In the 16 years since the Spice Girls' raucous, girl-power anthem, "Wannabe" debuted, Victoria Beckham has eclipsed all her former band mates and engineered the mother of all reinventions.
Long gone is the woman haunted by the ghosts of a failed solo career and famous largely for her ever-expanding collection of Hermes Birkins. Today she is one of fashion's most celebrated businesswomen, having built her eponymous label into one of the industry's most rapid - and surprising - success stories.
There was a time when Beckham, 38, was fashion’s kiss of death. In the noughties, an apocryphal tale did the rounds in the fashion business.
As the story went, Tom Ford demanded to know who in his press office was sending free samples of his designs to the footballer’s wife. He was astonished to learn no-one was – the pop princess was actually buying the clothes herself and at full price. “Well,” bellowed Ford. “Somebody stop her!”
Back then, the newly minted WAG wasn’t a cool proposition for the designer of one of the world’s most desirable brands. This, after all, was the woman who fronted up to an exclusive fashion party with husband David Beckham, the pair kitted out in head-to-toe his ’n’ hers Gucci leather; the woman who, in 1999, married her dashing football-star other half on matching gold thrones in an Irish castle.
Years after Gucci-gate, Beckham’s fashion stock was still low when, as queen of the WAGS at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, she was papped with thickly curled hair extensions that trailed down to her tiny waist, a pneumatic boob job and tiny denim hotpants.
Yet Posh’s trajectory to style icon was already underway. In 2005, super stylist Katie Grand handpicked Beckham to star on the cover of her hugely influential magazine, Pop. The former pop star may have already been one of the most photographed women in the world, but for the first time the girl from Essex was given the serious fashion kudos of figuring in an all-powerful style bible. The next year, she published her own style bible – That Extra Half An Inch (Michael Joseph, $23.95) – an instant bestseller packed with Beckham’s fashion missives. Her career as a fledgling designer was also blossoming.
Meanwhile, she was hard at work on her own sartorial evolution. Beckham traded the flashy, revealing frocks for demure classics – hourglass dresses from Roland Mouret, Giambattista Valli and Azzedine Alaïa. She ditched the hair extensions and the spray tan and replaced them with a gamine crop and oversized shades. When Marc Jacobs decided to shoot Beckham for his spring/summer 2008 ad campaign, her journey to fashion stardom was complete. Juergen Teller’s shots captured Beckham upside down in a giant shopping bag, or emerging from a shoebox. Not only had the former WAG been given top-drawer fashion approval, she had shown she could laugh at herself, too.
Later that year, Beckham announced her own ready-to-wear label – a long-held ambition. “Marc Jacobs once told me something I’ve always lived by,” she later revealed. “I asked him who he considered his competition. ‘I don’t have competition,’ he told me. ‘My competition is myself from the season before.’” It’s a mantra Beckham has clearly clung to – doing everything her own way.
It was perhaps the modest way she launched the label in September 2008 that really won over the fashion world. The newly minted designer staged an unassuming preview in a hotel suite – granted, it was at New York’s Waldorf Astoria – and with just three models to show off her debut collection.
They may have owed more than a nod to the similarly sexy dresses created by Roland Mouret (who Beckham later admitted had helped her put her studio team together) and Giambattista Valli, but whatever their influence, they had bestseller written all over them. Stores waged a furious bidding war for exclusivity after the show.
It was all low-key and purposefully intimate at that first foray into haute fashion. Beckham had ordered the lone but lavish floral arrangement herself from the hotel florist that morning at 1am. The guest list was intentionally niche. But her real stroke of genius was to put herself front and centre, perched on an ornate sofa, charmingly nervous and talking through each and every look with the hand-picked journalists and buyers in a series of small presentations. She detailed every piece of trickery that had gone into the superluxe collection.
“For three days I talked and talked and talked,” remembered Beckham. Katie Grand, who has served as her informal advisor, pinpointed Beck-ham’s humility as key in seducing the notoriously po-faced fashion press: “She didn’t go in with a big show, splashing loads of money, hiring the most famous hair, make-up and music people.”
Beckham has since been very open about how terrifying that debut really was, confiding that she “felt beyond vulnerable. I’d never known nerves like it in my life.”
When the collection – where dresses cost from $1000 – finally hit the shop floor six months later in London, it sold out in record time – despite those high price tags.
Marigay McKee, chief merchant at Harrods, had already seen the power of Beckham’s name behind a brand when Beckham worked on a jeans line for Rock & Republic, and then under her own name. But her first full collection was even more of a surprise. “We were impressed by the structured simplicity and elegance of the dresses,” reveals McKee of Beckham’s designs. “And in just a few seasons, she developed a strong signature look. They fly off the rails as soon as they hit the floor.”
While Beckham might have originally found fame with her showy, OTT style, as a rookie designer she proved more bashful. “[Marc Jacobs and I] went out to dinner one night, and he said, ‘I saw that you put out a collection,’” she has recalled. “I felt embarrassed to tell Marc Jacobs that I — me, ex-Spice Girl, married to a footballer — was creating a fashion line.”
Beckham’s clothes might not be directional – they are resolutely classic – but then she has always been honest about her desire to create dresses that make women look beautiful. As the collection developed, celebrities (Demi Moore, Jennifer Lopez, Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet among them) were quick to snap up Beckham’s curvy day dresses and knockout gowns in sumptuous couture fabrics.
Beckham has clearly worked hard. “There are quite a few video-conferences at 5am with me in my dressing-gown, holding baby,” the mother of four told Women’s Wear Daily. “For me, it’s no different than it is for a lot of women out there. It’s like juggling glass balls. I love it.”
She has slowly and tentatively built the collection season after season, first adding more sumptuous gowns before moving into drapery, tailoring, knitwear and then accessories, when she launched her bag collection in spring/summer 2011. She waited until her seventh season before presenting a full-scale runway show, packed with understated, superluxe, sporty pieces.
“Now that I’ve been doing it a little bit longer I can take more risks,” Beckham has said. “I never try to follow a trend or fashion.”
It’s almost impossible to reconcile that perma-tanned pop star in her designer bling with the woman who is now better known for her elegant luxury. She has confounded all those editors who sniggered when they first heard she was going to launch her own label – a triumph that will surely be the sweetest pay-off.
As the former Spice Girl sang in her very first hit: “If you want my future, forget my past.”