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How Bella Freud is Keeping Her Line of 'It' Girl-Beloved Sweaters Intentionally Small

And how she came up with phrases like "Ginsberg is God" and "Je t'aime Jane."
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Bella Freud. Photo: Bella Freud

Bella Freud. Photo: Bella Freud

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

There are lots of reasons why you've likely heard of  British designer Bella Freud: You might know she's the daughter of the late Lucian Freud, a famed artist, and the great granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis. Or you may have seen one of her merino wool sweaters — emblazoned with phrases like "Ginsberg is God," "Je t'aime Jane" or "1970" — on style stars Kate Moss and Alexa Chung. Freud also writes for such publications as the Sunday Telegraph and makes short films with such collaborators as John Malkovich. Plus, she was one of Vivienne Westwood's first employees and at one point designed for the line Biba.

While her pedigree may be varied, Freud's approach to her own business is quite specific. As she launches a new cashmere collection exclusively at Bergdorf Goodman — a significant foray into U.S. expansion — we chatted with Freud about her reluctance to embrace fashion, keeping her line small, how she comes up with those clever phrases and what's next. Read on.

Were you always interested in fashion?

Around the age of 12, I was interested in fashion but I felt very embarrassed about it; I had to get things that were not exactly 'in fashion,' but were slightly eccentric. The attitude at my school was very much that if you were interested in fashion it meant you were completely intellectually vacuous.

I used to buy things from old-lady shops and make them work for my style. Then when the whole punk thing happened... it felt safer to develop my style within that. It was less embarrassing and more aggressive, which was fun at age 16.

Did you go to fashion school?

I wanted to go to art school but didn't want to be a traditional artist. Fashion school just felt right. I enrolled in a school [the Accademia di Costume e di Moda, Rome, and she also studied tailoring at the Istituto Mariotti, Rome] and I became really interested in the signals that people send out through the details in their clothing. Rome was very much a center of handmade things and I worked at some of the old tailors and shoemakers. All the finishing was about a specific kind of touch and I became really interested in that.

When I was 16, I met Vivienne Westwood in a nightclub and I asked if I could work a Saturday job... that was my first experience of working with somebody who was right at the forefront of their game. We became friends and [after school in Rome] I started working as her assistant. I moved back to England and I worked in all the different jobs because [her company] was very tiny then.

What inspired you to start your own line?

I had a look in my head that I wanted to see on somebody. It was very much influenced by these books by Colette called “Claudine” about this young girl who's very provocative and prudish and quite shy... I thought it was a really exciting combination, this very suppressed, very charming young woman. I’ve done writing and made films, but as a designer I feel like I can express myself the best.

A sweater from pre-spring 2016. Photo: Bella Freud.

A sweater from pre-spring 2016. Photo: Bella Freud.

Did you start with sweaters? How did the collection evolve?

I decided to do a collection of accessories and designed some sandals and little handbags. Then I bumped into someone who had a knitwear factory in Scotland and he said, 'Oh you can do some knitwear with me if you'd like,’ and I ended up doing a collection that was about 20 looks of knitwear. I wanted to take tailoring and translate it into knits, but that behaved in this soft way. I invited some buyers over and it sold.

I had Italian backers and then they had problems of their own [and pulled out] and I started doing consultancies. At the same time, I started doing short films. I was making a film with John Malkovich so I decided to do my own little collection based on the story in the film. I wasn’t even going to sell it, but then a couple of shops asked if they could sell it so I made a really, really small production run. I found a different way of working. I worked for other brands and did consultancies but I also kept my own line going but in a very, very small way, almost as if I was doing a kind of biannual magazine. A new way of buying was emerging at that time as well and my small collections worked for that.

What was the film about?

Beatnik girls waiting for their "poet hero" to come, and he never arrives. I was thinking about the whole thing of fandom and banned merchandise a bit. There used to be these T-shirts in the '70s that said 'Clapton is God' and so I thought, Okay, we'll have 'Ginsberg is God.' In the beatnik era, some of those poems are really great and mean a lot and others are sort of just rubbish really and don't mean anything. So I thought, 'Ginsberg is God' and on the back it says 'Goddard is Dog.' It doesn't mean anything; it's just a slip of the tongue but it catches the whole thing.

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I got a message on my answering machine from Jane Birkin's agent saying 'she loved your Gainsbourg is God jumper,' and I thought, Oh, how am I going to... I can't just make everybody 'God.' So I was thinking what someone would say to Jane and I drew it as if it were an embroidery. I put 'Gainsbourg is God' on the back and it has 'Serge' on the sleeves.

Do you know which kind of phrase or design has been the best seller?

This year, 1970 has. It's funny how people decide to choose something. Someone [famous] will wear it and a whole new avenue of interest will come from that.

Like who?

Soon after I did 'Ginsberg is God'... I had only made a very few. They were selling in a tiny shop on Carnaby Street and Kate Moss bought one. That picture of her [wearing it] just went viral. And then it happened again about eight years later when Alexa [Chung] wore it. When somebody wears something and it looks like they make it their own and it suits their identity, it's not just a photo opportunity; it's a connection of the source of the idea, a young women coming along and getting the idea, and recasting the whole thing as she sees it.

Alexa Chung and Bella Freud in 2012. Photo: Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

Alexa Chung and Bella Freud in 2012. Photo: Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

How did you find retailers in the beginning?

I've had various agents and done some of the sales myself. When I first started I called up a Japanese shop called Beams whom I'd met when I worked at Vivienne Westwood and they bought the collection. Now I have a fantastic agent who is very creative as well and it's really great to have an agent who gets you. The feedback is very constructive and that helps me to build my brand.

What's next? Are you pretty focused on international expansion?

I've developed a little cashmere label as well and Bergdorf's is stocking that. I’m really interested in America.

I've also been making scented candles [and perfumes]. I work with a parfumerie, and because [we have] a 'nose,' we’re a maison de parfums. I've been doing the scented candles with the artwork from the jumpers and it looks really cool. It's kind of a melding of fashion and beauty rather than it becoming very different. I want it to have the same sort of excitement as fashion has.

Is there anything else you plan to add to that in the future?

I've found a site for a shop in London, so that's going to be happening in the next six months. I'm interested in home-ware, and all sorts of things, really. I don't think fashion has to be restricted to clothes.

Photo: Bella Freud.

Photo: Bella Freud.

What has been your biggest challenge so far in growing your business?

Not being overwhelmed by how much there is to do. And being very rigorous about not getting too tied to my desk. My role is to be the source of the ideas in my company, so I need to make sure I'm looking, I'm reading, I'm seeing, I'm drawing as much as possible. Even though I feel like I ought to be in my office, I realize that's not always the best place for me to be. And I have a really great team. I trust my judgment of people a lot more than when I first started.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start his or her own clothing line?

When it starts to go well, the cash flow is the thing that is the wheel that will fall off the car. Last year a young graduate came to see me who seemed really talented and she couldn't decide whether she should go and work for somebody else or start up her own business. On the one hand, to work for someone else, you get a lot of experience and you find out the rhythm of fashion, the schedule, which is very harsh and relentless. But also, when you start working for other people, it's quite difficult to tear yourself away from that. Notice what your strengths are and build on those. If you find something that you feel you're really brilliant at, build it around that and then don't be scared to stick with your vision of how you think it ought to be, even if it seems kind of eccentric. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.