The NS Interview: Bella Freud, designer and campaigner

“People would rather blame the victim than the bully”

Why did you start Hoping, your charity for Palestinian refugees? And why Palestine?
I’ve always been interested in justice. I think what is happening to the Palestinians represents the ultimate injustice. I also hate bullies and the effect of them, the way people side with them out of fear. The Israelis are the schoolyard bullies, with England and the United States siding with them.

You see Israel and Palestine in those terms?
Yes. Israel is the bully and what is awful is that people would rather blame the victim than the bully. It is less hassle – but what a stain on your conscience.

Has anyone told you that you’re betraying your Jewish heritage in supporting Palestine?
No one has ever said that to me. I can only imagine that’s the kind of thing someone’s family might misguidedly come out with. None of my family were Zionists. My father’s family are Jewish and I like everything that’s good about being Jewish. But I don’t do this because I’m Jewish, but because the policies and behaviour of the Israeli government against the Palestinians are abhorrent to my values.

Were your family ever practising Jews?
No, they were atheists. My mother’s family were practising Catholics, though she wasn’t.

But did your father [Lucian Freud] identify as being Jewish?
Yes, but he didn’t go in for that being his only identity. He knew, he was acutely aware of, what [had] happened, and to his own family, of course.

Did you have any family who were lost in the Holocaust?
Yes, my father’s great-aunts, Sigmund Freud’s four sisters, were killed in concentration camps. Sigmund Freud managed to get out thanks to his friendship with Princess Marie Bonaparte, who made the funds available and helped him escape. When he was still in Austria the Nazis came and emptied his safe. He had to sign something saying that nobody had treated him badly. Apparently he added, “I suppose you would like me to recommend you to some of my friends.” His black humour.

Do you identify as Jewish?
When I was 22 I was making this coat for Keith Richards. I was living in Rome and he came to visit: he was a friend of my then boyfriend and I was at fashion school. I showed him some drawings and he said, “Maybe you could get that coat together.” I went off to Paris, where he was making a record with the Stones. I would go to the recording studio with him at about 11pm and watch them rehearsing. Then around three or 4am he’ d go, “OK,” and I’d do a fitting. Once we were talking about our backgrounds and I said, “Sometimes I forget I’m Jewish,” and he said, “Don’t worry, darling, nobody else will.” I thought that was very good.

Was it ever awkward sitting for your father nude?
I was 16 when I first started sitting for him. I sat for two paintings wearing the same dress. I knew that he liked to paint nudes and I thought, “OK, I’ll try it.” I found that once the clothes were gone the self-consciousness was gone, too. The thing about him was that he didn’t change once I was naked – he was exactly the same. He would never have wanted me to do what I didn’t want to do, though.

Who was your biggest fashion influence?
My earliest influences were Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. But Vivienne Westwood was my teacher. I remember her talking about
a design and thinking: “I just can’t see how that could work.” And then, when the sample was made, being ashamed that I could have doubted her, when the results were so ingenious.

Who is your biggest inspiration, generally speaking?
Karma Nabulsi, the co-founder of Hoping. She is the person who inspired me to do something about Palestine. She has an extraordinary know­ledge of what is going on in the Middle East. She is so clearly well informed and objective – a brilliant exponent of the solution rather than the conflict. And she loves clothes!

Is there anything you’d like to forget?
I’d rather like to remember a few more things.

Do you vote?
I always have, but now it’s hard to summon any enthusiasm. I used to vote for the Liberal Democrats, partly because of their position on Palestine, but since Nick Clegg joined the coalition he uses that ambivalent language about Israel that always ends with “Well, they have to protect themselves” after they have committed some new outrageous act of aggression against the Palestinians. He used to speak out in an admirable way against Israel’s expansion of the settlements and the siege of Gaza. I’m sure he still believes that, but the point is he doesn’t say it any more. How can I vote for him now?

Are we all doomed?
No way.

Defining moments

1961 Born in London
1977 Leaves school at 16 to work as shop assistant for Vivienne Westwood, London. Later studies fashion at Accademia di Costume e di Moda and tailoring at Istituto Mariotti, both in Rome
1980 Personal assistant to Westwood
1990 Launches own womenswear label
2000 Employed by Jaeger to revamp brand
2003 Launches Hoping Foundation
2006 Appointed head designer at Biba

Jemima Khan is a film and TV producer. Formerly a journalist, she joined the New Statesman as associate editor in November 2011.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?