Feature Victoria Beckham, once a throwaway pop star and footballer's wife, tells how she became a respected fashion designer.
There is a new Victoria Beckham sitting in front of me: poised, decorous, legs demurely crossed, hands neatly clasped, with a straight-backed posture that Miss Jean Brodie would have been proud of. She is here to talk about her much-feted dress collection, the second season of which will be presented at this season's New York Fashion Week today. Launched in a low-key presentation at last season's event, the first outfits from her label, dVb by Victoria Beckham, were a somewhat bijou set of 1950s-inspired dresses, a selection of which land at Villa Moda in Dubai in a few weeks. What the range lacks in quantity (a total of just 400 pieces were made from its 10 designs) it more than makes up for in chic. And in a shock move, after years of deriding Posh's extravagant taste while occasionally paying condescending lip service to her style's popularity with the general public (she has launched more haircuts than Jennifer Aniston and was an early adopter of last year's "body-con" craze), the style cognoscenti made a unanimous U-turn, deciding that they loved both her and her collection.
Beckham is suitably grateful for her acceptance into the fashion world as a designer rather than a clothes horse. "I'm very thankful to the industry for giving me such an opportunity," she says earnestly. "I think the reason they've done that is because I haven't just put my name on this product. I've really put in the work and I love what I do. And the best thing about the response I got is that it enabled me to do another collection - that's all I wanted."
The hard work that she mentions involved more than just applying knowledge gained from 12 years of wearing designer togs, though this experience should not be underestimated. "Having worn dresses for so many years, I've really been able to take that into account," she says. "There's nothing worse than going out for a meal, then you sit down and a bone in your corset snaps and digs in." She has applied herself with all the dedication one would expect from anyone given a second chance to pursue their dream career. Designing is, says Beckham, a genuine passion. "This isn't an ego trip," she insists.
"I make all the dresses on myself. I drape the calico on myself and then I get a pattern made of the dress," she says. "That's the way that I work. I've spent hours and hours in the Fashion Institute in LA going to the libraries, and the Fashion Institute in New York - when I was last there, they did a guided tour for me and pulled out certain pieces from certain eras that I was interested in looking at details on."
But even in Beckham's triumphant return to favour, years of press coverage that has been almost bipolar in its mood swings (love her, hate her, love her again) have made the former Spice Girl older, wiser, a lot more guarded and rather more, well, posh. During the interview, she politely compliments me on the day's issue of The National, she thoughtfully praises the fashion sense of the UAE's women, and, before I leave, she makes sure to ask me a little about my life in Abu Dhabi. During the afternoon, too, she repeatedly refers to the good manners of her sons, Brooklyn, nine, Romeo, six, and Cruz, three; to the strictness of their upbringing and her horror of vulgarity. Her answers are carefully phrased and she rarely goes off-script. She is happy to talk about her fashion line, but this is not the chirpy, pouting footballer's-wife pop star that we thought we knew through the gossip magazines and tabloids. Yet somehow, in spite of her new-found wariness, she seems happier.
"I've definitely changed a lot since reaching my thirties. I'm a lot more sensible than I used to be. You become more content," she says. "I'm incredibly boring - if only those paparazzi sitting outside my house every day knew how boring I was? All I ever do is I go to the school and come back, or go to the office and come back. Everything revolves around David and the children. David and I never go to nightclubs, but it suits us."
You can understand why Beckham has retreated somewhat: the poor girl seems to have a knack for attracting unwelcome attention, from her school days, when the then Victoria Adams was relentlessly bullied, to the years of merciless tabloid sniping. "I've been kind of used to being picked on," she says, with an air of resignation. "I understand it - I've been playing the game for a long time, and I don't particularly like it."
The problem with this attention for Beckham - who, it could be argued, has benefited from it professionally, even if she has suffered personally - is that it goes beyond her own public persona into her private life and that of her family. The scrutiny, too, has bypassed mere prurience to become vitriolic and malicious. She tells a tale of her recent experience of watching a show about herself on the celebrity television channel E! Entertainment, with her children.
"I hadn't seen it. I didn't even know that they'd done one. But we were sat there watching it with the kids and going, 'Oh look, that's Daddy, when he first met Mummy, and there's Brooklyn when Brooklyn was born'. Then they showed Daddy at the World Cup, Daddy kicking some guy and then getting sent off. Then they showed the front page of a British tabloid that had reprinted what some football fans had been chanting at David during a match. They had said: 'We hate you Beckham and we hope your kid dies of cancer'. Brooklyn looked at me and said, 'Mummy, people wanted me to die?' We obviously turned the TV off and made a joke about it, and he's older now so he understands a little bit. But that's really irresponsible. "
It must take serious willpower to function under those conditions, but Beckham seems to have sussed out a few tricks. Firstly, a touch of California-style positive thinking has taken hold since she moved to Los Angeles when David, now 33, joined the LA Galaxy football team. "I'm not a negative person. I'm very positive," she says, more than once during the interview. "I'm very spiritual. I believe in positive thinking. I believe you get back what you put out there. I think it's important to not pollute your mind. If someone hasn't got something nice to say I don't really want to hear it."
Secondly, she has, in her words, kept her head down for a few years and bounced back - and in the eyes of the tabloids there is no greater virtue than resilience. "I think you get a certain amount of respect when you get hit and then you stand up again, you get hit and you stand up again," she says. Thirdly, she has accepted that not everyone will like her. "Everybody says that I'm very polarising, and yes, that's great, I'm cool with that. I think it's much more interesting. Marc Jacobs was saying that to me the other day. He's the same. People really, really like him or they really dislike him."
Ah, the superstar fashion designer Marc Jacobs: that brings us back to Beckham's final, and crucial, discovery: the value of being famous for something that she is genuinely good at. "I was never going to be the best singer," she admits. "I always had to work very hard in the Spice Girls, and I'm not a natural performer. I loved singing, I loved dancing, and you know, 'Girl Power' - it makes me laugh when I say that now, but we had a message to convey to the world. But I always think it's odd when people want to be famous. If fame comes with something that you love to do and something that is your talent and your passion, then that's cool. I don't need to be famous. I just want to be allowed to do what I love to do, which is my collection."
And there's no doubt she knows her stuff, fashion degree or not. She talks knowledgeably about the sort of details and construction featured in the dresses, the quality of the zips and fabrics, the power of corsetry and the needs of the customer. One begins to gain a sense of the woman that Victoria Beckham might have been in a Spice-free life and that she probably will be in the future: a canny, disciplined businesswoman with a taste for luxury and an ability to understand just what it is that other women want. As she describes the dresses, everything is related back to the benefit of the wearer.
"Every single dress I would wear, and do wear, myself. Being a consumer there are little details that are very important - zips, corsetry, those kind of details. All of the dresses have grosgrain belts on the inside, because generally I think people forget about posture nowadays, and the grosgrain waistband is just a reminder of how you hold yourself, how you sit, how you walk. I concentrated very hard on the corsetry, because I've worn lots of corsets over the years that are very uncomfortable, and rather vulgar, actually. We're using a lot of power-meshing, so it hugs your body as opposed to digging in. They're very comfortable, very flattering."
For all her wealth, her tabloid-documented life, her extraordinary wardrobe and her close-knit family, Beckham is keen to associate herself with "normal" women. She talks of the importance of her down-to-earth parents, and those of her husband David. She describes the guilt that many working women feel, though acknowledges that she is lucky to be able to work only during school hours. And she candidly admits her perceived flaws: "I'm a normal-looking girl that has made the best of what I've got. You know, I'm not a model. I'm from a normal background, a working-class background, and women can relate to that because it's not out of reach for anybody. Over the years, my weight has gone up and down, I've not always had particularly good skin, and people can relate to that. I'm very normal."
Not entirely normal, it turns out: this is a woman of exceptional discipline in the face of the temptations of wealth. She may, by her own admission, have been responsible for the football-specific WAG (Wives And Girlfriends) phenomenon 10 years ago, but nowadays she baulks at what many would consider a dream life spent in clothes shops and salons. "I don't have to work. You know, I could just plod around all day, go shopping, go for lunch and get my nails done every day. But I think that over the years people have actually realised I want to work, you know. I'm putting in the hard work."
She applies that work ethic to her family, too, keen that her sons should grow up understanding the value of good manners and of earning your keep. "It would be very easy to spoil the boys, but we never have. The first words out of their mouths were 'Mama', 'Dada', and then 'please' and 'thank you'. We're very, very strict at home. I was brought up by strict parents and I think manners are absolutely crucial. They're good kids, they're free spirits and they're fun. They breakdance and they sing and they smile and they're happy, but they have boundaries. They have never been spoilt. I don't like spoilt children - I've met lots of them."
The proof, of course, of Beckham's legendary drive to succeed will be in the response to her next collection, which, she says, will help establish a signature style. "People are only just starting to see my first collection," she explains. "So I didn't want to veer too far off what I've already done, because there's already a demand that I haven't been able to meet." She speaks like a seasoned designer and the formidable businesswoman that she already is (don't forget the books, the fragrances, the eyewear, the denim...). That slightly unsure, aloof, awkward teenager, outshone on stage by her band-mates, is long gone, as is the posing, shape-throwing red-carpet mannequin. "I've found an arena I feel perfectly comfortable competing in," she says. It really shows.