To mark the release of our latest collaboration of limited edition prints with Bella Freud, our Founder Gyr King sat down with the celebrated designer in her Chiltern Street, London store. The pair discuss the power of clothes as a protector, how Bella has found confidence in her own decision making, and how the family tradition of taking a bath helps her to recalibrate.
Gyr: So to go back to what works or not, when I went to art college, you did sculpture or you did ceramics, or you did painting, and now artists are much more interdisciplinary. I think it’s a really fascinating moment in time, where artists feel that they’ve been released from the discipline of just doing one thing.
And sometimes I think it’s partly because of the ability to make; the techniques are often now a little bit more mechanical, but they don’t have to be as structured.
I find it interesting that you’re talking about what works and what doesn’t work, but as you say, the most gratifying thing is, and the most sensitive thing for lots of artists is, ‘what I do, will it work?’. Because the commercial activity, whether it’s in clothing, apparel, or painting, is ultimately the testament to how successful it is with the customer and the receiver.
Bella: It’s what to choose, I suppose out of everything you can choose, and what translates into being immediate, and then desirable. And I suppose that’s what you need in clothes. And I don’t know about art, really, I think it’s similar. I suppose it’s how it touches you.
‘I notice more when I go into a dip, and I need to sort of give myself electric shocks by challenging myself and seeing if I get a result or not’
Gyr: I think it’s really similar, and I think it’s interesting. So for example, I can remember sitting in a backroom with Howard Hodgkin at an opening of an exhibition, where he was a super successful artist, but he just wouldn’t go out there. He sat with a bottle of red wine, and was incredibly nervous about what the reaction to his work would be.
So no matter what stage in your career, you are feeling that feeling of, ‘am I about to be rejected? Is that the end, or is it going to be a reaffirmation of what I’ve done?’, it’s omnipresent in lots of artists. I think most artists feel that because ultimately, if people don’t want what you produce, it sort of loses a point in a way.
Bella: Yes, I think it’s really difficult if people don’t want what you produce to keep up the drive, because that response to your work, even if you’re too shy to be there when it’s happening, is energising and exhilarating and that kind of feeling wakes up other ideas.
I mean, I’m so conscious of that at the moment, or always, or I’m more aware of it now than I used to be. I notice more when I go into a dip, and I need to sort of give myself electric shocks by challenging myself and seeing if I get a result or not.
I think probably a lot of artists or people in the artistic world have a fear of rejection. It’s like a love test, doing the thing that you’re most afraid of, and if you can get a breakthrough, it’s like an explosion inside. It’s just…
Gyr: Really energising.
Bella: Yes, it’s fantastic.
Gyr: You also run a business, you are incredibly involved right the way through the creative process, and businesses can be really creative, but they can also be extremely draining and tiring, and you’re involved in all of those things.
When you first start a business, or you first start out as an artist, in a sense, occasional rejection isn’t as difficult. But once you’re established, you have something to lose and a reputation to lose over whatever else. So there’s a lot of stress attached to that isn’t there?
Bella: There’s huge amounts of stress attached to that, but either you break, or you don’t, or you go on and you get used to the kind of nuances of how you’re affected. And when there’s a knock back, you look for other ways to kind of reengage yourself. And so I’ve been doing that for a long time.
Gyr: Going right back to when your mother took you to Morocco for example, all of those things must have been incredibly inspirational, as well as difficult. And I guess all of those experiences informed what you do now?
Bella: Definitely. I totally believe that you are what informs you, and I’m just reading this book at the moment by this Japanese writer called Mishima. It’s called, ‘Confessions of a Mask' and he describes becoming obsessed with somebody when he was four, what they were wearing, how he wanted to be like that, and how much intensity of longing and sorrow he also associated with that.
It’s the most extraordinary writing, it’s so kind of outlandish in a way. He also assumes you know what he’s talking about, and he was born in 1925. Then how all this feeling is connected to a piece of clothing, and I thought, ‘oh god yeah, I know’, it just resonated so much.
It’s not like being directly influenced by a specific piece of clothing, but it’s about the atmosphere and the feeling. I suppose what I then noticed was that certain ways of dressing made me able to overcome my self doubt.
I’d look in the mirror and think, ‘Oh, God, what is that awful thing?’ and then I put something on and think, ‘it’s okay!’, and that still happens, and I suppose that’s..
Gyr: There’s the influence and confidence.
Gyr: When I look at the colours of the new artworks you’ve done with all the ceramics, you can see that they’re, dare I say, almost Moroccan colours. I mean, there’s an optimism there, to me they’re not London colours.
Bella: That’s interesting.
Gyr: I think influences shine through in subliminal ways a lot of the time. I can remember being influenced heavily by a teacher who had been to the LSE. So stupidly, I thought that’s where I wanted to go and then in the last year of term I suddenly realised actually, it wasn’t, but he was such an inspirational teacher, you kind of wanted to follow that path. So I mean, it can be good as well as bad.
Bella: But even following a path for a term is worth it, isn’t it?
Gyr: Oh absolutely.
Bella: Somebody who’s very influential in your life, for however short a time, then finding out that what they do isn’t what you want, that’s quite liberating as well.
Because you know that you can absorb something and that it doesn’t have to be the beginning and the end of your life and I tend to want that. I want everything I want things to be ‘it’, and a magical solution, but they aren’t and when they tail off, I definitely have a bit of a dip. And I have to remember, ‘oh yeah, I just want to not think anymore because I found the answer to everything’.
Gyr: You want a beginning and an end. And you intellectually know that you can’t always have an end!
Bella: I know, and then I get bored of course, and then I want more.
Gyr: We were talking earlier about how we as parents influence our children, you had two incredibly strong, and must have been inspirational parents. Do you think that has formed part of your character later on? Because obviously, it massively forms our character earlier on, do you feel as close to that now as you did when you design and paint?
Bella: Well, I feel now that both my parents are dead, they’ve empowered me with my own thought, my ability to think for myself. Whereas, especially with my father, he was just so brilliant and funny, and his take was always so good that I’d often wait to see what he thought about things. I think that affected me, I would be more hesitant in my own decision making and my own instinctive response to things.
But certainly watching the way he worked, the way he would drive through things, and he wouldn’t stop, that was a hugely influential thing that I thought, ‘I see that in order to get anywhere, you have to do this’, so I followed that example. And my mother was different, she would not be held back by societal norms, and it wasn’t always great to be a child in that situation.
But, she was incredibly curious and intrepid and escaped from a situation in her own upbringing that she really hated and suffered from, and made a life for herself that made her happy and independent. I mean, it was quite a strange life as well, my father is the one everyone knows as this great artist, but she was just as driven and strong.
‘both my parents read a lot and that is something that I’ve always used as a resource if I feel lost or kind of cynical, I know that that’s the answer’
Gyr: She sounds like it from your sister’s book, and I think that comes through really clearly. That ability to be interested in lots of things, and actually, again, reading your sister’s book, it seemed to be very modern, her thought process. What she was doing then, was actually absolutely right on the button in terms of the problems we are dealing with now.
Bella: Yes, she was, she definitely was. And she read a lot, both my parents read a lot and that is something that I’ve always used as a resource if I feel lost or kind of cynical, I know that that’s the answer. She used to read to us as children, it was really great, and she’d get lost in a book. She’d get in the bath and stay there for hours sometimes with a book, and that seemed like a good thing.
Gyr: At the time did you think that was eccentric, or did you think that was actually normal?
Bella: I thought it was something I looked forward to. I thought, ‘oh, that's what you do when you grow up, you can have your own time, or you can explore something’, and having a bath is such a nice thing, both my parents weirdly loved baths.
My father, when he was restless, would have a bath. Sometimes two or three times a day when he was extremely agitated, so our family are people who know that a bath is like a recalibration. And my mother did that too.
Gyr: And have you carried that on, or do you just have showers?
Bella: I despised showers for ages until I got one. So a bath is a different thing, usually in the evening I’ll have a bath. It’s special, it always feels like an event having a bath. Sometimes I watch a film when I’m in the bath, and I used to read.
Gyr: Your father left an extraordinary legacy and in a sense, his work has lived on very profoundly, it’s as relevant today as it ever was. So there’s sort of an immortality through what he did.
That one level is unique to a few, there aren’t many artists or writers or musicians who have that. I mean, unfortunately, most of us don’t remember many politicians in the same way. You’re successful and you must be quite driven, do you think about legacy yourself?
Bella: No, I am much more involved in the moment, and finding ways to take the next step. That’s very much where I feel I am right now. I’m exploring another medium around ideas and conversations connected to clothes and feelings.
I don’t know about legacy, I think that’s a terrible idea to think about how things will be. If I did that I don’t think I’d be able to do what I wanted right now. I need to be engrossed in what is happening now.
Clothes will eventually fall apart, I suppose, at some point. I like that process of disintegration as well. Whereas if you’re making a painting, you never want that to happen.
Gyr: We were lucky enough to do the publishing with you of the limited editions last year, and they sold better as a collection than almost anything that we've done with our contemporary artists, ever. So it's fantastic to work together again, for a potentially new audience.
It’s not just the people who buy the clothes, and we’re getting a lot of young people saying, ‘oh I want to buy that’, and actually, with the ones that have sold out, ‘oh haven't you got any around, haven’t you got anything left’. It’s really lovely, your practice seems to be quite broad, but there’s a cohesiveness about it.
Bella: I’m so pleased, it’s such fun to hear that. I suppose for a while I thought – maybe for 15 years or something – about how fashion is not just clothes. And then when I made candles, I saw another canvas for the things I did, and then with the ceramics too.
Also, I was obsessed and still am to a degree with when I read about Jean Cocteau. I read his books and read all about him and also Coco Chanel, who did sets, she did theatre. She just sort of changed the atmosphere of not just clothes, but how to wear them, where to wear them, the context – she changed the sense of freedom about that. And I mean now, I’m always curious. Fashion has become so fashionable now that you can go to more areas with it.
It’s possible to be more adventurous and more playful, and people aren’t ashamed to be interested in fashion in the way that, especially English people, if you are accused of being interested in fashion, that was a terrible insult and just synonymous with vanity and elitism.
So now, you can talk to the most unlikely person about fashion, and they’ve got something to say about it and I’m really interested in all of that. And how to make yourself feel good, especially now, everyone’s so anxious. I mean maybe they always have been, but it does feel particularly burdensome.
‘I’ve always believed in the power of clothes to act as a kind of protector, an encourager, the pause between how you feel and how you interact’
Gyr: I’m thinking that if you have pure conceptual art, it’s really in the mind, and that is something for which there’s no physical attachment, and yet, what’s happening here is that there is a strong physical attachment, and that’s quite reassuring during difficult times.
Bella: I’ve always believed in the power of clothes to act as a kind of protector, an encourager, the pause between how you feel and how you interact, and it gives you so much. Armour sounds defensive, but it gives you some sort of tools really, and it's a way of showing people how you would like them to notice you. Especially if you aren’t an extrovert but you want attention. I mean, pretty much everybody does want some kind of attention.
And clothes and fashion are the way to signal, ‘I’d like you to relate to me in this way’, certainly to start with. When I’m making or working on a collection, especially tailoring, which is so much of the outside; when I remember my first collection, I did tailoring and knitwear and it was the tailoring that was the accessory to the knitwear, which was the soft centre. So you don’t want to be a soft centre immediately, you need something to use to then reveal yourself next. So I’m interested in that, always, that kind of tension.
‘I like going to a party and then having a great conversation in the corner. That’s my idea of a perfect night out.’
Gyr: I read somewhere that you often felt more at home talking to one person at a party in a corner, rather than being the centre of attention. Given what you’ve just said about the armour or the way clothes give you a skin, do you feel more introverted or extroverted?
Bella: I like going to a party and then having a great conversation in the corner. That’s my idea of a perfect night out. So I like all the fun of going there, this light apprehension and then making a connection, even if it’s sitting with my best friend just nattering away or whatever, but within the throng.
Gyr: What’s your ideal dinner party size? Do you have one?
Bella: Probably two..!
Gyr: I don’t know whether people have dinner parties anymore, but I think there’s something really lovely about the French/Italian way of actually meeting on neutral territory. There’s something quite nice about the spontaneous dinner rather than something that’s been planned.
Bella: Well, both are good I suppose. I don’t go to many dinner parties, I certainly never give any, I’ve got a tiny kitchen table so it’s usually just me, then I can put my feet on the table, which I really enjoy!
Gyr: Well, it’s been really lovely of you to give up the time. Thank you so much.
Bella: Thanks Gyr, thanks so much.
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