Ahead of a new British art sale, fashion designer Bella Freud celebrates the creativity – and influence – of contemporary UK artists
L ondon-based fashion designer Bella Freud feels a particular attachment to Sotheby’s: it was almost part of family life. “There’s a nice feeling of connection – it’s an old place of tradition and a place where I’ve gone and watched paintings of my father’s go, on and off,” she recalls. If one of her father Lucian Freud’ s paintings went up for auction, “he’d say, ‘Do you want to go and have a look and tell me how it goes?’ I’d love to do that kind of thing.”
Celebrating the return of live auctions, Sotheby’s Oliver Barker invited Freud to helm a program of events in the week of the British Art: Modern/Contemporary sale at the end of June. “Hopefully, there’ll be really fun moments dotted through the week,” says Freud, who looked to the Southbank Centre’s annual Meltdown festivals for their iconoclastic cross-disciplinary programming. The aim is for a relaxed meeting of the minds and a chance to celebrate the return of physical encounters with art. Freud has taken the ad hoc charm of 1960s Beat poetry “happenings” as her inspiration. “They were really uplifting,” she says, “because there was a lot of silliness, but they were also groundbreaking.” Bringing together leading figures from diverse fields – a wine expert co-hosting with an artist, for example – the programme for the British art week will offer “a slightly different prism through which to feel it all and enjoy it.”
There is, she thinks, a general hunger to encounter art in person again. Freud certainly feels it. Visiting the V&A museum for a meeting while it was closed to the public, she was allowed to spend time in the newly refurbished Raphael court and felt energised and uplifted by the experience: “Whereas I might have been a bit more blasé or in too much of a hurry before, now those things seem invaluable and completely vital.” After more than a year of “uncertainty, rules and regulations,” she says, “art fills your being with something else.”
“I don’t think you ever feel part of something special when it’s emerging”
Now known for its cult knitwear and smart cultural references, Freud launched her eponymous fashion label in London in 1990. It was a decade of financial insecurity, as well as great creative energy in the city. While not nostalgic for the period, she identifies it as a time of particular freedom, in which creative endeavours were undertaken in a collaborative and improvisational spirit. “A lot of structures were changing,” she says. “In fashion, there was a very formal way that things were done, for a long time: how you showed, how you presented things, what was acceptable.” Following the early 1990s recession in the UK, that all fell away, ushering in “a more pared-down aesthetic” – seen in the influential photographic work of figures like Corinne Day, Glen Luchford, Mark Lebon and Perry Ogden.
Recalling performances by Leigh Bowery and artist Cerith Wyn Evans, the music scene around Neneh Cherry and stylist Judy Blame, Freud suggests that her creative contemporaries didn’t feel the need to limit what they were doing by jamming it into a category. Art? Fashion? Performance? It was all part of the same scene. Did she realise that she was part of something special happening in London at the time? “I don't think you ever feel part of something when it’s emerging.”
One important legacy from that 1990s scene is Freud’s friendship with and admiration for artist Sarah Lucas. “I’ve always loved Sarah Lucas: her look, her style, her work and her,” she says. “We’ve been friends since then: she walked in my 1998 show. I think her work is endlessly brilliant. I'm a massive fan. She’s really funny, shy and very talented. She’s wonderful.” Last year, the pair collaborated on a collection of limited edition T-shirts featuring images of Lucas’s tender and sexy sculptural works on the front, and Freud’s signature aphoristic texts on the back.
“Being a designer, you’re scouring everything always, whether it’s someone in a cool tracksuit or a painting by Francis Bacon”
Freud started visiting her father in London in her teens, and recalls being taken to the Colony Room club and the French House pub in Soho to meet his friends. In art, she says “everything I learned was influenced by my father, and sitting for him a lot. I’ve always liked Francis Bacon’s work and looked at it a lot. The few times that I met him, I liked the way he spoke and the things he said and how funny he was. I came to know Frank Auerbach because he was such a huge friend of my father’s. And Michael Andrews… Those are the painters I started to get to know because I saw a lot of their work.”
Within her own generation, she’s a great admirer of “everything Steve McQueen does” and often looks to work by Cerith Wyn Evans and Tracey Emin. Her passions extend beyond the contemporary: the work of Édouard Manet has long been an inspiration. “I love the way people are dressed, and the way the women look in his paintings,” she says. “There’s this kind of purity. I remember the first suit that I ever made was based on a woman in a Manet painting and imagining what that might look like now.”
While it is rare that a painting will have quite so direct an influence on her designs, she looks to art for moods, colours, for ways to see the world. “Being a designer, you’re scouring everything always, whether it’s sitting on the bus and seeing someone in a cool tracksuit, or looking at a painting by Henri Rousseau or Francis Bacon,” she says. “You’re always looking, plundering, taking, filtering, looking for stuff. There’s plenty – London’s a great place for that.”
The art with which she surrounds herself includes work by friends – artists and photographers – but Freud is also an avid collector of objects, images and new works that inspire her. Recent acquisitions include a collage by Blondey McCoy and paintings by Richie Culver, who, like Freud, makes deft use of fragmented text in his work. “I just gather things,” she says. “If I was going to spend money on something, I’d spend money on that.”