Comforting Words: Bella Freud on the power of language
The British designer has put the written word at the heart of her creations
Words matter an awful lot to Bella Freud. The British designer is best known for her slim-fitting knitwear, which each season bears a new phrase or statement. This can be a single word – ‘Oh!’, ‘Fly’ or ‘Future’ – or something more melodic and retro: ‘You Gotta Get Outta There Girlfriend’ is embroidered across a merino jumper in a chain stitch that mimics her handwriting. Freud takes great pleasure in drawing her words by hand. “My team know what they should clean up [when letters are transferred from paper to screen for production],” she says when we meet at her office, a converted warehouse in Kensal Rise, north-west London. “They may tidy little dots or stray lines, but I want it to look like it’s come from my hand, otherwise it’s just a font.”
The designer’s signature knits have been worn by a string of louche style-setters, from Alexa Chung and Elizabeth Jagger to fellow fashion designer Susie Cave and actor Tilda Swinton. Her popular ‘Je T’aime Jane’ jumper, made at the behest of Jane Birkin, reads ‘Gainsbourg is God’ on the back, in honour of the screen siren’s former partner, French music icon Serge Gainsbourg. This blockbuster was based on a design conceived for a short film directed by Freud’s friend John Malkovich in 2002; the original read ‘Ginsberg is God’ on the front and ‘Godard is Dog’ on the back. The wordplay fits perfectly with Freud’s logo: a whippet’s head etched by her late father, the painter Lucian Freud, when she launched the brand in 1990. The jumper was famously worn by her friend Kate Moss in 2003 and remains a best-seller.
Freud’s love of words comes from her playful attitude to fashion, founded on the belief that clothes should make you happy. “I call the sweaters ‘word jumpers’, because ‘slogans’ implies a direction,” she says. “They can be ambiguous or meaningful – it’s up to the wearer.” The designer has not yet released a jumper that reads ‘generous’, though this is a fitting description of her work ethos and état d’esprit. She’s always accommodating with her time, and nothing seems to phase her; journalists often remark on her calm disposition. “I could really freak out, but I’ve learnt that being level-headed is what works best for me,” Freud says with a smile. She appears to have glided seamlessly between her artistic endeavours, from journalism and film-making, to brand consultancy, and, most recently, interior design for London private members’ club Laylow.
In 2014, she expanded her eponymous label into the fragrance, with a range of perfumes and candles modelled on her fun mottos and insignia. “I think I’ve always been interested in learning,” Freud reveals. “When I was young, I read a lot, and I’d investigate the things my father talked about. It’s always good when someone tells you something and you follow it through.” Freud was one of the first designers to promote her fashion directive through experimental cinema. “I’m working on a film series at the moment,” she says, excitedly. “It’s the culmination of lots of research, but the process has been thrilling. I’ve always loved the connection between fashion and film, but it’s really the story that matters. In a movie like Belle du Jour [the erotically charged 1967 classic directed by Luis Buñuel and starring Catherine Deneuve], you don’t immediately focus on the fashion, but the clothes take on a meaning that filters through. So you associate a shiny black mac with the seduction and the destruction that unfolds.”
The designer, who looks much younger than her 57 years, has always exuded a cool, confident style; effortlessly put-together, but ineffably chic. Today, she wears a slouchy navy-blue knitted tracksuit from her AW18 men’s collection. “When I was young, I was hyper- critical about my body, but now I feel much more content,” she says. “I’ve noticed that some people, when they feel insecure, wear very little. I happen to be the opposite, but I also don’t want to be invisible, so it’s a matter of negotiation.” Freud spent her early years in Morocco with her sister Esther and mother Bernadine Coverley, who split from their father when she was still in her early twenties; her parents remained lifelong friends.
In the early ’70s, the trio returned to the UK, to sleepy Tunbridge Wells, which lacked the vibrancy and verve that young Bella craved. At 16, she left home and moved to London, where she landed a Saturday job at Vivienne Westwood’s Seditionaries store on the King’s Road. Once Bella had completed her fashion studies in Rome, she became Westwood’s design assistant. “I remember Vivienne saying something like, ‘There’s nothing worse than comfort,’ which really made me think. Discomfort is not the point, either. What’s important is finding clothes or a style that enhances your confidence; that gives you a modus operandi and an attractiveness. If you’re feeling anxious or insecure, you can put on a great outfit and it does a job; it takes care of you. People say clothes don’t matter, but they do, precisely because of these qualities.”
Freud’s ‘1970’ jumper is an ode to the decade “when I became alert to the world”, and punk rock, ’70s glam and hippy ‘peace and love’ continue to inform her aesthetic. Her ever-evolving portfolio – there are more dresses, coats and tailored suits than ever before for SS19 – summons a romantic fashion mood that fizzes with contemporary flair and whimsy. This season, she turned to the “moody cool” of ’60s French singer and pin-up Françoise Hardy and the glamorous girlfriends of ’70s biker boys. “They were so beautiful, these girls, so natural,” says Freud. “They trigger good feelings about style and being comfortable in your own skin.”
We speak more about the things she loves: pale blue (“the colour that David Bowie used to wear”); the ever-so-cute but patrician wardrobe of Thunderbirds’ Lady Penelope; the bright orange Casentino cloth Freud once spun into a coat and “spivvy outfit” that was bought by late fashion doyenne Isabella Blow, and her beloved Border Terrier Joey, who occasionally pops his head round the door with a confused look of adulation and heartbreak.
There’s also her new digital ‘mini memoir’– a section on her website dedicated to her various rites of passage as a designer, and the friendships she has forged along the way. “The page is called ‘Happening’, which is a word I love. It’s a place where I’m able to share some of my memories. Fashion as a business is often portrayed in a very thin and two-dimensional way: everyone is either a bitch, a flake, a queen or a victim. It can be cut-throat, but it’s also a place built upon incredible loyalties and friendships; people use witty, wonderful language, and this element is often missed out. I hope I can share some of the humour.”