`Sitting for a picture was always the best way to
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Bella Freud's clothes are right on the button, and next Friday, at London Fashion Week, they'll be shimmying down the catwalk on supermodels who'll be doing it because they love them, and her. This is a happy story, and the secret lies in Bella Freud's childhood. NATASHA WALKER reports. Photographs by JAKE CHESSUM

We're in a large, unkempt flat off Ladbroke Grove in west London. The room is dominated by a vast trestle table, old gilt mirrors, stacks of high-heeled shoes and magazine pictures: Carla Bruni wearing sugar- pink Bella Freud; Yasmin le Bon wearing caramel Bella Freud; Cecilia Chancellor wearing baby-blue Bella Freud. In the middle of the clutter, Suzy Bick, Bella's favourite model, a flower of a woman with hair dyed petal-red and stalks of legs in fishnets and precarious heels, sways backwards and forwards in a robe-like coat, the designer watching intently.

It's three weeks before London Fashion Week, where Freud will be showing her autumn/winter collection, as she has for the past five years. This is her time: fashion magazines are full of the sugary colours and the anally perfectionist clothes Freud loves. So this is important, and Bella assures me she's very well ahead. But to the untrained eye, it's chaos. Scraps of paper with manic drawings on them litter the floor, swatches of material are passed from hand to hand, most of the clothes are in the draft stage of a toile - a version of the garment made up in calico or some cheap fabric. With this one coat, people are flapping a bit. The pattern-cutters are slicing at the hem, sticking in pins, muttering away, and then Bella judges it, her voice full of self-mockery: "You look like someone crowning themselves king on a desert island with their one blanket."

From time to time, Bella pulls the half- finished garment off Suzy and drapes herself in it. She is slight, but seems tall in her signature high heels, strictly cut pinstripe trousers and cropped dark hair. She swishes, she turns. "We could make the shoulders even neater," she says. "We could get rid of this pop star look. We could let out these seams. How about raglan sleeves? How about a belt?"

How about... We could... Freud's way of working seems open-ended and direction-less, until you see the clothes develop. Skirts swing, necklines curve, shoulders are neat, heels high. The quintessential glamour has something jokey about it. Looking at a dinky little peacoat, Bella laughs: "Action clothes for Barbie dolls," and so they are.

Sexy, too, and slightly depraved, a mixture of sluttishness and formality as alluring as Freud's own background. Her father, Lucian, grandson of Sigmund and one of the greatest artists and greatest rakes of the post- War age, met her mother, Bernardine Coverley, when he was fortyish and she was 18. They never married and he drifted on; Bernardine whisked off their daughters, Bella, aged six, and Esther, four, to a life of colour and adventure in Morocco. It became the stuff of Esther's first novel, Hideous Kinky. Bella revels in the memory: "What was really nice about my upbringing was that behind school and all the ordinary things was this magical life, like Narnia.''

For a time, Bella held on to the magic. Her mother sent her to a Rudolf Steiner school in Sussex. ``It was very dreamy,'' she remembers, her intent face puckering into a disdainful moue. ``We did a lot of Norse and Greek mythology, not much else."

Then she went through the first of her changes. "There was a time when I was completely obsessed with my grandparents, with the stability of their lives. I loved it. Conventional things seemed very exotic. I started to feel disappointed my school had abolished school uniform. I loved uniforms."

Then another incarnation: "I turned into the worst kind of teenager. Any kind of softness I reacted very violently to." At 17, she left the gentle Sussex home and went to London. She moved in with her half-sister, the novelist Rose Boyt, another of Lucian's many children, and started seeing more of her charismatic father and posing for him - naked and fleshy portraits. And she turned punk. "I had very long hair, and I cut it off that short," she says, making scissoring motions next to her skull. "I started wearing black clothes and then I met Vivienne Westwood and worked in her shop, Seditionaries. It was exciting to be young then. Fashion was so about being young. I was in the right place at the right time."

It's almost impossible to imagine this smartly ironic woman as an anarchic punk, and it wasn't long before she switched to a different track. At 22, she met an Italian playboy, Dado Ruspoli, and moved to Rome to be with him. He was 35 years her senior. "He was great. It was love, while it lasted," she says. And it was, according to her, a timely lesson in true chic. "My boyfriend used to go to a wonderful tailor and I was just fascinated by the effortlessness, the quality, the luxury I saw. The suits were cut so beautifully, they made each man seem at their absolute best. There were pictures all over the wall of Agnelli and Valentino and so on, all these powerful men looking really sexy."

Freud may choose to remember Rome as a sartorial episode. According to her friends, Ruspoli was the ultimate dolce vita figure, and Bella spent more time at druggy parties and in the fountains of palazzi than at fashion college.

But in the end, Rome bored Bella. "Everything, on every level, was very polished and immaculate," she says, in a superbly dismissive drawl. "And I was going to tailoring school and learning things that had real snob value. But it got boring. The Italian sense of humour, the kind of Fellini lifestyle is wonderful. But I mainly met oversexed, dissatisfied middle- aged men and women, all glamorous but in the most conventional way."

Bella had kept in touch with Vivienne Westwood, who now gave her her first big break by taking her on as an assistant. "Sometimes Vivienne would have an idea, and I'd think, `I cannot imagine what that would be like.' But I gradually learned to trust her. I'd keep my mind more and more open, because I knew she'd make it work."

It was a big step to set up on her own, in 1990, but Bella had never lacked initiative - as a child in Morocco, it was she who learned Arabic and did the organising when her mother couldn't be bothered. And she had a clear idea of the look she wanted to create: "Partly it came from Italy. Plus, I always liked the way my father wore English tailoring. He had really great grey flannel suits, very dapper and lively, I loved them. First, I just did knitwear, but I wanted to recreate that kind of dapper elegance."

Her family backed her from the word go. Esther remembers, "I was very involved in being supportive. Sometimes she got so doubtful and demoralised, it made me doubtful. Then when I saw the finished clothes, I was just amazed at their beauty and grace." Lucian designed the cute little terrier logo Bella uses, just as he designs bookjackets for his writing daughters. And although Bella and he may not have had a conventional relationship ("Sitting for a picture was always the best way to get to see him. It still is," she confesses), she speaks about him with immense respect.

The background attracted attention, but so did the clothes - "part schoolgirl, part Jean Harlow", as one Vogue editor puts it. And those attractions have brought Bella has a coterie of smart female friends and clients - among them Lucy Ferry, Hannah Rothschild, Geraldine Ogilvy, Sophie de Stempel. They are very loyal and very discreet, murmuring the party line on Bella: "She's so unusual", "She's so refined", ``She's impeccably loyal", "She's so Bella".

Such support made Bella's first years of solo collections much easier than they might have been. But, as with all British fashion designers, she trod a tightrope from each small order to each small bridging loan. "From the beginning, I was up to my neck." she says with a wry smile. She won a New Generation award in 1991, and mortgaged the flat that her father had bought her to finance the next collection. She never stopped.

And now she's back in Ladbroke Grove, creating the clothes models love to wear; Yasmin and Kate, Cecilia and Naomi, all happy to pile on to the catwalk for her, despite her inability to pay the going rates. (When Bella was preparing her first catwalk show, Naomi Campbell's agent rang. Did Bella want Naomi to do her show? What do you think?) And so it is that on Friday, living dolls dressed in perfect pastel fantasies will shimmy down the catwalk.

But right now, she's gazing at a tight brown stretchy dress with a big scoop neckline. On Suzy Bick, with her hourglass figure and strutting walk, the dress already looks sluttish. Bella pauses. "I wanted insets of black lace - like someone dashing out of their house half-dressed." It sounds ridiculous, but no doubt when filtered through all the precise, pernickety feel she has for cutting and fabric it will look sublime. The pattern-cutters throw the idea back and forth: "The thing is, the stretch will go..." "But we can give it more flare..." "Do you want this lace, or the lace you lost..." "Draw it on, Bella." And Bella picks up a white chalk and draws her vision on to the dress. Suzy looks thrilled; it's gorgeous.