When former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham announced in 2008 she would be starting her own fashion brand, the snobbier corners of the industry gasped in horror. At the time, Posh was not exactly known for her style credibility, particularly when, after the band’s breakup in 2001, she morphed into Queen WAG (wife and/or girlfriend) of the English football team, thanks to her much-publicized marriage to Manchester United’s star player, David Beckham.
Her uniform of Birkin bags, minuscule hot pants, high heels, gaudy hair extensions, prominent breasts, and fake tans will forever be embedded in the British psyche.
But then something odd happened. She transformed into the very thing she was not: a respected fashion designer, lauded by editors who had previously dismissed her and her brand as nothing more than a vanity project.
Retailers from Net-a-Porter to Bergdorf Goodman sold her clothes, and she expanded into shoes, accessories, eyewear, and even a sportswear collection. The ultimate accolade came in 2014 when she was anointed “Brand of the Year” at the British Fashion Awards.
She transformed into the very thing she was not: a respected fashion designer.
But despite all the plaudits, sales failed to match expectations. Looking back, there are several reasons for this, including a too-expensive price point, an over-ambitious expansion plan, and a fashion industry that was trending away from her signature body-conscious sheath dresses and nicely tailored but wildly expensive wide-legged trousers.
Recently, British tabloids and even the broadsheets have begun trumpeting every sign of a possible demise. In January, the brand posted its 2019 accounts, which showed operating losses of $16.3 million against sales of $53 million—and she’s been losing roughly that much every year of the brand’s operation. A few weeks later, design director Ilaria Icardi, Beckham’s trusted collaborator and close friend, announced that she would step down from her post at the end of 2021 after seven years.
The double-edged sword of private equity’s role in fashion might be partly to blame. In 2008, when she first launched, her team consisted of only herself and two others, all equally invested in her “go slow and small” vision. She started appearing in Vogue, and her ambitions grew. In came big-ticket New York shows and flagship stores in London and Hong Kong. But by 2017, nearly a decade after launching, the business was still not breaking even, so she allied with Neo Investment Partners, who plowed in a much-needed $40 million. They encouraged her to think bigger, to bring in more seasoned, big-name officers, such as industry veteran Ralph Toledano. The former president of Puig’s fashion division (Carolina Herrera, Jean Paul Gaultier, Nina Ricci, and Paco Rabanne were all under his watch) became her new chairman, as well as a partner at Neo.
All this exerted further pressure on her bottom line, especially when combined with the unfortunately timed and costly launch of her 2019 beauty brand, despite its positive reception, and so her business (now jointly owned by the private-equity firm and Beckham Brand Holdings Ltd., the parent company of the star’s beauty, fragrance, and fashion businesses) is still in the red.
So while big names like Naomi Campbell, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Meghan Markle wear her clothes to events, ordinary shoppers such as her old Spice Girls fan base have always found her prices—$190 for a T-shirt or $1,290 for a skirt—too out of touch. Conversely, consumers of luxury ready-to-wear have been reluctant to identify themselves with a brand defined by a single mass-market boldface name rather than the more traditional raft of style ambassadors. A fashion buyer explained one of the reasons why: “If you are wafting through Harrods and your budget is $2,000, you are more likely to go for Valentino, a recognized heritage brand, rather than Victoria Beckham.”
Although she has grown in industry stature, the same has not played out with customers, who still can’t get past the Posh factor. Her one-off collaboration with Target on the other hand and a more permanent one with Reebok have been resounding successes, although Adidas’s impending sale of Reebok is unlikely to play in her favor.
Brittle and Unfriendly
My fashion-buyer friend tells me that Beckham always listened to her team in the early years. They weren’t afraid to contradict or argue with her, plus they understood the nuances of working with her particular brand of celebrity. That isn’t the case with her new executives, whose homogenous approach to fashion eroded her early “go slow and small” edict, and who failed to grasp that her popularity is very much what the Brits like to call “Marmite”; i.e., you either love her or you hate her.
I interviewed Beckham two years ago in front of a crowd of devotees in London’s Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, two doors down from her grand and cavernous Mayfair flagship store. She was surprisingly brittle and unfriendly, only coming alive in front of her audience, morphing into a smiling and effervescent performer as soon as my questions began. It didn’t endear her to me, and it also threw me because I’d always heard how well liked she is among her friend group and her staff. But I may have been missing the point.
“You have to understand, she was globally famous at 18. She doesn’t know what it’s like to not be famous, who to trust,” one of her close friends tells me.
A fellow designer who has known her for years is more explicit: “She is a dichotomy of so many things. She’s sharp, funny, and astute. But she’s also very insecure and fearful of the press. She’s hurt easily. She’s both completely normal and a complete princess. She’s unsuited to being the fashion beast you have to become to succeed in business. But fashion is the real her.”
“She doesn’t know what it’s like to not be famous.”
In the early days, the Beckham brand was dogged by rumors that Roland Mouret, the successful London-based designer, was secretly designing her collection. “Not true,” one who would know tells me. “He of course gave her advice in the way a mentor would, and she did rely on him, but he categorically did not design her collection.”
Another hackneyed complaint regards the vanity project. “Everyone knew how hard she worked, how committed she was,” continued the same person. I clearly remember magazine colleagues coming back from meeting her impressed with her attention to detail.
“She would take you through every item in her 10-dress collection,” says Lisa Armstrong, the respected Daily Telegraph fashion director, who was one of only 10 editors invited to Beckham’s presentations in the brand’s first few seasons. “She would explain why a zip had been placed there, why a hem was that length. I was impressed. We all were.”
Today, Victoria Beckham is sold at more than 450 retailers around the globe. Anna Wintour has been a regular at Beckham’s New York shows and often features her collections in Vogue. But somehow, profitability still eludes her.
Despite the financial hurdles she faces, she still has a few tricks up her sleeve. When she launched her first lipstick, called “Posh,” last year, it instantly sold out. It would seem obvious that she should now focus on her mass-market beauty venture, especially since the brand doesn’t benefit from steady sales of an “It” bag or fragrance.
But Beckham’s heart is said to lie in fashion, and she is unlikely to give it up without a fight. In early March, she announced her intention to scale back the collections and design fewer pieces. As a result, she should start to see more favorable profit margins.
The pandemic, which has hit her harder than most because of the dressy slant of her output, might well prove to be a blessing in disguise, giving her the opportunity to return to her earlier vision. It will silence accusations of brand VB being nothing more than a vanity project. “Of course it was just that in one sense,” says Armstrong. “But you have to remember that she does make very nice clothes, and of all the celebrity brands, only her and the Row have fashion credibility.”
Vassi Chamberlain is a London-based Editor at Large for Air Mail