MR DAVID BECKHAM
Sport’s biggest style icon chats to Mr John Lanchester about fatherhood, football and his starring role in Belstaff’s short film Outlaws
Words by Mr John Lanchester
These days, Mr David Beckham describes himself as “a driver”. He is only half joking. He takes his children to their four different schools every morning, picks them up every afternoon and cooks them dinner most nights. Appearing on Mr Jimmy Kimmel’s television programme, he claimed that “I’m literally an Uber driver”. I told Mr Beckham that, with two teenagers of my own, I sympathised, but at least we should be grateful that our children can’t summon us by app. He laughed and said: “It would be game over”.
However, Mr Beckham doesn’t have an Uber driver’s typical CV. In the first decade of this century, the president of Real Madrid football club set out to assemble a squad of “galácticos”: football players who were so famous that they would be recognisable not just anywhere in the world, but throughout the entire galaxy. (I’m using “football” in the global sense of the term to refer to the game that in the US is called “soccer”.) The idea was that you could get into a taxi anywhere in the world, from Beijing to Johannesburg or Sydney to Oslo, and the cab driver would be able to name five or six players from the Real Madrid team. Once the policy was announced, it was clear that Real Madrid would eventually sign Mr Beckham as he was already one of the most famous footballers, and most recognisable faces, in the world.
He moved to Madrid in 2003, and since then his celebrity has only grown. It helps that he is as good looking today, at 40, as he was when he first started playing for Manchester United in his late teens. It also doesn’t hurt that he is married to Mrs Victoria Beckham, the former Spice Girl (Posh Spice) turned respected fashion designer. Some observers have given her credit for his interest in fashion, but the fact is that Mr Beckham’s engagement with style predates their relationship. The earliest photographs of him in youth football teams show him as the one with distinctive – usually spiky – hair. The Class of ’92, a documentary about the 1992 Manchester United youth team showed him customising a sponsor’s donated car and being teased about it by the other players, and he clearly did not mind. He likes things the way he likes them.
Footballers are conservative and conformist about their style – the “banter” culture of the dressing room puts a heavy premium on not being different. Mr Beckham never subscribed to that. I asked him where this passion came from.
“I don’t wake up in the morning and think I’m going to wear this today, I just go out in what I feel comfortable in”
“I actually don’t know,” he said. “My dad definitely wasn’t into style. He was dressed all right, but he was never into fashion, even though he was a mod back in the day. He had an amazing Vespa that got nicked outside my gran’s house. But I don’t know where it came from. It was there even at a young age. I was a pageboy when I was really young, and I had a choice of whether to choose a suit or knickerbockers - and I chose knickerbockers.”
Those knickerbockers were not the last time Mr Beckham made a distinctive or controversial fashion choice. He has gone out in public wearing a sarong and he has 40 tattoos; several of them visible when he is fully dressed. His beard, which is neatly trimmed on the day we meet, has at times a lavishness that is part-hipster, part-Duke-in-exile. By his own admission, when he was in Spain, “I kind of had a mullet going on”. As he himself says with a grin about his sartorial choices, “It’s not always been right”. He clearly – and robustly – doesn’t care and isn’t going to stop. “I don’t know… The style thing, it’s not something I do on purpose, I don’t wake up in the morning and think I’m going to wear this and this today, I just go out in what I feel comfortable in.”
“With the way men dress, there are rules… but rules are made to be broken and I think I’ve done that over the years”
I’m reluctant to leave it there, because his appearance has done a lot to make him what he is today. Most men who are famous for style or fashion have a look; a distinctive way of dressing. Mr Beckham doesn’t as he, himself, is the look. I mention to him the idea that male dressing is based on rules, expecting him to not agree. He half-does and half-doesn’t.
“I think it’s important for people to have their own sense of style – a personal style. I think there are certain rules, especially when you’re English, because you’re brought up on ‘this is how a gentleman should dress’. If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford it, you can go to Savile Row and have a suit made, or you can go and see how people dress. We’re brought up around that. I think we’re lucky to have that. In that sense of fashion, and the way men dress, there are rules. But I do also think that rules are made to be broken and I think I’ve done that over the years, in good ways and in bad ways. But I’m having fun and I wear what I like to wear: I don’t get told what to wear. It’s always important to have your own mind.”
His interest in style is apparent in what he’s been doing on the day we meet: taking part in a fashion shoot to accompany the release of a new short film, Outlaws, made in partnership with Belstaff. The film is written and directed by Mr Geremy Jasper. The executive producer is Ms Liv Tyler, partner of Mr Dave Gardner, Mr Beckham’s closest friend since their days in the Manchester United youth team. "Cinephilic" Mr Porter readers might compare Outlaws to Ms Marianne Faithfull’s film Girl on a Motorcycle, except with Mr Beckham wearing the leathers. Mr Harvey Keitel plays a maniacal film director who is bent on revenge, Ms Katherine Waterston is a trapeze artist, and there are conjoined twins, evil bikers, a bearded lady, and much footage of Mr Beckham zooming across the Mexican desert on one of his beloved motorcycles.
The news about Outlaws, and the fact that Mr Beckham is appearing in Mr Guy Ritchie’s upcoming film about King Arthur, has led to excitable speculation that acting is his new goal in life.
“Acting is not my new career, it’s just fun, it’s not something that I’m training to be better at”
“I saw an article the other day that said this is my new career, and it’s really not,” says Mr Beckham. “It’s something that I’ve dipped myself into from time to time, but I only did it for a friend, Guy” – Mr Guy Ritchie. “I did a small bit in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and I’ve done little bit more for him in [Knights of the Roundtable:] King Arthur, and then obviously there’s what we’ve done with the Outlaws. But it’s definitely not my new career, it’s just fun, it’s not something that I’m training to be better at.”
That’s a revealing way of describing an ambition – something you train to be better at. Not many celebrities talk like this. Mr Beckham’s air of glamour might make him seem a show pony, but his football was based on high work rate and long hours of off-screen effort. A large part of his fan appeal was, and is, in that combination of his looks and talent with his appetite for hard work.
Mr Beckham retired from football in May 2013, after a spell at Paris Saint-Germain F.C. Most recently retired athletes have a loss around them and it is there, very faintly, around Mr Beckham, too. He and his advisers have prepared thoughtfully for the transition, though, and he is clearly busy. He has business and entrepreneurial projects; he has a plan to start a major league soccer team in Miami. He works hard for 7: The David Beckham UNICEF Fund, a charity initiative that grew out of his work for UNICEF, focusing on projects in seven global areas where life is especially difficult for children. Mr Beckham calls this his “main focus” now – I’ve already heard from a source at UNICEF about how much work he does for now.
But it’s impossible to miss that the central focus of Mr Beckham’s life now is his own children. His face changes when he talks about overhearing his son’s Brooklyn’s art teacher praising him (“all of a sudden, I realised I had to walk away, I was getting emotional”) or how Cruz said: “Daddy, can you teach me how to make a croque-monsieur?” When I ask him whether he teaches his boys about style, he instantly says: “They teach me now.”
This might seem a matter of importance only to the Beckhams, but there is more to it than that. Mr Beckham is in essence a shy and private family man, who also happens to be one of the most famous men in the world. That combination could be his real legacy. Fatherhood has changed. Fathers have to do more than they used to. There aren’t enough role models for this modern kind of male parent: the hands-on one who bears his share of the ordinary daily work of parenting. We need to see more of that – I mean to really see it – in the lives of the rich and famous. Mr Beckham, who is one of the most admired, best-looking and richest men in the world, can’t think of anything he’d rather do than spend time with his children. It is, unarguably, a good look.