Stella McCartney

Fire and Ice

It’s a Thursday morning and in Paris, media hordes are bustling about the grand marbled hallways of the Palais de Chailloit, where British designer Stella McCartney is staging her autumn/winter show. The public relations people are being pushy, the editors are knocking back champagne (it’s 9am) and grumpy assistants are ushering people to their seats. The chaos is typical of Fashion Week – until you go backstage.

The inner sanctum of McCartney’s production stands in stark contrast to the frenzy outside. There is no pre-show pandemonium; no seamstresses running around frantically making last-minute alterations; nor models arguing over which outfit they will be wearing. Instead, it feels as though you’ve walked into an alternative fashion universe. McCartney’s children are here for a start – children are rarely seen in fashion land – while model of the moment Sasha Pivovarova is taking advantage of the peace and quiet to have a catnap on a makeshift table in the centre of the room. McCartney herself couldn’t look more relaxed, and is bobbing about the room happily, carrying her son and making jokes with her team.

“Oh it’s always super chilled. I just don’t get it,” says McCartney’s long-time assistant, Stephane Jaspar.

“It’s the Stella way,” explains Hilary Alexander, fashion director of Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “Anything she does is just cool, fun and completely relaxed.”

There are few designers who can match McCartney’s cool: she’s the daughter of an ex-Beatle; best friend to Kate, Madonna and Gwyneth; a passionate environmentalist and outspoken animal activist; a besotted mother of two; and a designer with a successful fashion empire that includes clothing, accessories, sportswear and now an organic skin-care range. Add to that several mass-market lines that allow “real” people to enjoy the Stella factor for a tenth of the price and it’s no wonder women want to be her best friend (and wear her clothes).

WHEN WE MEET, THE day after her show (“You’ve got me the morning after, I am probably not going to be very PC,” she warns), I am again witness to her easy-going demeanour. We are at Bar Vendome at the Ritz Hotel, a favourite meeting place for the who’s who of the industry. McCartney strolls in, far prettier and less pouty than photographs suggest, oblivious to any of the “important” people around her. Her naturally reddish blonde hair is tied back in a loose ponytail and her face is clear of make-up, revealing a smattering of freckles that give her an earth-mother look. She throws off her pleather (imitation leather) duffel coat, plops down next to me and starts chatting as if we are old friends, apparently unaware that half the people in the room are vying for her attention.

“Wow, this is a great place to people watch,” she whispers, suddenly noticing photographer Giles Bensimon, heiress Daphne Guinness and Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozanni across the room. “I so don’t do this normally, but we could sit here all day,” she says, her clear blue eyes wide with excitement.

“I remember when I first came to Paris [with fashion house Chloe], everyone wanted to take me out and I had no clue what was going on. I remember saying I’d just meet everyone at the Ritz at the same time. So I came in here and moved from table to table. I must have offended everyone in the industry in about an hour and a half. It was like bam, bam, bam.”

McCartney has come a long way from the naive newcomer of several years ago. Aside from running her own phenomenally successful label, she has several projects in the pipeline, including an accessories line for Le Sportsac, which will debut next year, and her skin-care range, Care, which launches in Hong Kong this week. She will make a personal appearance on Thursday at Lane Crawford for the launch and, while she is in the city, will scout for a location for her first freestanding boutique here, which is slated to open this year. While in Hong Kong, she’ll also showcase – via news conference – this year’s autumn/winter collection of adidas by Stella McCartney. It’s all in a day’s work for a woman the industry has named Unstoppable Stella.

“With our brand, it seems sort of rude not to branch out into all these things,” she says by way of explanation. “You think you don’t want to do it but sometimes it just naturally evolves. I would love to do home, or linens. I would love to do it all. It’s one thing at a time though. We already have a lot on our plate.”

It is tempting to assume the daughter of Sir Paul McCartney and American rock photographer Linda has had an easy life. During her childhood she toured the globe with her parents and their pop group, Wings, eventually settling in East Sussex, in Britain, during the 1980s. Determined to give their children as normal a life as possible, the McCartneys put Stella and her siblings through a local state school and encouraged them to work during the summer to supplement their pocket money.

“I had a mixed upbringing,” she says in her Estuary accent. “It was very down to earth and yet it was exciting at the same time. My parents used to have these wild parties at the weekends and you can’t compete with that. The kids at school would just hate me. I mean, you don’t rock into school on a Monday morning and tell people how you partied with [David] Bowie over the weekend,” she says with a laugh.

McCartney insists her love for fashion came at a young age and was inspired by old films and her mother’s individual sense of style. “The media always reports how I made my first jacket at 12 but I knew I wanted to be a designer way before then. I used to love all the old films. I loved Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day and would get obsessed with the clothes. Annie Get Your Gun was my absolute favourite. Then I would go to my mum’s wardrobe and look at her clothes and try them on.

“One thing that always inspired me about Mum was that she did everything from the heart. She never did what other people did – she’d put on a bespoke jacket with a long dress and it was so effortless. She was never afraid to follow her own path or do her own thing. She was just beautiful.”

McCartney’s fashion training began at the age of 15, when she interned for French designer Christian Lacroix. This was followed by a stint on Savile Row, where she perfected the art of tailoring – a skill that would later become one of her signatures. In the early 90s she enrolled at London’s renowned Central St Martins fashion school, an experience she describes as amazing because she “learnt how to be creative and exercise my mind in an unlimited way”.

Her hard work culminated in a much-publicised graduation show in 1995, at which supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell modelled for free and her parents cheered her on from the front row (Sir Paul even wrote the show music, which he titled Stella May Day). To her surprise, the entire collection was bought by London boutique Tokio and McCartney found herself making every piece by hand out of a garage in Notting Hill. As time wore on, she started to experience the growing pains associated with developing one’s own brand.

“About a year into it, my own label was running away with me and I couldn’t do it. We were in a little flat in London, in Notting Hill, and I was doing production, the design and the fabric. I was really naive and it was overwhelming but people wanted it.

When it was time to do the next [collection], I was like, ‘Shut up, I can’t …’ I didn’t want to borrow any money off Mum and Dad, and I didn’t want to plough all the money back in either. Then the Chloe people came.”

Barely out of St Martins and with little experience under her belt, McCartney was one of 41 applicants battling for the coveted position of creative director of Chloé (“I thought Chloé was an unknown, really unsuccessful label – it was not like I was going to do Dior or anything!” she quips). When she got the job in 1997, the ever-scathing fashion community was quick to cite nepotism as the reason behind the hire. Then former Chloé designer Karl Lagerfeld famously declared: “Chloé should have taken a big name. They did, but not in fashion, in music.”

“[Being a McCartney] has always been a blessing and sometimes made things difficult. I would never say it was a disadvantage; it would be stupid to say that and a bit ungrateful and disrespectful. I am very proud of my heritage, really, but it’s not like I don’t come from a family that doesn’t work hard. But it is what it is. People might not take me seriously but those things don’t matter. I’ve had a great start, an elevated start, but I have had to make my own place.”

And make her own place she did, firmly establishing Chloe as the must-have brand of the 90s, with a feminine, flirty, Boho-inspired style that became ubiquitous. By the time she left and launched her own label under the Gucci group in 2001, McCartney was ready to take her designs to a new level.

After a couple of rocky years, the label has finally come into its own and established an identity that is almost as strong as its designer. Season after season McCartney goes back to her signature styles and reinvents them, creating easy fun pieces beloved by the modern woman. And after many years in the red, it has been reported the brand will finally turn a profit this year.

“I have tightened it and fine-tuned it. And I am more in tune with myself now than at that first show,” she explains. “For me it’s no longer about, ‘Shall I do this so people are happy?’ It’s more like, ‘This is what is right for myself and that’s obviously right for my brand.’ Now I am more true to that.”

McCartney has become a spokesperson for causes close to her heart, including the anti-fur movement. Part of this includes a clause in her contract with the Gucci group stipulating she will not work with fur, leather or any other animal by-product, making her one of the first designers in the industry to make such a stand.

“It’s so unmodern to put fur on the runway. And I’m not going to name names but some of the things I have seen look so old, uncool and completely out of touch. It surprises me how barbaric they are too. This season it is so unperceptive of the designers to still do that. Every other industry is talking about it, they are aware of it. Everyone – artists, creative people – is questioning and reacting. It’s happening and they are addressing it. But fashion people … what kind of world are fashion people living in? It’s not supposed to be a bubble. We are designers. We are the only industry working in advance. We are the people designing the new cars for the year but we aren’t setting an example. They are still in their own little f***ed-up world. They really need to wake up.

“This is part of the industry that I am embarrassed to be a part of. When I was young, I used to go to dinner parties and I would never want to say I was in fashion. It sounded so fickle, so empty, so weightless. And that’s the part of it that is.”

When I point out that the industry is starting to become more aware, with brands such as Burberry promising to use small amounts of “ethical fur”, McCartney is quick to cut in.

“Well that’s nice of them. Burberry can say they are doing it in nice farms but if you go to that farm … I really don’t see [creative director] Christopher Bailey rocking down to a fur farm to see how nicely they’re all being killed. Come on, let’s get real.”

In an attempt to diffuse McCartney’s growing anger, I turn to the subject of motherhood. Since losing her own mother to cancer in 1998, McCartney has experienced some significant life changes. After marrying publisher Alasdhair Willis in 2003, she became a mother (son Miller Alasdhair James was born in 2005, daughter Bailey Linda Olwyn, last December), which has necessitated a tough balancing act by the 35-year-old.

“I remember when I got pregnant everyone expected me to give up work. And I just thought, ‘What planet are you living on?’ Right now I feel honoured to be able to work and have a family. I have the best of both worlds. I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy. Because you always feel guilty when you have a job. I want to be with my kids first and foremost, but I hope to have a healthy balance. Sometimes it gets overwhelming with work and I have to stop.”

At this point in the interview, her assistant jumps in, saying we need to wrap it up so McCartney can visit her showroom before taking the Eurostar train back to London. Before she races off, I ask McCartney to reveal her proudest moment. She answers without missing a beat.

“Oh, definitely my first show with Mum and Dad there, looking at my mum’s face and getting all emotional. After reading the reviews of yesterday’s show, I thought my mum would be very proud of me.”

Then, in a true no-holds-barred Stella moment, she blurts out, “Sorry I need to stop before I start crying. I am breastfeeding so I have major hormonal issues.”

As published in the SCMP, May 13 2007