May 27, 2011 10:20 pm

Beckham plays a new game

When did fashion become the go-to second career for celebrities in need of an Act II? It has crept up on us, like all trends, starting with a sighting here – Sarah Jessica Parker prolonging her role in the public eye between Sex and the City via Halston Heritage – and a campaign there: Björn Borg finding life after tennis in athletic wear. Then, suddenly, it’s everywhere: Emma Watson growing up via niche collections with Alberta Ferretti and People Tree; Justin Timberlake getting elegant with William Rast; Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen re-inventing themselves as serious designers with The Row, and ditto Victoria Beckham.

Clothing, in other words, is the new fragrance, but with potential not just to add to a celebrity’s bank account, but actually bestow on them a new form of professional longevity. No wonder it has just been announced that Mr Victoria Beckham wants in on the act.

As David Beckham’s contract with LA Galaxy draws to an end, he is codifying himself as Brand Beckham, with a new logo (his name with a hole punched in it, to suggest a soccer ball has been kicked through), a new expertise in bodywear (which is to say, underwear, though apparently underwear is no longer an acceptable term for – well, underwear), and, natch, a new scent, all starting to roll out this autumn. As one career wanes, the new one dawns. It was probably inevitable.

After all, the segue from pretty much anything to fashion must seem simple: hey! I wear clothes! I get put on best-dressed/sexiest man in the world lists continually! I can recognise good stuff, ergo I can make good stuff. It’s the same reason costume exhibits in museums always have a higher decibel level than, say, Kandinsky exhibits: everyone thinks they understand clothes and can legitimately comment on them (abstract expressionist art, on the other hand ...). From there it’s a small step to thinking you can make them.

Especially because – let’s be honest – this isn’t really about making clothes, which is a difficult art that takes years to master. It’s about branding. It’s no accident the man behind both David’s new venture and Victoria’s growing line is Simon Fuller, brand manager extraordinaire, the person who packaged the Spice Girls and Pop Idol, and a man who understands as well as anyone the consumer obsession with image and how to parcel out bits of that for purchase. David Beckham himself hinted at this when he said he realised he had potential as a bodywear mogul when he was the face of Armani undies, and the brand told him they had doubled their turnover. Why not make that money for himself?

As celebrities, be they actors or singers or athletes, are increasingly forced to think of themselves as a branded product, they naturally think of branded product extensions. Clothing is a pretty obvious one, largely because the rise of the branded celebrity has coincided with the rise of the creative director: a designer who is no longer a hands-on designer, but a master of image. The two jobs are getting closer and closer together, and not just in the paparazzi pages of gossip rags, which treat runway shows like red carpet award ceremonies, and vice versa. From Tom Ford to Tom Hanks – well, is there that big a difference?

Yes. (You knew that was coming, right?)

. . .

After all, the fashion world is littered with celeb clothing lines gone wrong, the latest and most public of which are Jennifer Lopez’s various failed sartorial ventures. There’s also David Hasselhoff’s Malibu Dave, Notorious B.I.G.’s Brooklyn Mint, and Pamela Anderson’s A*Muse, to name a few others. Never heard of them? That’s the point. Even Kate Moss’s much-ballyhooed line for Topshop has been phased out. Which suggests that, in fact, perhaps there does need to be some invention there; that this is not quite as easy as finding “inspiration” in your own wardrobe, tweaking a button and selling it under a new name.

Certainly both the Olsens and Mrs Beckham have worked very hard to downplay their own celebrity in their lines (the Olsens going so far as to remove their names from their brand) and up-play the clothes, which are very good. And whether or not anyone believes Victoria Beckham’s protestations that OK, she doesn’t draw (who does nowadays, except maybe Alber Elbaz?), but she does drape the fabric all over her body, she clearly knows her collection intimately. Both the Olsens and Mrs Beckham have been very chary about their own exposure, remaining almost clandestine during fashion week, aggressively insisting on their own humility.

Which is why I find what David Beckham is doing kind of surprising. His bodywear – let’s start with that – will clearly be built around him, in a way Victoria’s clothing, with its aspiration to real design, is not; it will be dependent on his sculpted torso and his athletic skill in a way hers was (understandably) not dependent on her Spicy-ness. This marks a very different approach than that which has proven so successful for his wife.

Maybe it’s because Mr B’s image is at a very different place than his wife’s (he, at least, was once the greatest in, or on, his field) or maybe it’s because Fuller wants to clearly differentiate David’s line from Victoria’s, but either way, the disparity creates its own specific complications. Think about it: one surname, one sector, two completely different business models. As far as I know, this has never been done before, not even by the Kardashians. Is this a fashion moment too far?

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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