First of all, Malgosia Bela, one of the most successful models of the past 20 years and the creative director of Vogue Polska, is not in love with clothes. “I don’t really care about them,” she shrugs. Neither is she much enamoured with London, the city she first visited around 22 years ago, at the start of her career.
“I don’t like London at all,” says the 42-year-old model, who is sitting on a sofa in the modest flat in Maida Vale she shares with her husband, the Oscar-winning Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, when they’re in town. Wearing narrow jeans, an Aran sweater, grey beanie hat and Reebok classics with thick farmer socks, she appears to have wandered in from a chilly chapter of the Women’s Institute. But then her angular bone structure and pale-eyed gaze stop you in your tracks.
Bela first came to London in 1998. A classically trained pianist, she studied literature at the University of Warsaw, and was working on an MA when she started modelling and left home for who knows where. In London, she found a city in the midst of a cultural revolution: Brit pop, Brit art and Brit fashion, in the guise of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Kate Moss, were in ferment, and the world was in thrall to London’s romantic grimy scene. Bela’s career took off when she was cast by the stylist Joe McKenna and photographer David Sims to be the face of Jil Sander. As a team, they expressed the industry’s new, raw aesthetic, all encapsulated by Bela’s savage grace.
It’s an aesthetic that seems to have turned full circle: the 2020 spring/summer collections revisited many staples of that decade, and this season we will have our pick of micro-thin knitwear, mannish suits, singlets, leather separates and slimline skirts to choose from. Who better to ask to rework them, therefore, than the face of 1990s minimalism?
But while Bela was a strong proponent of the era, she nurses no nostalgia for the city. “All I remember is that the food was shit and it was all pretty dodgy,” she says. “I was young and the work was always a no-money job: I was always on the Tube trying to get somewhere I didn’t know. And the scale of everything was so huge.”
Evidently, Cool Britannia passed her by. “You know what?” she says with a mischievous grin. “I should have had a British boyfriend. Because British boys – one of them being David Sims’ assistant, for instance – were so cute. Lee Broomfield was cute,” she recalls. “He should have been my boyfriend, and then I would have known my way in London.”
Perhaps it is apt that this particular London reconnection, prompted by How To Spend It, and captured by the Polish photographer Kuba Ryniewicz, has been steered by another “cute boy”: her husband, who arrived in London as a 14-year-old and spent 30 years living in London, Oxford and Paris, before returning to Warsaw with Bela, whom he married in 2017. Pawlikowski’s fascination with Britain’s social history, behavioural nuances and class, combined with his observations of the immigrant experience, were beautifully captured in his first films, My Summer of Love and The Last Resort. And his enthusiasm, gregarious commentary and curiosity are infectious.
“For me, it’s a tale of two cities, Warsaw and London,” says Pawlikowski, who pops in to join the conversation from time to time with exuberant opinions about everything from the Cannes jury selection process to the local antiques market, to current Polish politics and the rise of the far right. “Warsaw I love. It’s a complicated love, but it just feels like home. For me, when I was young, London was like gorging yourself on life. It was everything. Back in the 1970s, when I got here, it was the only cosmopolitan city in Europe really.”
The shoot, therefore, has largely followed Pawlikowski’s direction, tracing the locations of his own life in London, as well as acknowledging the broader Polish experience at large – a tour that has a slightly melancholy note considering the lack of European reciprocity in the air. It begins at the restaurant Daquise, the beloved South Kensington sanctuary of Polish intellectuals seeking conversation, camaraderie and pierogi since 1947, in an area forever embedded in the psyche as the backdrop to Polish filmmaker Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion, before moving to Beck Road, east London, where Pawlikowski lived in a squat as a young artist, and where he still recognises friends and neighbours to this day. It ends up with a kickabout on Hackney Marshes: Bela gamely takes shots in a stretchy, skintight dress by Balenciaga, while Pawlikowski, in a greatcoat, protects the goal. “I tried to give London a chance through the eyes of my husband,” says Bela of her reappraisal of the city. “He really gets into it when we start walking. It’s so diverse and so different and so dynamic. Pawel loves it as a storyteller. He actually loves the city, and when I see it through his eyes, I learn to love it a little more.”
Bela has lived in many different cities. Today, in Warsaw, where she moved from Paris, she lives at more of a remove from fashion, and only models when she wants to. “I thought it was going to be a one-season thing,” she says of her career. “At the start, I thought that soon everyone would realise there had been a big mistake, and I would go quietly back to Poland, finish my studies and forget about this thing. What do you call this syndrome? Impostor syndrome. A lot of people have it. Pawel had it also. It was only a few years later when I realised that this was actually a job that it became a way of life.”
Even amid the weirdness of fashion, Bela’s way of life has been pretty unusual. Among the last generation to have grown up in communist Poland, she was the only child of academic parents who were more forthcoming with constructive criticism than compliments. Money was carefully spent – “$500 was a lot of money,” says Bela of her incredulity about her early paychecks – and when she left home, to work in New York, Milan and Paris, with no mobile phone, credit card or internet, she was totally alone. Recently, she has started to write short pieces about her life around the lens. Such as the time she went back to Warsaw for her first Christmas after becoming a model, with $10,000 stuffed in her back pocket. Her New York agency had been collecting all her earnings for six months, but Bela, unused to dealing with cash in any significant amount, hadn’t opened a bank account. Or spent any money. “I was… busy,” she explains.
The agency told her to do something with the cash. “My parents were making $300 a month back in those days, and so I took the money, which was all you could take into the country at the time, along with my first magazine cover [for Spanish Vogue], and I put it all under the Christmas tree. In 1998, it was still kind of awkward to talk about what I was doing,” she remembers. “My parents didn’t really understand the idea of things like a casting or a go-see. So then it was Christmas Eve and they opened my gift… I just saw a look on my mum’s face. She didn’t say anything, and I could see that she assumed it was from prostitution. And then they took the magazine cover and they just looked blankly at it. My parents had never seen me with make-up on, and especially not in this attitude, with this contemptuous look on my face. I said: ‘Don’t you think the girl on the cover looks a little bit like me?’ And they were like: ‘What?! She looks so arrogant. It’s not at all like you.’ And so that was my first Christmas at home, basically.”
Subsequently, her parents have become more understanding. “My father very quickly became a big fan,” says Bela. “He would recognise me even with my back to the camera. It took my mum, who’s a university professor, a little longer to accept it. But I understand her perspective. For a long time I was ashamed of saying I’m a model. I still prefer to say I’m Pawel’s wife or I’m a mother. It’s a strange relationship to have with yourself being a model. It’s not an easy relationship. I think it’s healthy now for me because I don’t do it so often, and only things I like, or for the money, and it’s pretty straightforward. It’s not twisted. It doesn’t have anything to do with my vanity… Twenty years later, I finally figured it out.”
It’s ironic that, as someone who claims to care so little for fashion, she now directs the content at a prestigious luxury magazine. “For the first time in my life, I have a regular job with a salary and insurance. And a desk – if I want it,” she says of her role at Vogue Polska, which she helped launch alongside her friend Filip Niedenthal in 2018 and which is published by Condé Nast and the Polish media venture Visteria, founded by Kasia Kulczyk. “I’m like a naughty little sister of Filip,” she says of her input. “I just come with ideas that are completely non-commercial and shouldn’t be there…” she grins. “I thought at the beginning that we were going to serve more of an educational purpose,” she says of the perception of fashion in Poland. “There are more and more people who have money and have the means, but they don’t really know how to buy things; they just go on Net-a-Porter and fill a basket. But you probably know more about this than me. I don’t know the market. And I don’t really want to know the market.”
Bela laments many of the changes in the industry. “Honestly, I don’t want to say anything bad about it, but it’s not as it used to be,” she says. “We lived through something revolutionary. Going from analogue to digital changed the pace of everything. I was lucky enough to work with people like [the US fashion photographer Richard] Avedon. It was so different, a shoot was different. It was more fun. You had more time. The shoot we did yesterday was fun, but you really need a group of people to get into an idea. And that doesn’t happen very often.”
It’s what spurs her to write the stories – to remember things as they were. “It’s a sort of therapy for me,” she says. “The world was so different. It was a world pre-9/11, so there were a lot of things you could do if you just smiled at the airport.” Does she recall any of the sexual misconduct that has lately rocked the business? “Trauma is such a fashionable word right now,” says Bela. “Like, was I metoo’d? I don’t think so. I was pretty tough, like a girl scout. I just dealt with things. I’m more traumatised now when I look back and think, ‘Wow, how did you take Concorde without a credit card in your pocket?’”
And she did enjoy herself. “I was pretty old when I started,” she says. “I was kind of an old soul, kind of a serious girl, not much fun. Then I had my midlife crisis and I was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t so much fun for my son. And there were a lot of absurdities, a lot of Much Ado About Nothing. Ridiculous people on Xanax and, yes, a lot of drama. And sometimes I miss it. But also I’m in a different place in my life. Right now, the most important thing is my son, and me trying to get him through his teenage-hood unharmed. And Pawel. Listen,” she tells me. “I’m in a good place right now.”
And even though that place might be a sofa in a tiny Polish enclave of a city she never imagined she would love, it’s hard to disagree.