It’s the hottest day of the year, but after three hours of hopping in and out of outfits for our photoshoot in an elegantly distressed drawing room near Holland Park, David Beckham remains cool.
When we sit down to talk he’s in black-on-black civvies (Double RL T-shirt and Kent & Curwen jeans, he says). He has a manly, rather than hipsterish, beard with his hair pulled up in a man-bun under a flat cap. His pants, he tells me, a cheeky smile breaking through his otherwise steely gaze, are Versace.
Beckham is well used to playing the clothes horse, having endorsed a number of brands. But today we’ve met to discuss an altogether more substantial move into menswear. What makes his latest project different is that he’s now pulling the strings, overseeing the reinvention, with the designer Daniel Kearns (who joins us for the interview), of the former college, sports, public school and military outfitters Kent & Curwen.
The brand was founded in 1926 by the tiemaker Eric Kent and seamstress Dorothy Curwen – its classic three lions symbol, now synonymous with English international teams, was Kent’s family crest. Devotees have included Errol Flynn, Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, The Rolling Stones and Michael Caine. Today it is a $100m business based mostly in east Asia, with over 100 stores in China, including 10 in Hong Kong.
And yet for all its success and history it was ripe for a revamp. “Once I looked into what the brand was about, where it had come from and where we could take it, it really interested me,” says Beckham, who is a co-owner of Seven Global, which has a five-year licensing deal with Kent & Curwen. “I then looked into where the clothes were made, where they were sold, how many stores we have, and then I started thinking about how we could change certain aspects of it. There was a store in Savile Row that we closed; there was a store in New York that’s closed. We just felt that we needed to clean up certain parts of the brand. I felt we had to bring someone in who had the experience, but was raw enough to take it somewhere else.”
That person was Kearns, who had already had successful stints at Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen and Ermenegildo Zegna. “Up until that point,” says Kearns, “Kent & Curwen had been seen as being quite a traditional, gentle, English look – navy blazer and chinos kind of aesthetic.”
“Polo shirts,” interjects Beckham. “Polo shirts, essentially,” Kearns says without enthusiasm. “So we could see in the heritage of the brand the links to cricket, rugby, Cambridge, Eton, the Hollywood Cricket Club [for which Flynn, Olivier and Grant played] – the vast archive was a mine. Military was something we spoke about straight away and got excited about how to modernise that. It’s not just something that’s living in the past. It’s almost like doing a cover song: you’re taking a lot of things and reappropriating them for a new audience.”
“We wanted to achieve a brand that was multigenerational,” says Beckham. “I wear it; I worked with David Bailey recently and he loved some of the things that we produce – so he was wearing it, and he’s 79; and my 18-year-old son wears it.”
Kearns’ and Beckham’s first collection launched last November, majoring on subtly faded rugby-style shirts and sweaters emblazoned with the English rose logo, blazers and a check red lumberjack jacket with a shearling collar.
The new autumn/winter collection takes things some steps further, amping up the references to public-school chic but adding a streetwise Mod edge. Regatta-style striped jackets (£595), a duffel coat (£1,095) with military-style toggles, cricket jumpers (£595) and rugby shirts (£195) with soft, detachable collars have been teamed with tapered cotton trousers (£250) with turn-ups that stop just short of the ankle and bovver boots. Americana makes its presence felt, too, with a neatly cut red and white baseball jacket (£1,125) and lumberjack shirt (£225). The standout piece, though, is a greatcoat with brass buttons (£1,200), based on the coats worn by officers in the first world war. Kent & Curwen has had these made from an original run of material found in the Fox Brothers’ archive that was used to make those military coats over a century ago.
Mixing the posh with the street is a hard trick to pull off, but Kearns and Beckham have considered it carefully: “When people think about British heritage they think about all the classic references to the royal family or to British sporting history or the military, but also about more contemporary usages of those things through music and indie sub-cultures,” says Kearns. “We’ve used examples of Paul Weller wearing a regatta-striped jacket, for instance. That’s iconic British heritage just as much as the traditional 1920s reference.”
How involved is Beckham with the design of the clothes? “To be clear, Daniel is the designer and I add my opinions and ideas,” says Beckham. “I’ve worked with a lot of brands over the years and I’ve gained a bit of experience from the people I’ve worked with, and that’s what I’ve tried to bring, my sense of style to this. So we’re very hands-on with each other… he probably gets fed up with me coming in all the time and giving my opinions.”
And what about his wife, has it helped to have her input? “I don’t really get involved in Victoria’s business and she doesn’t get involved in mine,” says Beckham. “We’ve been together for a long time, so we talk about what’s going on in the business. But I don’t turn round to her and say, ‘You probably shouldn’t do that dress in that colour,’ and she wouldn’t turn around and say, ‘You probably shouldn’t do that jacket with that regatta stripe.’” He laughs.
Indeed, for someone who has sported some quite out-there looks in his time (need I mention the sarong or Mohican?), Beckham seems to get off rather lightly from his family. Take his hair, for instance. I ask if his four children have anything to say about his love for changing styles. “No,” he laughs. “The only one who will remark on my hair would be Brooklyn. With the man-bun at the moment, he’s like, ‘Really, man-bun, are you sure?’”
English heritage, public-school chic, Oxbridge nostalgia, it’s all a long way from the football-mad lad who grew up the son of a gas fitter and a hairdresser in Chingford. What does his involvement with Kent & Curwen tell us about David Beckham today?
“I think in business and my life my role has changed in the past five years. I made a decision about six, seven years ago to not do as many sponsorships but start being an owner or partner in businesses. As we know, what comes with age is maturity. I’m still immature in many ways but mature in possibly the way I dress. I think that’s changing,” he pauses, then laughs. “It changes daily to be honest. Victoria laughs about it with me, because whenever I live in a different country, I change the way I dress. I change the way I eat, I adapt to the culture very quickly and I’ve always done that wherever I’ve lived. Living in Manchester, it was all about bucket hats. And then moving to Madrid, I went very traditional, very smart – suit jackets most days with a T-shirt. And then moving to LA I went the total opposite, wearing shorts every day or flip-flops with a pair of jeans, T-shirt and baseball cap. And then I moved back to London and became this country gent where I wear flat caps and tweed trousers.”
Becoming a menswear mogul wouldn’t be every footballer’s choice of second career, but, says Beckham, he always had strong feelings about what he wanted to wear. “My mum says I wanted to look nice wherever I went; I always wanted to dress up in a suit, even at seven years old. So in a way I was interested in fashion without knowing it. But my focus was always on football, so I didn’t even think about it. I spoke on Desert Island Discs this year about the time when I was a pageboy and had the option of wearing a suit or velvet knickerbockers, ballet shoes and white tights, and I chose the knickerbockers. I don’t think it’s because I wanted to make a statement, I just think I knew what I liked.” Did that come from his mother or his father? He laughs: “My dad definitely wouldn’t wear knickerbockers, tights and ballet shoes.”
As to what’s next for Kent & Curwen: the London shop will be reopening in a new location in Covent Garden later this year, the shift of location representing the brand’s desire to be seen as more accessible. “That’s very much part of what we want to build as a brand DNA,” says Kearns, “and that’s why there are the music references, and references to sub-cultures.” There are plans to open more shops in the US, South America, Dubai and Europe. “The concept is global,” he adds, “something we can roll out in Asia as well as everywhere else.” Having David Beckham on board – man-bun or not – cannot but help.