Bella Freud: The wind in the woolies

The designer brings her signature whimsy and a particularly English eccentricity to a countryside-inspired collection for Barbour. Rebecca Gonsalves meets the witty knitter
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Fashion is a funny old business: celebrating a knitwear collaboration between Bella Freud and Barbour on one of the hottest days of July is just one quirk of an industry that traditionally clears out its swimwear stock in August to make room for winter coats. But while the surprisingly seasonal warm weather makes the arrival of knitwear feel a tad premature, it's inevitable that winter is coming. And when it does, those early adopters of this range of covetable, comfortable, collaborative sweaters will have more than a sense of smug satisfaction to keep them warm.

In designing a collection for that venerable British brand Barbour, Freud has instigated a coming together of two great dynasties – she is the daughter of the painter Lucien Freud who, in turn, was the grandson of Sigmund Freud – but it's not something that she has particularly considered. Freud, who launched her eponymous clothing line in 1990 to great acclaim, is something of a serial collaborator having brought her talents to bear for Jaeger, Miss Selfridge and Biba but she is perhaps best known for her slogan knits declaring “Ginsberg is God” and “Je t'aime Jane”.

When asked by Barbour to create her latest collection, Freud had to ask herself “what does Barbour represent and how can I do my version of it?” she explains. Straightforward enough one would imagine – surely everybody has a fondness for one of the biggest British labels that has undergone something of a transformation in recent years.

“There are a lot of affectionate associations with Barbour, which is always a good hook with people. Lots of people have resonance with it – which is helpful when you're trying to distil how something feels.

“It's one of those classic English brands,” she continues. “It's got so much heritage, and is so linked to the countryside. It reminds me vaguely of growing up, not that we particularly lived a very Barbour lifestyle. We had such an unconventional upbringing – it didn't involve any clothes like Barbour.”

Although Freud's upbringing in East Sussex may have been unconventional, there are certain elements that many of Barbour's legions of loyal customers will no doubt relate to: “I grew up in the countryside and I was obsessed with horses and wildlife,” she says. This has evidently informed her designs this season, featuring as they do a whimsical array of flora and fauna: “The rabbit and lambs [designs] are my favourites,” says Freud. “They make me laugh. I like to think about how people will relate to you with that image on your jumper – they'll end up having their own take on it as well. Everyone has a feeling about a lamb – their green hooves were inspired by Andy Warhol.

“It was important to me to try to find some common ground that I could do something I would definitely wear, rather than the token nod towards something that leaves one feeling quite cold. What I like doing is imagery that can be interpreted in any particular way by the person who wears it.”

It is notable that while almost everybody will coo over things small and furry, it is the “moonscape” motif that is one of the most evocative of the collection: the black and white silhouette telling a romantic tale of “tramping through the woods at night and coming across a country house”. While Freud wanted the separate illustrations to have “some sort of relationship” to each other, her drawing style for each takes inspiration from different schools of art.

“I looked for things that had resonance with Barbour, then tried to make them my own version without it being alienating to them, or their customers.” Ah, the Barbour “customer” once so easily defined, although not necessarily flatteringly so, the 119-year-old label was a firm favourite with the country set – farmers, landowners and gentry.

But a few years ago, a fascination with all things bucolic intersected with celebrity fans such as Kate Moss and Alexa Chung adding some rock'n'roll credentials to the brand. Since then, waxed-jacket sightings have been plentiful in cities, too. It's no happy accident that Barbour has crossed over to have such mass appeal. Freud is the latest in a long list of collaborators who have helped to invigorate the brand. Indeed, Alice Temperley, Paul Smith and department store Liberty have all brought their own irreverent, distinctly British style to past collaborations.

For Freud, this collection – which also features hoodies, sweater dresses and oversized knits crafted from merino wool and luxury blends of cashmere and angora – is a chance to appeal to a new customer base.

When she tells me she sees “rebellious young girls” wearing her designs, I can't help but feel she's imagining her animal-obsessed, unconventional younger self.