abrahams

That creativity would be in her DNA was a given. Bella Freud is, after all, a scion of the dynastic Freud family—daughter of painter Lucian, great-granddaughter of distinguished Viennese psychiatrist Sigmund, her mother and sister both acclaimed writers. Bella’s eponymous store on Chiltern Street is testament to her talent. Opened two years ago, the décor—reclaimed stone floors, bespoke brass rails and opulent velvet carpet—is the work of Retrouvius architect Maria Speake, the same creative hand behind Bella’s Ladbroke Grove flat, where she lives with son Jimmy and border terrier Joey.

The objective: “I wanted to create an intimate shopping experience with an apartment-like feeling—a bit like stepping into a friend’s for a cup of tea and leaving with her favourite jumper.” The designer may be high-profile—aficionados include Alexa Chung, Kate Moss (who once famously exchanged a pair of split trousers for a pink pair here), Laura Bailey and chanteuse Alison Mosshart—but she loves to cock a snook at The Establishment. “Upmarket irreverence” is how Bella defines her signature style, with its whimsical statement knits, slogan tees and edgy tailoring, the latter honed in Rome at fashion and tailoring schools. A child of the 1970s, her favourite inscriptions include ‘1970’, ‘Ginsberg is God’ and ‘Je t’aime Jane’ (as in Birkin).

Bella’s designs are collectable, aspirational pieces in simple shapes, often androgynous, translated into luxe fabrics. She has a way of embracing trends while still remaining true to herself, as exemplified by her use of corduroy, night-for-day pyjama jackets, ruffled shirts and her take on the tuxedo. The pre-collection (transitional between winter/spring) has just landed, and very rock ’n’ royalty it is too, the latter being one of the key themes, with cashmere, merino wool, lurex knits sporting such slogans as ‘Lord’, ‘King of Kings’ and ‘Royalty’, as well as crown motifs.

The nuances of tailoring
The tuxedo, her strong suit, is translated into classic black velvet or ivory barathea for a ‘le smoking’ three-piece pants suit, aptly named ‘Bianca’ (after Bianca Jagger, who wore a white one when she married Mick). “I love tuxedos. I think they’re just great, because they have that day-for-night thing, a bit like menswear—you can dress it right up depending on the shirt or tie, for formal, you put a turtleneck with it and the whole atmosphere is completely changed. It becomes more Miles Davis. I love those nuances of tailoring. A pale blue suit and it becomes really kind of spivvy and David Bowie-ish,” enthuses Bella.

I learn that the whippet-head logo used since the brand’s inception is the work of Bella’s father, Lucien. “My dad drew it as my logo. It’s his whippet, Pluto,” Bella tells me. Pluto lives on, appearing on signature knits, t-shirts, cushions, wrapping paper and carrier bags, sometimes writ large as on the store’s vitrine, other times a barely-there miniature.

She has arrived fresh from a trip to Paris, whippet-thin, her finely-chiselled face with its high cheekbones and defined eyebrows bearing a striking resemblance to her mother Bernardine Coverley—a multi-talented gardener and writer who taught further education and dance, and was the subject of one of Lucien’s masterpieces, painted when Bernardine, then aged 17, was pregnant with Bella. Pregnant Girl was sold in February 2016 for a cool £16 million.

Bella wearing Bella
Was her mum a stylish dresser? “I have just dim recollections. She wasn’t wildly interested in fashion, but she was very beautiful and just looked good. She would wear ‘hippie’ things. I used to make clothes for her when I was about 14—I remember making her a brown corduroy A-line skirt just below the knee. She always looked great, my mum. She would wear vintage stuff as well, 1940s dresses and a brown velvet coat that I was always trying to borrow off her, and when she was really young, she wore Biba. I remember she had really nice boots. She had so little money that she would just buy the occasional thing,” recalls Bella.

Today, Bella is wearing, well, Bella: a double-breasted black and white checked Harris tweed coat with sheepskin collar, over her favourite black schoolboy-style trousers, paired with navy satin contrast-piped shirt. We sit on her red corduroy sofa, which strikes an immediate chord, being one of her favourite fabrics. “I love it—there’s just something so stylish about it. When someone’s wearing a corduroy jacket, you think ‘ooh, there’s something going on there… and suddenly it’s all come back into fashion. I love it for interiors as well—a corduroy sofa’s really nice and cool.”

Born in London, Bella and younger sister Esther (a novelist) were educated at the Rudolf Steiner school in Sussex. Bella left school at 16 “and worked in shops, just wasted my life, had a teenage rebellion, then got back on track,” she reflects. The girls spent part of their childhood in Morocco enjoying a somewhat Bohemian existence—the inspiration for Esther’s book Hideous Kinky made into a film starring Kate Winslet.

Over to Bella, who takes up her story.

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Was your childhood really as nomadic as portrayed in the film?
The film was a story, so some of it wasn’t. We lived in a very kind of hand-to-mouth way and some of it was great and some of it less so. The film was really good actually—a lot better than I expected and obviously having Kate Winslet in it was amazing. She’s such a good actor.

How did you get on with your sister Esther when you were growing up?
I’ve got lots of half-siblings, too, but Esther was the person I spent the most time with. She was very close to me and continues to be so—she’s one of the most important people in my life. It’s an incredible luxury to have a great friendship with your sister, because it’s just so deep.

Were you interested in clothes as a child?
I liked uniforms and boys’ clothes. I suppose because probably boys seemed to have more power, so on some level I liked the idea of their clothes giving me a kind of freedom. They suit me, boyish clothes. It’s funny how some women look more feminine and pretty in a boyish piece. I think that’s what suits me.

It was a stint with Vivienne Westwood that kickstarted your fashion career. How did this come about?
I met her through the punk rock scene and one day asked her for a Saturday job. I’d just cut my waist-length hair into a crop and she said, “I like your haircut, so yes, you can have a job.” That’s how I started. When I left Italy, I went back to work as her assistant, so I learned everything about fashion from her. She was very patient on some levels, because I went to work for her knowing nothing, really, but it’s the experience that really counts. It was great, she was an amazing teacher. I love her—hardly see her, but she’s in my heart.

When did you launch your own brand?
In 1990. I left Vivienne and did a collection of my own the following season. Four or five years later I did my first show at The Polish Club. I got this message saying, “Oh, Kate [Moss] said she’d do your show!” It was a good start.

Where do you draw inspiration for your signature sweaters?
It could be anywhere. A lot through reading. If I’m watching a film or just talking to someone, some words will just jump out as workable, so I’m always on the lookout. I am trying not to have a cute slogan. I don’t want to tell anyone what to do or be like, a message… though I hope they’ll have a resonance somewhere along the line. I take trouble thinking about them, so I hope they have that reverberation.

What are your favourite fabrics and colours?
I love crepe. I think wool, corduroy, crepe and denim; they’ve just got to be the best. I like black, but I am really into colour, like acid yellow. I love red and green. I go through phases of bright pink and orange—orange was always a favourite, I just love it. It’s a wonderful colour and it suits me. Pale blue, too, l really like.

Do you see people buying a total wardrobe of just Bella Freud pieces?
Part of doing just a knitwear brand for a while is that the knit is the connection between suiting, really, so it’s easy to just wear a jumper with whatever else you have, but I like to offer the whole thing if someone wants it. I like the idea it doesn’t take over the person, but that they bring it to life.

Why did you choose Chiltern Street as the location for your store?
I have always liked this area. I used to have breakfast with my dad in Maison Sagne [now Patisserie Valerie] as a teenager and this area was my first experience of delicious food, really—Danish pastries, no one had those. I loved that place, it was really fantastic. Everyone was a Jewish refugee. I remember the owner, Mr Stanley, saying: “We have a new cake today, it’s called niniche” and I thought that was so chic. My father just roared with laughter. My sales agent, Maria Lemos, has a shop, Mouki Mou, further down the street and she insisted I look at this area. I was looking at another shop in Chiltern Street when this came up and when I saw the place, I completely fell for it.

Are you enjoying being in the area?
I don’t know what it is about Marylebone, but I like being here. It’s very cosy. I like going to Fischer’s, I often have breakfast there—lunch and dinner, too, but breakfast at Fischer’s with one of my sisters is my favourite. I really love Hardy’s restaurant, the Monocle Café, the Firehouse is a fun place to have a meeting. Also, there’s a lovely shop called Content Beauty Wellbeing on Bulstrode Street. The girl who started it used to be my pattern-cutter.

How do you maintain a work/ life balance?
I used to be very workaholic, in terms of working late and not having any beginning or end. Now I get a lot more done, but actually when my son was born—he’s nearly 17 now—it made me become more organised. I didn’t want to be a mother who wasn’t ever around, where something else is always a priority.

How do you spend your down time?
I love walking, reading, having a good snooze in the afternoon. Sometimes, even if I’m really tired, going to an exhibition makes me feel calm and relaxed. I travel mostly for work—I’ve just been to Asia—and my son Jimmy likes to go to LA, which I really enjoy. I like to go to places for a reason, but now I am a bit more adventurous. I go to pilates twice a week and play badminton with my friend Neville.

What’s in store for the future?
I’d like to do more homeware, interiors, and really build up that side of the business. I’m going to do a pop-up shop in New York next year and maybe also in Japan. I’d like to do more with denim. I love this shop and have no plans to have another in London. It is important to be intense and not dilute things.

Bella Freud