David Beckham's whole new ball game
As his footballing career nears extra time, David Beckham has a new goal in his sights: turning himself into a one-man brand.
Subjected to an intense round of underwear interrogation, David Beckham becomes ever-so-slightly uncomfortable. The famous, tattoo-etched Beckham arms that were previously at rest on the table between us rise edgily upwards to facilitate pensive strokes of the Beckham stubble. He tweaks at his hitherto undisturbed beanie, and the gold Rolex chronograph pinched from his wife's dressing-table this morning glints in the midwinter Los Angeles sunlight.
'Briefs,' he ventures, 'are what I mostly wear. When playing, definitely.' Boxer short-wise, he confesses admiration for those that Mark 'Marky Mark' Wahlberg once modelled for Calvin Klein. However, he concurs that too much material in the leg can spark unwanted in-trouser rucking. 'Which is why it's good to wear them at night. I prefer to wear the briefs during the day.' The Beckham voice rises a semi-desperate semi-octave. 'But everyone's different!' Remorselessly, we continue, contemplating a selection of thigh-fitting, boxer-meets-budgie-smuggler hybrids (the label says 'Trunk Briefs').
These come in two styles, one offering a buttoned fly, the other a supportive pouchy arrangement. This offers optimal comfort but - how to say it chastely? - reduced egress. 'I probably prefer the pouch to the fly,' Beckham says, 'personally.' A pause. Then he cracks. The brow ruefully crinkles, and sinks towards his hands. 'What I just said! "I prefer the pouch"!' Britain's pre-eminent sporting hero of our time adopts an own-goal slump. From behind her BlackBerry, his personal publicist Jo Milloy says via a sigh that she can see the headline now.
This magazine, however, will not flinch from forensically questioning David Beckham about his underpants. Nor indeed his vests, pyjamas or long johns. For this - as it has been sternly, repeatedly, nay contractually stipulated - must be the main topic of our conversation today.
From February 2, David Beckham's underpants can be your underpants too. That is when they and the rest of his 'bodywear' range go on sale in every one of the Swedish fashion retailer H&M's 1,800ish stores in 40ish countries worldwide. And unlike H&M's usual popular but purposefully fleeting fashion collaborations with Marni, Versace, Karl Lagerfeld and their ilk, this is a long-term partnership. Beckham and H&M (there is no hint of Californian softening to Beckham's Estuary 'haitch and emm') have signed a rolling, to-be-renewed-biannually contract that is expected to last at least half a decade. While his remuneration has not been made public, Beckham will certainly not have come cheap.
Whatever the price, however, H&M may well have pulled off the most fruitful fashion transfer of the season. The 'bodywear' collection was originally planned as a stand-alone, self-produced product by Beckham and his advisers. It was, Beckham says, 'all ready to go' when he and his business partner, Simon Fuller, first revealed their plans for an underpants start-up last May. Not only were the designs finalised, so too was the all-important sell: the label and packaging.
Co-designed by Beckham and Alasdhair Willis (the husband of Stella McCartney and a consultant to Adidas, one of Beckham's long-term sponsors) this label - the branding that appears on the waistband of all the underwear - is rather restrained. Exactly the same as the label on his perfume, it says 'David Beckham' in block capitals, with the end of each word partially obscured by a white, circular elision. 'We came up with a few ideas, then this,' Beckham says. 'It's like a hole punch. Some people say it's a bit like a football, but I tried to stay away from that - it's a whole different thing. I wanted something that people would know was me, but for people who did not want David Beckham splashed over their underwear. Which some people don't, I'm sure.'
He's being Roy of the Rovers post-match modest, here. The evidence is that many people do want David Beckham splashed all over their underwear, so to speak. His 2007 contract as the face (and the rest) of Emporio Armani's underwear range reportedly more than doubled sales of these pricey Italian pants. 'After that, I knew it was the right thing to do. As soon as I finished with Armani, I started thinking about having my own line. It is difficult starting your own brand and being successful in the underwear business, but what we had with Armani was amazing.'
Within 48 hours of declaring their intention to get into pants, Beckham and Fuller were contacted by H&M, which declared an interest in buying the concept. That irritating word 'bodywear' has been appended to the collection because it does stretch a little beyond the underwear zone; those waffled, knee-patched cotton long johns are particularly nice. 'They're very old-school,' Beckham says. 'Not many people wear them - some people think they're ugly, which is odd - but they make me think of James Dean.' The pyjama bottoms and grandad tops are soft cotton that come, like the rest of his collection, in grey, black or white. And the ribbed vests, he adds, 'are pretty standard wifebeater vests.' Ah, the wifebeater. What an interesting name for a garment. 'It really is,' he says. 'I couldn't get used to it.'
The timing of this H&M deal means it is far more than just another commercial gig for Beckham. It comes as he straddles the most significant fault line of his career - the transition from world-famous footballer to world-famous former footballer. 'To be coming close to the end of my footballing career and to have another thing going on, something as big as this, it's exciting.' Or, as Simon Fuller said when the H&M deal was announced, 'it marks an important step in the evolution of David's journey from sporting hero to entrepreneur and icon.'
Beckham is 36. His five-year £20 million contract with LA team Galaxy ended in November. When we meet just before Christmas there is paper-talk aplenty of one last, short-term league hurrah in France for the Qatari-owned Paris Saint Germain. 'I'm going to need long johns if I go to Paris,' is all he'll venture. 'It's a little chillier there than it is here.' No need though: at the beginning of this month the Paris deal evaporated, and he later signed a new two-year contract with Galaxy.
But it is sport's greatest global audience - the Olympic audience - that seems the most likely recipient of Beckham's final footballing set-piece. He has been semaphoring his inclusion in the Team GB football squad (for what is, in four-nations FA terms, a troublesome distraction - albeit a high-profile one) for months now, and does so again today. 'I want to be involved in the Olympics. And I don't want to be a coach, I want to play. Everyone knows how passionate I am about playing for my country, so I'd be very proud to do it in the Olympics. Especially as it's in a part of London where I grew up… I would look back and think, "Wow, I did that."'
Olympic competition would boost Beckham's post-footballing profile, adding yet another swath of international eyeballs to his roster. Yet Beckham's post-football incarnation as a one-man brand will materialise not solely thanks to his footballing profile. Brand Beckham is based on a part-spontaneous, part-crafted spectrum of mass-market appeal. 'People obviously firstly associate me with the football. But there are other aspects of my life that people are interested in. I think people don't just want to buy my underwear because I'm good at football... people are interested in my life and this' - that Rolex glints again as he waves at the clothes in front of us - 'is part of it. It is part of me.'
The first one-man-brand qualification possessed by Beckham is that he's very handsome, damn him. Women and men alike, whether they see him as an object either of desire or aspiration, have long engaged with the Beckham cheekbones and six-pack.
The second crucial qualification that Beckham possesses is his willingness to play with those looks. The fundamental Beckham smartness, he says, set in early. His ascent to designer of wifebeaters began as a diner at Beefeater (it would have been the one in Ponders End, near Chingford in Essex, where Leytonstone-born Beckham grew up). When the family ate out, 'I would want to wear a suit.' These suits, he suspects, came mostly from C&A because that is where his nan worked.
Suit-wearing was a habit cemented at Beckham's first club, a local youth team named Ridgeway Rovers, for whose under-10s Beckham scored more than 100 goals. The coach, Stuart Underwood, insisted on smartness. 'He would always want us to wear a shirt and tie on the way to the game. Some kids hated it, but I loved it. And at Manchester United [Beckham signed as a schoolboy on his 14th birthday] Sir Alex Ferguson always had us in blazers and a tie. It was really regimented, which I loved. That's why when we go for lunch over here - not many people dress up for lunch in LA - I always wear a shirt, a suit, something smart.' This feels, he says, part of his Englishness.
Fashion-wise, Beckham's development from hair-gel-heavy, suited-and-booted ball-bender to bona-fide sartorial experimenter commenced in 1997 when he fell for Victoria Adams, the also-Fuller-managed Spice Girl turned fashion designer (sales: £28 million in 2011). 'When I met Victoria,' he says, 'I got confidence.' He is unrepentant about that sarong. It was Gaultier, he has got it in blue and brown as well as the original black and he still wears them when on holiday. 'If I like something, I'm going to wear it - it doesn't matter what people are going to think of me.' This fearlessness extends to various heavily oiled, lightly clad fashion shoots over the years. 'I've never been averse to doing, not stupid things, but pushing it a little.'
The H&M television ads, which will air from February 2, he says, are in the 'pushing it a little' category. 'Seeing the video I thought, "Millions of people are going to see this. And, it's, ummmm, me, on a turntable, spinning, in my underwear."'
The oft-rebranded hair is set at present in what has been described as a 'side-sweep': longish, side-parted and a little bit retro. 'Very Mad Men,' he agrees. 'I do like Mad Men.' Just days ago he was on the verge of shaving it all off ('going for the skinhead again') but Victoria staged an intervention. 'She said, "It looks so good at the moment. Don't do it." I was like, "OK."'
Under sustained questioning, Beckham insists there is no Wayne Rooney post-op scenario festering under that beanie. 'Someone said I'd had a hair transplant. There's definitely nothing wrong with doing that, but I don't think personally I would. If I do start showing signs of going bald, then I will shave it off. I've still got hair. I'm still fighting it!'
A further facet of Beckham's mainstream appeal comes from his qualifications as a family man. He speaks fondly - if a mite ruefully - of Victoria's Birkin bag collection, and proudly of her excellence as a fashion designer. He never goes to the shows, he says, because 'she gets unbelievably stressed, so I stay out of the way. And I think if I was at the show it might distract slightly from what she does.' So instead he watches them at home, online, with Brooklyn, 12, Romeo, nine, and Cruz, six.
He melts when discussing his baby daughter, Harper, and says that watching his sons grow up is 'Great, but scary. Scary because I can see Brooklyn getting different interests. Wanting to go out with his friends, wanting to talk about girls, growing up into a young man. But I must admit I would rather it be three boys than three girls.' When asked why, he looks suddenly steely. 'Well, by the time Harper is a teenager she's going to have three older brothers that are going to be, well, men.'
As the tabloids would have it, Beckham has a gang of celebrity pals. He becomes star-struck only when discussing the Duke of Cambridge - with whom he plotted England's failed 2018 World Cup bid (Russia won it). Prince William, he says, 'is an extremely charming man. For a person of such a young age he has an aura. He's got the charisma of a king. He walks into a room, and everyone knows he's there. Not because he walks in shouting about it, but because he oozes that charm.' Mid-bid, he recalls, 'My mum texted me. She said, "I can't believe that you are sat between the PM and the future King of England."'
When arranging this interview we pressed our best to fix the location for Beverly Hills, chez Beckham, just down from Jay Leno and Tom Cruise. They weren't having it. Yet this gleaming white Sunset Boulevard office suite overlooking Los Angeles' low-rise panorama seems just as fitting a spot. For it is from here, in Simon Fuller's headquarters, that Beckham's progress along the footballer-to-fashion journey metaphor is being so very carefully shaped. Asked what he plans to do post-football, he mentions his work for Unicef: 'I take that part of my life very seriously.' For himself, he says (repeatedly), he wants to 'be successful.' Yes, but as what? 'I want to be a successful businessman. It's as simple as that.'