It has been a week since David Beckham stepped off the field for Paris Saint-Germain in the final game of his celebrated football career; a week since the tears and hugs and accolades rained; a week since the whispers began.
The speculation is about what he will do next, of course. Though some interesting possibilities have been mooted (Beckham should learn to act and be the next James Bond! He should go into politics!), the majority opinion so far is leaning toward fashion. And by fashion I don’t mean another one-off collaboration for H&M; I mean something long-term that could land on the schedule of the London collections: men. Just imagine the promotional potential, not just for Beckham, but London menswear as a whole.
Indeed, I can easily imagine it (it would put his work on behalf of the London Olympics in the shade), as well as the rationale behind such a move. But I also think they’re wrong. Consider the arguments on both sides:
First: his wife did it.
To me, Victoria’s success in womenswear actually mitigates against her husband creating his own high-end menswear line. Yes, there is a road map for how to move successfully from celebrity in one area to seriousness in fashion, and yes, the two Beckhams have created joint products before (perfume most notably). But at the same time, to be serious about fashion and make it work, as demonstrated by Mrs B as well as the Olsen Twins, as opposed to say, Kanye West, requires a denial of former fame and a level of I’m-just-a-neophyte humility that I believe would actually be counter-productive in Mr B’s case.
Second: expectations will be much higher for a David Beckham line, given the fact that, as a family, they have successfully managed the transition from one kind of fame to another once. Seems to me, it’s a smarter play to do something new, obviating the chance for a possibly unflattering comparison (which is also not so good for a marriage).
Third: Beckham was always as famous for his looks as his kicks, and now they have gone, the looks will become his selling point.
There is no question that, as much as the discussion of Beckham’s retirement has focused on memorialising his athletic feats (or disputing them, depending on which comments you read), it has focused even more on his hair. The New York Times put a medley of head shots, not free kicks, on its front page “career-is-over” story, while news organisations from the Huffington Post to the Guardian, Glamour UK and Fox News have issued slideshows of the said “dos”. In this narrative, Beckham has made a fortune out of how he looks, and should capitalise on that and become his own best model. However, there is a big leap from wearing clothes well and being experimental about hairstyles to wanting to make clothes for other people to wear. I don’t think the two are at all related and the former does not per se lead to the latter.
Fourth: He is already a brand, and fashion is all about branding.
This is probably the most powerful of all the arguments relating to Beckham and a future in fashion. Beckham has been the athlete who most embraced and leveraged the self-branding moment, using his beauty and marriage, as above, to create himself as a commodity beyond football, so his products sold even to those not interested in Manchester United, or Real Madrid or LA Galaxy. His endorsements covered an assortment of sectors, from underwear (Giorgio Armani and H&M) to food (Sainsbury’s) and sportswear (Adidas) with stints in tech (Motorola) and sunglasses (Police). And yet it seems this was fundamentally all built on his grace on the field; one couldn’t exist without the other.
After all, brands are effectively just values encapsulated in the shorthand of a logo – or, in human terms, an image, or a name. And the values Beckham stood for certainly grew to encompass great abs and, apparently, a happy celebrity marriage, but they began with his ability to manipulate a ball, and train really hard. No matter how removed the image began to seem from the content, I think it was still there, lurking in the background: he sold stuff, he sold himself, because people believed there was a real talent there, and it was the talent that validated the attention on the hair. That attention wasn’t, actually, just about hair: it was also about sportsmanship.
This is what separates the David Beckham brand from the brand of reality TV stars such as the Kardashians, who have become famous for representing a certain moment, probably passing, in pop culture: the fame of fame itself. Beckham’s talent was bigger than him, and part of a continuum. To renounce that to start making clothes would, I think, empty his brand of its values, hence reducing its consumer appeal.
Personally, if I had to place a bet, I would bet on Beckham opting for the Paul Newman model of second-stage celebrity. To wit: remaining involved in football, perhaps as an ambassador and commentator or the owner of an American club, founding another football camp, and then continuing his work with assorted product lines in order to fund the charity work. He could always model menswear for Victoria on the side, leaving that market open for her own brand extension.
It wouldn’t be a bad goal, really.
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman