The title of the designer’s eponymous label rolls off the tongue very comfortably; there’s a melodic assonance in the name Bella Freud. It reflects her Eastern European heritage. Yet given Freud’s fascination with words and rhythm, and her famous forebears, it’s hard to separate facts from feelings. Words, sounds and meanings are important to Freud, and her thoughts, feelings and dreams are reflected in the signature knitwear that is worn and loved by talented and beautiful women such as Kate Moss and Alexa Chung, among many others.
The brand Bella Freud was founded in the early 90s and its famous jumper designs started appearing about a decade later. They were partly the result of a collaboration with John Malkovich. Freud made a couple of short films with the Hollywood actor and it was on the set that one of her most famous creations came into being almost by chance. ‘I made some short films with John Malkovich, and the last one we did was about beatniks; a poet and women who were his admirers,’ Freud explains. She wanted one of the women to wear a jumper that would look like band merchandise and it ended up being inscribed with the words ‘Ginsberg is god’. ‘Someone had a flip of the tongue and said “Godard is dog”,’ Freud adds. ‘That was perfect for meaningful and meaningless poetry.’ The jumper remains one of the bestsellers to date; it reads ‘Ginsberg is god’ on the front and ‘Godard is dog’ on the back.
Moving away from the catwalk shows she started with, and after working for Jaeger and on the relaunch of Biba, Freud focussed on her line of knitwear, which rapidly became very successful. It was only a short while before Bella Freud knits were some of the most recognised items in contemporary British fashion.
Her recent successes include a collaboration with J Brand with whom she created a denim line complemented by signature jumpers that are embellished with words. ‘I was thinking about words and imagining Californian girls; imagining myself in America and which words would feel right. I chose “Pretty baby” and “Gangs of love” and “Boy-girl”. I could see this going well with the denim and the attitude of people. I hoped it would work. I liked it; I liked the sound of it.’
Words captivate Freud: that’s why she is very precise with terminology. She doesn’t like to use ‘word prints’ or ‘slogans’ to describe the expressions in her creations; she prefers ‘word jumpers’. ‘I don’t call them “slogans”,’ she says, ‘as I see slogans as a directive, and I like the words not to have a particular directive. I like them to potentially mean something or nothing to whoever wears them’. And then there are associations with things I care about, like maybe power or resistance.’
It’s little surprise that she finds a great deal of inspiration from reading. ‘I read a lot,’ she says, ‘and sometimes ideas come to me more through books than through visuals; ideas that sort of come up through the mind. Sometimes they just form themselves. It’s almost like alchemy ‒ things come together and something starts to appear.’
Apart from reading (Freud has just finished reading the screenplay of John Houston’s film about Sigmund Freud, written by Sartre), she also gains ideas from seeing how people dress, her girlfriends in particular. It’s not about what you wear, but how you wear it, she says.
Freud calls her childhood unstructured and chaotic, that’s why she finds uniform appealing: ‘I really like uniforms and I like the formality they give you and the smart look; if you mess about with a uniform you create quite a big sensation by doing not very much’. Her formative years were in the punk rock era; a period of glamour and rebellion. ‘What I really like from the 70s is the way young women were glamorous ‒ they were much less formal than in the 60s ‒ and the way they made denim was very stylish.’
People didn’t have the studied casualness of today, she says, they were more real. ‘In the 70s I liked the slinky rock ‘n’ roll kind of glamour. And then punk rock for me and my peers, when we were 15 or 16, was our first encounter with real rejection. And I loved it, and still love it – the grittiness of it, its lack of apology; it’s got real chic as well.’
It’s impossible to grow up in a family with a rich heritage and not soak up some influences. Was fashion a big thing in the Freud household? ‘My mother didn’t have fashionable things at all. She was very young when she had me and my sister. We lived in Morocco for a couple of years when she was a bit of a hippy and wore kaftans. I’m quite interested in how beautiful those things were – they were so easy to wear’. Her father, she says, ‘dressed in rags to paint. But when he went out he’d wear beautiful flannel suits that were made for him.’ She remembers him in a white silk scarf that evoked a sense of grandeur and also a feel of the race track. It was, she adds, a look that ‘definitely influenced me. I loved the charm of the way he dressed. Father reminded me of the way Peter Rabbit looked in his very charming blue jacket.’
If the knitwear is the soft centre of Freud’s brand, she’s slowly building an empire around it. In addition to her standalone shop in Marylebone, she currently produces a line of homeware, candles and perfume.
Her latest launch is a new perfume and candle aptly named Psychoanalysis. The fragrance is a memoir and a celebration of her family narrative. ‘I thought it would be fun for a perfume to be called Psychoanalysis. The idea, even the word, is so evocative, and when you spray on a perfume it’s a whole world which appears like a hologram for a short time.’ Psychoanalysis is, she says ‘a deep smell; the smell of leather and cigars with a delicacy in it as well. The candle has the orange blossom in it, and neroli is in both of them. I was associating that with the Freud’s family Eastern European Jewish culture, so I imagined someone with great intellect, so warm and in the fumes of cigar smoke.’ She based the scent around the idea of having a love for somebody ‘love for a man who shows you the way but you have then to go beyond that to find your own real love’.
Psychoanalysis launches exclusively at Liberty London on 14 September.