Since establishing her namesake label in 1990, Bella Freud has moved between the mediums of clothing design, interior design, perfume making, filmmaking and publishing – redefining what it means to be a designer. Along the way she has collaborated with leaders in these respective fields, shooting three films directed by the actor John Malkovich; printing a magazine entitled Memo with the late Anita Pallenberg; realising a penthouse at the Television Centre home and office complex in London with architect and interior designer Maria Speake, the co-founder of the Retrouvius, and designing limited edition knitwear with singer-songwriter Nick Cave. Her own clothing designs meanwhile have garnered a cult following amongst the likes of Kate Moss, Little Simz, Juliette Lewis, Zadie Smith, Sienna Miller, Olivia Wilde and Rebecca Hall.
For Bella, design is about distilling an emotion into a single statement. Her iconic word jumpers reflect her intelligent yet playful approach, and demonstrate the personal narratives that run throughout her collections. For instance, when Bella made the short film Hideous Man (2002), about a group of Beatnik girls waiting in a club for their favourite poet to arrive, she wanted the main protagonist to be wearing a top reminiscent of a band t-shirt, which demonstrated her devotion to literature and art. And so the ‘Ginsberg is God’ sweater was born. Bella’s assistant at the time made the malapropism ‘Godard is Dog’, and she liked it so much she incorporated it into the back of the design.
A frequently asked question is about the meaning behind the ‘1970’ jumper. The image evolved when Bella noticed the date in the corner of a catalogue while messing around on her photocopier – the year conjured up images of the early New York punk scene and Patti Smith. Even the Bella Freud logo is designed by her father, the painter Lucian Freud (1922-2011), who drew it during a break while Bella was sitting for him. Bella has documented these anecdotes along with many other outtakes from her world, such as the first time she saw Kate Moss through the window of a taxi in Paris, or the story of a night out in New York with Diane von Furstenberg. These stories can be read on the ‘Happenings’ section of the Bella Freud website, which is as much an illustrated notebook as it is an ecommerce platform.
Bella’s unique visual identity and way of seeing the world is in part inherited. She cites her father Lucian and his grey flannel Huntsman suits, handmade shirts and paint splattered chef trousers as early sartorial influences. Her great grandfather Sigmund Freud’s belief that all people possess unconscious thoughts, feelings, desires and memories, plays out in the sense of spontaneity of her clothes. The foundations of Bella’s fashion career were laid working for Vivienne Westwood in the 1980s, first at her legendary store Seditionaries as a teenager; returning some years later to be Westwood’s assistant just before setting up her own label.
By 2012, Bella was cultivating a lifestyle brand. That year she launched her first scented candle, and now Bella Freud Parfum comprises ten candles and two home fragrances. She harnessed her love of interior and homeware design to create a range of cushions, blankets, rugs and other products, all the while expanding her ready-to-wear offer and launching a menswear line of tailoring and knitwear.
There is a fluidity to Bella Freud clothes; their ease and versatility mean that they do not overpower the wearer, but rather illuminate them. This sense of naturalness is reflected in the first standalone Bella Freud boutique on Marylebone’s Chiltern Street in London, which opened its doors in 2015. Bella wanted to replicate the sense of being in her own home, so together with Maria Speake, she transformed the former gallery, furnishing it with reclaimed stone floors, bespoke brass rails, pale grey walls and specially dyed velvet Richelieu carpets.
Much like a cinematographer, Bella is always considering and reconsidering her brand holistically, it is no surprise then that film has been a constant throughout her career. Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour are both touchstones. Some of her earliest collections were presented not as fashion shows but as films, such as Day at the Races (1991), which was shot on a Super 8 camera, and directed and edited by brothers James and Mark Lebon. To date Bella has put her name to a total of eight films, including More Clothes (1992) – a love story where clothes play Cupid; Lady Behave (2000) starring Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Devon Aoki, Susie Cave, Jodie Kidd and Arielle Dombasle, and Submission – made in collaboration with the BAFTA Award-winning director Martina Amati.
In 2018 Bella was hand-picked by the British Film Institute to make a short, entitled The Cut, exploring the cinema that has inspired her. Then, in June 2021, Sotheby’s invited Bella to curate their summer season. She designed the whole look and feel of the space, drawing the names of the artists featured in the sale – Chris Ofili, Claude Monet, Magdalene Odundo, Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon to name a few – across the walls and awning. Among the many events she held throughout the week was a poetry evening in collaboration with spoken word organisation Apples and Snakes, a night called ‘Hello Cunty: Tales from the Colony Room’, which was hosted by Norman Rosenthal and involved recreating the bar of the infamous members club, and the Collectors’ Dinner, with table cloths hand drawn by young artist Charlie Gosling, and a special performance of two songs by Nick Cave.
For Bella, beautiful imagery isn’t enough, she sees film as the most authentic, nuanced and immediate way of communicating her ideas. Clothes, of course, are an important part of these stories, but they are secondary to the people wearing them.