Stefano Pilati with Harper’s Bazaar’s Glenda Bailey in the green room of Gould Hall, where the designer participated in a lecture series organized by the French Institute Alliance Française
The first time I met Stefano Pilati was in 2001 in a basement bar in East London. It was Alexander McQueen’s birthday party, which I had crashed with some friends. (What? I was still a teenager. Crashing parties was just about all we did.) Some mutual friends introduced me to Stefano, who was already working for Tom Ford, that night, and I’ve been an ardent supporter of the Milanese man ever since. So, when it was announced the the recently departed YSL designer would still appear at the French Institute Alliance Française’s lecture series Tuesday night, I was excited to hear what the gregarious, handsome and complicated man would say. He didn’t disappoint. He had the packed audience entertained and enraptured from start to finish.
Pamela Golbin, the Chief Curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile at the Louvre, played moderator, first asking the designer what was his present state of mind. “Great. I’m really happy, which I find surprising,” he beamed. “I’m on vacation.” For the next hour, conversation covered every facet of the 46-year-old’s career in fashion, from when he would skip high school to be an intern at Cerutti, until he took over as creative director of YSL. In the interim, he worked as a stylist for Italian Vogue, worked retail, and ultimately started his fashion designer trajectory at Armani, Prada and Miu Miu before Tom Ford plucked him from Milan and brought him to Paris to work with him on YSL’s men’s and women’s lines. “It was beautiful what happened to me, to be respected and encouraged by people I admire,” was how he described reporting to some of the greats in fashion. Who does he think are the most inspiring designers? Armani, “the exceptional” Miuccia Prada, YSL himself, and the influence of the Japanese designers. “I’m happy that the CFDA is giving [the International Award] to Rie Kawakubo. There is justice in this life.”
He did admit to the challenging aspect of taking over the house of YSL while the designer was still alive. “I don’t think challenging is the right word,” he said of when he, a Milanese designer, and Tom Ford, a Texan, took over the storied French house. A better word: “Traumatic!” He relented that it was actually easier when Monsieur Saint Laurent passed away in 2008. Pilati was open and honest with his commentary. He joked that one of the difficulties for him as a designer was that, in the archives, YSL had done everything. “And I mean everything.” When Pilati had the idea to do a bomber jacket with a big logo on the back, he found a version YSL had already done decades before. “In gold!”
He said he felt that his greatest accomplishment was making the house profitable. When Tom Ford left in 2004, there were losses, but he exited the house when after years of being a profitable fashion brand. One reason for the financial turn around was the introduction of his It-accessories, including the best selling Tribute shoe and the Muse bag. Before 2004 he had never designed an accessory, which he said was a challenge and a thrill. “I was learning the entire eight years,” he said of his time at the helm of YSL. He was only stumped when Golbin asked him about high points and low points in his career. He couldn’t put his finger on his favorite collection, though he did mention he was partial to his debut collection at YSL back in 2004, which is sited as one of the most influential in modern fashion history, and he was resolute that there no low points in his career. “To work in fashion is a privileged place to be,” he explained.
Conversation ultimately returned to his future plans, and what he plans to do next. “I’m pretty sure I have the energy and the knowledge to at least try to do something relevant,” he smiled. “But right now I’m on vacation.” When will the holiday end? “Well, not tonight.” When the discussion was opened to the audience one of the students in attendance asked Pilati if he would hire her for his next venture, which just proved the point that until Stefano is ready to return, we’ll be eagerly waiting.
To make a long story short: David Beckham, the world’s most famous heartthrob footballer, has launched his own line of bodywear with H&M. It’s the most exciting thing to happen to men’s underwear (manties?) since Calvin Klein printed his name on elastic waistbands. To celebrate the launch, I met up with David in LA and talked about his first fashion memories, his fashionable wife, and these new fashionable underpants to discuss the project for H&M‘s spring 2012 magazine.
On a fine day in Los Angeles, the view from Simon Fuller’s penthouse HQ on Sunset Boulevard is absolutely glorious. And so is the company. I’m perched in an office that overlooks sun-drenched Beverly Hills. In the conference room to my right is David Beckham, finalizing designs and production concepts for his new line of bodywear with H&M; in another room to my left is the legendary actor Michael Caine. As I wait for Beckham to join me for a discussion about football, fashion, family and
the concept behind his new line of bodywear
(I’ve been told it’s not mere underwear) I pass the time listening to the hypnotic cadence of Caine’s voice through the wall.
Beckham is busy today: he’s approving his bodywear’s packaging with H&M executives, and reviewing a TV commercial, shot by Alasdair McLellan, featuring his tanned and toned body slowly rotating in nothing but a pair of small white knickers. The last thing he does before we sit down to chat is coordinate the school run for his two eldest sons (he and his wife, Victoria Beckham, following
the birth of a little girl last year, now have a brood of four). It’s decided that the eldest, Brooklyn,
will go straight home from school, and Romeo will meet his father at the office. LA’s ever-present paparazzi will photograph the two messing around on a pair of motorbikes later today – father-son bonding at its best.
I’m in awe of how calm and collected David Beckham is. We grab some club sandwiches for lunch, and I can’t help but notice how genuinely nice, well-dressed, articulate and (as he manages his messy meal) in possession of terrific manners the guy is. For a man whose life has been determined by his ability to perform in a highly competitive team sport, he demonstrates impressive restraint and responsibility. Perhaps that’s what has allowed
him to achieve so much in his mere 36 years as a world-class athlete, international sex symbol, cultural juggernaut and family man. His latest job title? Underwear designer, which is a gig we both agree he needs a business card for.
Derek Blasberg: I like the idea of you having a business card that says “underwear designer”.
David Beckham: Yeah! I think I should have
some made. I don’t have any cards yet, so thanks for the idea.
Derek: What? You’ve worked in fashion for years now; I can’t believe no one’s given you a card –
so when did you start paying more attention to how people dress?
David: I’ve always liked fashion. I might not have always worn great stuff, but I always knew what
I liked. I’ve definitely worn stuff that maybe some-one else wouldn’t wear, but I wear what I think looks good.
Derek: Do you like to dress up?
David: I love to wear a suit. But I love to dress down, too; a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and some flip flops.
Derek: Do you have a daily uniform?
David: Not at all. The only thing I do is set my outfit out the night before so it’s ready in the morning.
Derek: No way. Do you really?
David: Yeah, I do. I got four kids, so getting them ready, plus getting myself ready – it would take
Derek: Have you been like that since you were a kid?
David: I suppose the very first thing I remember, when it comes to fashion, is when I was a pageboy at a family wedding. I had a choice between wearing some boring old suit, or a pair of knickerbockers with ballerina tights and slippers. I went with the tights.
Derek: I’d kill to see that picture.
David: My mum’s probably got it somewhere. It’s not that I always wanted to be different, but I knew what I liked and that’s always what I wore.
Derek: Looking back on all of your sartorial decisions you’ve made, do you laugh about any of it now?
David: Always. I look back on some stuff and I think, “I can’t believe I actually wore that.” But I have no regrets – I knew at the time it was good.
Derek: Any specific I-can’t-believe-I-did-that moments?
David: Me and Victoria wore matching black leather outfits once. They were Versace. That’s one where I look back, like, “What were we thinking?” We laugh about that one.
Derek: I know that picture. To be honest, you both looked great individually. It’s when it’s matching that it becomes too much. Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake once did matching denim ensembles, and it was a lot.
David: I remember that, too. It’s all good until you do it as a couple.
Derek: That’s one good thing about being an underwear designer: not that many people see it.
David: That’s very true.
Derek: Though, I guess that can’t really be said
David: Yeah, in my case it’s more like a few million people see it.
Derek: But what a cool campaign! I love those pictures, and I’ve seen the mock-ups of the images for buses and billboards. You’re going to be, like, 60 feet tall and on the sides of buildings.
David: That’s the thing: H&M thinks big. They want it everywhere, and that’s great. When it came to the pictures, I thought it was important that I roughed them up a little bit. Alasdair [McLellan] did them; he’s so talented.
Derek: When you know the pictures are going on billboards around the world, do you blush?
David: Oh, are you kidding? I get embarrassed. Really embarrassed.
Derek: I do like that it’s a subtle logo. Nothing too flashy poking out of the trousers.
David: That’s what we wanted to go for. I don’t think men want to wear something that’s too branded anyway, especially with my name all over their underwear.
Derek: Is the circle in the logo a football?
David: It’s a football, it’s a globe, it’s whatever you want it to be. It wasn’t meant to be a ball, but people obviously think of me and think of the sport.
Derek: How did this collaboration come together?
David: I started working on a bodywear project more than a year ago. At the time it was just me and my team; there was no collaboration with anybody else. But, H&M heard that I was bringing out a range and approached us, and it all came together.
Derek: How far along were you with your line?
David: We had product. We were a long way along. We had something physical to show H&M, and as soon as they saw the product they were like, “We’re in, we want it.” They took our ideas to another level.
Derek: H&M has teamed up with other designers in the past, like Karl Lagerfeld and Alber Elbaz. But, this is a completely different concept, isn’t it?
David: Longevity is what we’re trying to create here, and that’s different from the other collaborations they’ve done. It’ll continue for years. Or, at least I hope it does.
Derek: What made you want to do underwear in the first place?
David: Everyone needs underwear. I love underwear, I love bodywear. Obviously, the relationship
I had with Emporio Armani, and the success that I had with them a few years ago, got me thinking, “Why don’t I have my own range?” The sales and the interest in that Armani stuff was incredible.
Derek: In a way, especially for men, it’s an untapped market. There definitely aren’t too many high-concept, low-price options for us fellas. Were you thinking about your price points when you were designing, or did that come from H&M?
David: It’s a high-end product, with high-end standards, but we wanted it to be affordable for everybody. I’d imagine most people want to go into
a store and buy a pair of underwear and not spend a ridiculous amount. That’s what’s great about H&M. They know what they’re doing; they know what price point they can hit and what the public want.
Derek: Tell me a little bit about the design process. Did you sketch or work with prototypes?
David: That’s one thing about me – everything I’ve ever done, I’m involved. If I can’t be hands-on and totally involved, I don’t want anything to do with it. It’s something I’ve always done throughout my career. I don’t want to just give my name to someone to do whatever they want. I think H&M loved the fact that I was totally involved.
Derek: I know she’s got her own fashion career,
but did your wife chime in when you were
putting this together?
David: She saw the range and she saw it on me.
She loved it. We all loved it straightaway, because
it’s so simple and well done. She’s definitely someone whose judgement I trust, and she does
have an expertise.
Derek: Your kids are pretty stylish, too. Do you dress them up, or do they do that on their own?
David: I used to try and dress them up, but now they’re at the age when they want to wear their own things. They are three different characters. You got the oldest, who’s twelve, and he’ll just wear his soccer shorts and a t-shirt. The middle one, Romeo, he’s nine and he’s kind of the fashion one, so he’ll go in and pick out a pair of skinny jeans and a vintage t-shirt and a funny hat. One Christmas, he asked for a pair of spat shoes. And now, the youngest, Cruz, he’s seven and he’s hitting it right as well. He loves Justin Bieber, so anything that he’s got Cruz wants, like the big high-tops with the skinny jeans. They all have their own style.
Derek: Here’s something I always want to ask British people who raise kids in America: do they have a British or an American accent?
David: There’s a slight British accent, but when I listen to them talk I can hear an American twang.
Derek: How’s your accent doing? Do you find yourself saying American words more, like “elevator” instead of “lift”?
David: Yeah, I do. I also catch myself calling my kids “dude”, every once in a while, so there are a few words creeping in there.
Derek: I see an “H” poking out of your t-shirt on your neck. Is that a tattoo for Harper?
David: Yeah, that’s the newest one.
Derek: All the kids get a tattoo, right?
David: Yep. The boys are on my back.
Derek: You’re running out of room on your body.
David: I am! But tattoos have always been a form
of self-expression for me. My love for my family,
or things I’ve gone through in my life. Every one has a meaning. There’s not one on me that I’m going to regret.
Derek: Okay, what happens when your eldest boy wants to get a tattoo?
David: I don’t have much of an argument, do I? I’ll try to say no, but at some point he’s going to say he’s 18 and I can’t really stop him.
Derek: Oh no… I’m sorry to break this to you, but I think you only have to be 15 here in the US.
David: Really? That’s all right, I’ve already told them it’s 18. And I’ve already told them it really hurts.
Derek: While we’re talking about your family, I have to bring up this amazing picture I just saw of your wife. She looks divine in this gorgeous Alaïa dress and killer high heels – and she’s holding a baby.
David: I know, and the baby’s outfit was colour-coordinated with Victoria’s, too, wasn’t it?
Derek: Yes, that’s the one! Major! Four kids and a lot going on – how do you all stay so fashionable?
David: For my wife, it’s a lot easier. Victoria knows what to wear and how to wear it. She has such a great sense of style. I think my sense of style went up a bit when I met her, too.
Derek: When you two got together, it didn’t just change your fashion sense; it changed the whole world for you guys. Like those Versace jumpsuits – everything is more intense in a couple. Would you consider yourself media-shy?
David: I’ve become more comfortable with the media over the years.
Derek: But, not at the beginning?
David: If you’re not around that world and you’re not used to it, suddenly when someone is following you and taking your picture, it’s weird. I had a little bit of attention before I met Victoria, but it blew up when people knew that we were together. There was the wedding, the first child. It’s something that just happened and I’ve got more used to it now, more than I was ten or 15 years ago. But, I’m not one of these people who will sit here and complain about being successful. Everything I have, I’m lucky to have – I’ve worked hard, of course, but I feel very privileged to be in the position I’m in.
Derek: Are you happy out here in LA?
David: Contractually, 2011 was my last year under my contract at the time. I haven’t decided what I want to do, if I want to play here or somewhere else, or even stop playing. I’m looking at the options. We love living here: the kids love the schools and Victoria loves it here, too. So, for me, at this point in my career, the most important thing is my family. It’s whatever makes them happy.
Derek: Would you miss playing?
David: I still love playing the game, and that’s why I haven’t retired. I still know I can do it at a high level of play. A lot of guys finish by 34 or 35. I’m 36 years old, and to be honest, I’m still loving it like I did when I was 21, so there’s really no reason for me to even think about retirement yet.
Derek: But, it’s not like you don’t have other projects. Speaking of, did you know Calvin Klein started in fashion before he moved on to underwear? Maybe you’ll do the reverse: Start in underwear, and then move into fashion.
David: Who knows? Five years ago, if someone had asked me if I was going to have my own underwear range I would have said, “Probably not. No.” And if someone had said to me ten years ago that I would be playing soccer and living in America, I would have said the same thing. But plans change, life changes. So, we’ll see. I love suits, I already have a range with Adidas. Maybe in the future something else will happen.
Derek: You once said that you wanted to open a fish ‘n’ chip restaurant.
David: Was it fish ‘n’ chips? I think it was a pie and mash shop. But, since you’re an American, you probably don’t know the difference.
Derek: Yeah, I don’t.
David: Pie and mash is a proper East London thing, which is where I’m from, so I had it for years as a kid and it’s what I was brought up on. I’ve always said I would love a pie and mash shop one day, but
I have to be in London for that.
Derek: Maybe you could do it here in California, especially if there isn’t one. It’s another
David: Well, you never know.
Derek: Now that’d be a killer business card: footballer, underwear designer, pie and mash
David: And dad. And husband. But, not in that order.
Photography: Kevin Phillips, courtesy of H&M