There is something mysterious about Bella Freud. If you Google her, you’ll likely notice it, too— that elusive quality I can’t quite describe. In a culture of over sharing and over publicizing, the consistency of her career and the privacy she manages to maintain set her apart. “Bella has a cool that murmurs more than it shouts” described a journalist in an interview. And that’s exactly what I felt. Bella Freud has found a way to build her identity without submitting to the new laws of the 2.0 fashion world.
The first thing that struck me was the ambivalence of her work. Her line is boyish yet very feminine; her witty jumpers are worn by the coolest people on earth (Alexa Chung, Kate Moss, Allison Mosshart and Lady Gaga, to name a few). Her clothes are of high quality with a universally flattering style.
Freud possesses a keen awareness of fashion’s power—namely, in its ability to infiltrate other parts of life; she was one of few to see the opportunity present when collaborating with filmmakers, such as John Malkovich, to shoot fashion films.
Of course, you can’t talk to Bella Freud without thinking of her impressive lineage. Great granddaughter of Sigmund and daughter of Lucian, she has managed to carve her own name in the world as a fashion designer.
As I sit here, considering these details and her understated presence, I feel as though I’ve been granted a rare glimpse into her world. She’s an intellectual, but not obnoxious about it—wholly uninhibited without being wild. And as for her presence, it’s powerful but not imposing. In a word: unique.
Semaine: Do you remember your first Fashion memory?
Bella: I think it started with shoes, fantasizing about shoes in my local Russell and Bromley. It was the nicest shoe shop in the local town where I grew up. They had these lovely platform lace-ups with a stacked heel which I used to dream about owning. When I was 12 I bought a pair in a jumble sale, they were really ugly and a size 8 (I had size 4 feet). I used to take them to places in my bag so my mum didn't see, then put them on when I arrived.
Semaine: Can you tell me more about your personal aesthetics and inspirations?
Bella: I am quite scruffy and that suits me - I was a tomboy when I was a child. I am still a bit of a tomboy but I like dressing up at night. I like this mix; being very scruffy and then being very feminine - I find it fun. I look at people a lot, at how they dress, but sometimes an idea wil gel more when I read than when I see something. When I read, an idea will crystallize and become more succinct. If you look at something the idea is already there in some shape. When I read, an idea can come from anything - I am able to reinvent it for myself and then build on it.
Semaine: What kind of books do you read?
Bella: I go through phases. When I was in my late teens I read a lot of XIX century French and Russian literature: Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy... all of that genre. There are authors that stay with you forever like Camus or Chekov.
I have been reading a lot of memoires and biographies lately. Reading about the way other people think can spark ideas for clothes. I also have finally become interested in poetry. I was more interested in words of songs before but now I have started reading poetry, the Beat Poets and Frank O’Hara.
Semaine: Can you explain the story of your famous jumpers?
Bella: I made 3 short films with John Malkovich, then two more with another director. We made a film based on a story about Beatnik girls waiting for their poet guru, The Hideous Man, to arrive. I wanted one of them to be wearing a kind of literary groupie jumper with names like Camus, Godard, and Ginsberg on it. In the 70's there was a famous t-shirt with 'Clapton is God' written on it and a friend said 'why not so Ginsberg is God,' which I thought was great. Then my assistant, who had a cold, said 'What about Godard is dog, I mean God.' I thought that was perfect! It could mean so much - or nothing; it could be total bullshit. Those quotes came from that.
Then Kate Moss wore the jumper and suddenly it became a 'thing.' It was 2003, so over ten years ago. I started to make other jumpers with words on them, it built organically with no particular planning.
I made really small collections at the time, 4 styles at the most. I just wanted to do a tiny collection and use them like a flag. I find that I really like thinking about words that would act almost as a pattern and finding sentences that aren’t a slogan. It is not a philosophy. It’s not supposed to be cute. It’s a floating thing that can become whatever you want it to be.
If I am reading and something attracts my attention, I will draw the word out and see if it turns into something. I enjoy that process as I am really interested in words - I think language is everything. With language you can change the world.
Semaine: You were one of the first to do “fashion films”; can you talk to us about your first films and how they have evolved?
Bella: I did my first film in 1990 for the second collection of my own label - I don’t really know why. I didn’t know anything about films or about the process of making them. But I just thought maybe it was a good idea and it would be cheaper then putting up a fashion show. And that was pretty much it.
I went to the racetracks because I liked the atmosphere of it - the way that people dress up even if it's cold outside. I asked James Lebon to direct and I found the music that I liked. I thought it would be about the same length as the show and be about the clothes. I didn’t know what I was doing at all and to be honest, it was fine. I learned about it by doing it.
The next year I did another film that was way more polished. I worked with a director called Kate Garner. It had a storyboard.. It was much more like a little film.
Then I just forgot about films until I was bored of doing shows. I felt like I couldn’t get my message across properly with the shows. It was like I was speaking the wrong language. I wanted to find somebody who would be up for making a fashion film; someone talented who would bring their vision, take my ideas, and bring them somewhere I didn’t feel it was going. And so someone introduced me to John Malkovich and we ended up making three films together. It was great. I would choose the actors and the models and do the story of the clothes and he would do the story of the film.
I did two more films with Martina Amati who is more of an experimental film maker. She is brilliant and also my next door neighbour which was convenient, I learned a lot from her. The last one I directed myself. I would love to go on making films.
Semaine: You started your career in 1990, working with Vivienne Westwood. Do you think the Fashion world has evolved or changed a lot?
Bella: The really big thing that has changed for me is the High Street, which used to be awful but now has become really good. It has brought fashion into everyday use, whereas when I started in the 90's, fashion was for a certain kind of people and the rest were just wearing clothes. There wasn't really fashion for everyone by any means. Instead of copying brands badly, the High Street started employing good designers to work for them; not big designers but graduates from designs schools - talented young people.
Semaine: Who is the Bella Freud Woman?
I think of a few different women when I work. Sometimes it’s people I know, people I love, and I love the way they dress. If I’m stuck, I think ‘How would she wear it? What does it need to have in order for her to like it?' Sometimes it’s someone cool or less cool but I want it to work for whomever I am thinking of.
Sometimes it can be a pop star and I think ‘Oh it would be so nice for her’ even though, I really have no idea. But it’s more regarding my fantasy about what she might like. I like to think about people when I am designing.
Semaine: Ultimate Faux pas'?
Bella: I find it a funny idea to be prejudiced about ‘Mauvais-Gout’. Or prejudiced against ‘ Le Bourgeois.’ You might miss something amazing because you think it’s bourgeois and actually who cares if it’s just fantastic.
Buñuel, the film director, plays around with a lot with the architecture of the bourgeoisie but it’s so perverse and kinky. If you are too prejudiced about something or you are too strict in your idea of what is or isn't good taste, then you miss things. Just watch and listen. It’s all there.
Semaine: Would you mind telling me a little about your involvement with the Palestinian refugees?
Bella: My best friend Karma Nabulsi and I started a charity in 2003 called the Hoping Foundation to support Palestinian refugee children. I have been interested in the issue for a long time and noticed that when there is an international catastrophe there will be a huge push around the world to help the victims - but not for Palestinian refugees. It's as though people are too scared to show goodwill because it has been so politicized. Our charity is very small, we give grants for educational, artistic and sports related grants for children living in the camps. It's very humble but we do a lot to remind people it is always possible to help children in any situation. People can support Palestinian refugee children without feeling they have to understand before making a gesture of support. It is so important that people don't turn away. I am proud to be doing anything to help.
Semaine: Are you inspired by lyrics?
Bella: The last Gil Scott Heron record is so beautiful and the lyrics are so poetic. I find Nick Cave lyrics fascinating. The way he thinks. How he decided to use the thing he does and create something so provocative. A band from the 60's called The Last Poets really inspires me too. They are really a group of poets and they have been through various people and permutations of protestors.
They came out of the Civil Rights movement and I am interested in how people can say things in a way that makes people actually notice what’s required of them. It’s very subtle.
To get people to listen to you is a real talent. I am very interested in those people who are able to do that. Generally, we don’t want to hear a message. We just want to be entertained. But when someone is able to say things that open peoples hearts and minds, it’s really exciting.
Semaine: You don’t do a lot of press. Is there a reason for that?
Bella: It’s fantastic if Kate Moss or someone famous wears my clothes because it makes people notice it. The clothes should be in the limelight ideally – I feel like they do the talking. In the end, I want to be working and reading and looking around and drawing... and making—that’s the most important thing I could do. Otherwise, there is no substance and substance is everything, really.
Semaine: Future projects? Is there anything you haven’t done that you would like to do?
Bella: I have a couple of things in the pipeline. I am working on a few collaborative projects. I am doing a project with Fred Perry and another with Cutler and Gross where we plan to make some dark glasses - which to me is the epitome of glamour.
I would like to do more homeware. I am more and more interested in interiors, and the way in which, fashion can grow into interiors instead of being a separate thing. It can infiltrate every level. And definitely, more films. I haven’t done one in a while.
One thing is for sure—we at Semaine are very excited to see what’s next. The coherence and timelessness in Bella’s work seems to be grounded in the authenticity of her process. Her jumpers are not just jumpers. There is intention and reflection behind each one. Her films are not just films. They are part of a larger creative process, meant to translate her aesthetic identity into a more personal manner than catwalks. Her collaborations could never be mistaken for marketing stunts. She respects her own identity too much.
Bella Freud chose fashion, feeding from every other type of art: literature, music and poetry. There is something very sincere in Bella’s demeanour, as well as something calm and serene - a bit dreamy, maybe.
Bella Freud is cool because she doesn’t try to be cool. She’s not trying to prove something; She’s not trying to scream louder. She’s not fishing for compliments. She’s doing her thing with sincerity and a desire to share her vision, and that translates into any language, really. So let’s decide to let the mystery be.
By Marie Winckler for Semaine