By Claire Ferris-Lay
CEO Middle East takes a closer look at how the former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham transformed herself into a big name designer, against all the odds.
A recent profile of Victoria Beckham in the American Bazaar magazine opened with the observation that: “To really understand somebody, you need to walk a mile in their shoes.” Make of that what you will, but the writer clearly felt it was relevant to her subject. Beckham herself would probably not have appreciated being reduced to an analogy so trivial. But that was then, and this is now. Like it or not Beckham’s eponymous fashion label has broken out and become one of the world’s most successful fashion brands.
The watershed was her fifth collection, shown during New York’s Fashion Week this year. It was a huge success, and moved The Guardian (who was previously skeptical) to describe her as having “gone from being a curiosity to a hot ticket.” Another observer called her designs “eminently commercial”, and it was meant as a compliment.
Beckham trades under two names, Beckham Ventures Ltd and Brand Beckham Ltd, which last year netted her sales of $9.3m and profits of $2.3m. Together, she and her husband, David, own 66 percent of the business in ‘A’ shares, whilst Simon Fuller has 33 percent in ‘B’ shares. The day-to-day business is run by Zach Duane.
The original funding for the business came from the windfall fee Beckham made from licencing the family name for a fragrance brand. Depending on whom you believe, the deal made her between $1m and $5m. From fragrances, she moved first into dresses, then denim, eyewear and handbags.
Now, there is a long-term plan to develop the business along the lines of Versace and Armani. In fact, the Beckham label is her future, as it is her husband’s. When her footballer husband finally retires, it is expected that a men’s line will appear (some already believe it to be in the planning stages).
There is no doubt it is just the start of something that will, in the future, measure its sales in billions rather than millions of dollars. She simply says: “We are moving in baby steps.”
Beckham spent seven years immersing herself in the fashion business, learning from people such as Marc Jacobs. She also learned what running a business was all about, and began casting around for people she might like to work with.
Her closest relationship in the business is with Roland Mouret, to whom she was introduced by Fuller. Mouret and Fuller were already business partners, and the partnership gave Beckham an ‘in’ to the business. Mouret was very open, and a bond developed between the two. Now, she consults Mouret on everything, and the friendship is her closest. She admits: “When I very first started working on the dresses, he gave me advice when it came to putting my team together. He doesn’t have anything to do with the design of anything that I do.
“But he taught me about how to turn my dreams into reality. He told me I needed a production manager — he helped with that side of things. I have the utmost respect for Roland. I think he is incredibly talented. I love what he does. He’s a great businessman.”
Beckham’s main objective throughout her training was a desire to discover whether she had the talent to be a fashion designer. It was in those crucial seven years that she became what she is today. As her guru, Marc Jacobs, explains: “She is as meticulous in what she creates as she has been in her own self-creation. Her love for fashion goes way beyond just getting dressed.” Beckham concurs: “I really had to prove myself, though. But now I feel like I am competing in an arena where I belong.” Jacobs agrees: “She is someone who has always wanted to design clothes. She knows the body, she loves it and she’s working her socks off.”
Three years ago, Beckham decided her learning had concluded and she decided to get serious. She began with dress designs, where she felt most capable, and, in 2008, kicked off a process that would lead to two collections a year. She started off with a spring/summer collection for 2009. It consisted of ten dress designs, and she gave them all names. Four more collections would follow until the most recent, in New York, for the spring/summer 2011 season. By now, she was producing 25 designs per collection, and the individual dress names had been replaced with technical descriptions.
What has also been replaced is the original DvB branding. Beckham realised over a few seasons that the brand wasn’t resonating with anyone. It had sounded like a good idea, but it wasn’t in reality. She realised that Beckham was her brand and that they had tried to be too clever. She quickly reverted to that. The change was seamless and with little fanfare, and the brand proved young enough to be able to withstand the name change. The name change also proved what Beckham was capable of. Her decisiveness in admitting her mistakes and taking tough decisions impressed her peers.
In total, Beckham has designed 99 dresses over the five collections produced so far, and, even for a non-fashionista, it is easy to see the appeal of these dresses, which retail from $1,500 to $7,900. They are designed for the special occasion for the ordinary person who has a disposable income. They are also readily worn by celebrities with exactly the same aplomb as ordinary people. They are classic designs that will endure, and one can imagine the value of the dresses appreciating with time, with some clearly destined for iconic status.
In fact, the line has been well received by fashion critics, many of whom were surprised to see Beckham adopting such a hands-on role and displaying such an impressive grasp of the basics.
It has taken her ten years to get to the stage where she has a design team along with manufacturing, distribution and administration in place to make a viable business. It is likely that the label will sell some 5,000 dresses this year through nineteen appointed stockists around the world. The most important markets are the United States and Britain. In the US, the range is sold by Bergdorf Goodman in New York and by Neiman Marcus in Houston, Florida and Beverly Hills. In Britain, Harrods and Selfridges in London and Manchester are the only shops that handle the label.
In the process, Beckham has also become very close to two of the biggest figures in luxury American retailing. They are Ken Downing, the fashion director of Neiman Marcus, and Jim Gold, president of Bergdorf Goodman. Both men have been have been vociferous ambassadors for her label ever since she arrived in their offices to deliver her pitch. The Bergdorf Goodman department store is the biggest single outlet for the Beckham label, and Gold realised very quickly how important Beckham could be to his stores.
He unabashedly gushes about her talents: “Victoria Beckham is one of the great style icons today, and a supremely talented designer. As we have seen with her couture dress collection, the moment she wears a product of her own design, it immediately becomes coveted by others.” He adds: “Her dresses are among the highest sell-through performers. What’s more, there is a waiting list. It’s not unusual for a dress to be reserved two or three deep. We see a lot of dresses, but hers really stand out.”
Downing is equally impressed by her technical skills: “Her knowledge of dressmaking is impressive. She understands how to bring out the best in the female form, and that’s one reason our clients are drawn to what she does. She knows how good clothes feel when they’re on; because she has worn them.”
So what is her secret? Victoria is very clear that her gift lies in her affinity with women, as she admits candidly: “I’m such a girl’s girl.” Her USP is that she is her customer. She is continually self-critical and very perceptive about what she knows and doesn’t know. As a savvy shop girl at Harrods commented: “I think that Victoria’s key strength is that she knows what she doesn’t know, and you can’t say that about some of our other so-called top designers.” One of her techniques is to wrap fabric around herself to judge a look. She typically takes five feet of fabric, ties it in a knot and stands in front of a mirror, visualising. She explains: “I’m not claiming to be a master draper. I might get a piece of fabric and tie it around me and then ask an assistant to pin it for me. The bottom line is: ‘Would I wear this?’”
She is desperately frightened of taking a false step and damaging the brand, as she explains: “It’s about doing things gradually and building the brand in a strategic way. It’s about finding the right time, the right team. With everything that I do, I will only do it after I’ve done all my homework. I really am a perfectionist, and I don’t want to rush anything. It’s not just about putting my name on a product and getting it out there. That’s not what is important to me.”
She says succinctly: “I don’t do anything by half. If you’re going to do something, do it properly, I think. Otherwise, there is no point in doing it at all.” And as Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue warns: “Don’t underestimate her.”
Victoria is one of the main people that are inspiring me to take the plunge and put all my education in Art, Marketing, General Business, History, and Furniture and Cabinet making, along with experience working on health care and energy projects worth over nine figures, into my own business. It's comparatively easy to study different subject matter and earn diplomas and degrees, but itâ€™s quite another thing to put a person's education into practice. It's a scary thing to give up a nice income to pursue something a person is driven to improve. Thank you for the article, as it helps to deal with the internal voices of self doubt questioning if a person is smart or foolish to be pursuing my own furniture line. Thank you ArabianBusiness.com, and if you read this, an ongoing thank you to you as well Victoria Beckham.
She is tenacious, like 'the little engine that could'. In terms of being an icon, I would say that she serves as a strong role model - she hasn't given up on her dreams and she puts in to reality what others only speak about. Love her or hate her, this woman is a force to be reckoned with, she keeps pushing the boundaries.
I would love to have that kind of drive to succeed. Well done Mrs B!