The unstoppable Stella McCartney
Katie Trotter (Writer)
"I am involved in the stores, ad campaigns, the set for our show, the music; I try to cover everything," says Stella McCartney.
Stella McCartney's difficult birth inspired her parents, Paul and Linda, to call their band Wings.
Stella McCartney rarely talks. She mostly refuses to open up much. Even when it comes to detractors she remains tightly zipped. "That's for me to know and for you to find out" is the phrase of the day and the general mood.
In a fashion world driven by the battery packs of powerful publicists, McCartney stands out. Her press appearances are safe and assuredly heavily scripted, with every move undertaken with precise structure and calculation. Although this doesn't exactly win the hearts and souls of the public, it seems that keeping everything at arm's length has been her principal coping mechanism. You see, probably the only thing more difficult than being famous is being the child of somebody famous. The expectations, the constant need to justify oneself; it can't have been an easy task for the daughter of Sir Paul McCartney to navigate the endless stream of criticism.
Her father needs no introduction, as the highest-profile surviving member of the biggest-selling band in history, but the daughter tries hard to distance herself from any impression that she has ridden his coattails to success.
"Everyone is hugely influenced by their parents and their upbringing, no matter what," McCartney says, "and of course my upbringing helped shape my beliefs, some good and some bad, but I also developed my own causes."
But this is McCartney sketched from afar - McCartney "the brand" - which is exactly how and where she feels comfortable. Perhaps you just get to a point where you don't want to hurt anymore, which would be understandable given the negative media her family has faced. The armour, the self-preservation - it makes sense when you step back a little.
Unpolished yet surprisingly pretty in that wholesome British way, with flyaway hair, fox-like features and steely grey eyes, McCartney, 39, is distinctly un-fashiony compared to many of her contemporaries. Perhaps what stands out most is her waspish, sinewy figure, which she has admitted stemmed from being in the industry.
"I can honestly say this industry hasn't made me neurotic about my looks, except maybe my weight," she has said. "I hope my clothes kind of reflect that. They're meant to make you feel good, not give you more hang-ups."
Named after her great-grandmothers, Stella Nina McCartney was born in London in 1971 to the ex-Beatle Paul and the photographer Linda Eastman McCartney. Her birth almost ended in tragedy as mother and child nearly died, and the event led her father to pray that she had entered life "on the wings of an angel", thus inspiring the name of her parents' band, Wings.
She spent her early years on the road touring with the band, along with her siblings: her older half-sister, Heather (whom Paul legally adopted in 1980); her older sister, Mary; and her younger brother, James.
"I actually spent my childhood between England, America and Scotland," she says. "We travelled a lot then, which I am sure had a really big impact on the way I think."
Still, growing up, she assures me, was completely normal. "I attended the local state school, which gave me a better understanding of the real world, I suppose," McCartney says. She tells me that her family life simply revolved around school, dinner, telly and bed. This does seem remarkably normal, except that the average mother does not make the cover of Rolling Stone and the average father was not half of the greatest songwriting team in the history of pop music.
But while most 12-year-olds can only dream, McCartney was already doing the odd day of work experience with the British designer Jean Muir.
"I grew up with creativity all around me and knew very early on I wanted to do something in the arts," she says. "I have always reacted to what's going on around me, picking up on the general feeling within an atmosphere. I spent a lot of my childhood watching old Hollywood films from the 50s like Annie Get Your Gun and going through my parents' closets. I spent a lot of my time in there trying on my parents' Savile Row suits, which is funny as later I eventually apprenticed there myself."
Perhaps because of her pedigree, McCartney has had some stiff opposition. Her degree show at the prestigious Central St Martins College of Art and Design provoked outrage as friends Kate Moss, Yasmin Le Bon and Naomi Campbell walked the runway for her to a song written by Sir Paul entitled Stella May Day. The rest of the designers had to make do with the models provided. The press had a field day, as the three super models, who normally get up to US$10,000 (Dh36,700) a day, did not charge her a penny.
"I didn't foresee that happening, which was just pure stupidity," McCartney said later. What was not so stupid was that her entire collection was sold to Tokio, a London boutique, and her designs were licensed to Browns, Joseph, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.
In 1997, McCartney had another battle to deal with. This time the negative press came from none other than Karl Lagerfeld, who upon the announcement of her appointment to the French fashion house Chloé, famously said: "Chloé should have taken a big name. They did, but in music, not fashion. Let's hope she's as gifted as her father." And although her stint at the house proved successful - Vogue wrote that "her first collection for the house Chloé, shown in Paris in October 1997, quickly dispelled any doubts about her talent," and she received the VH1/Vogue Designer of the Year award in 2000 (presented by her father) - the Chloé collection really took off only when the chief role went to her first assistant and good friend, Phoebe Philo.
In 2001, McCartney, who had by now gained the confidence of the critics, resigned from Chloé in order to enter into a joint venture with Gucci. Personally, it had been a turbulent few years, as she had to scatter the ashes of her beloved mother - a strong advocate for animal rights who died of breast cancer at the age of 56 - at the McCartney farm in Sussex. There is no doubt her decision to ban all animal products from her business was a way in which she could keep Linda McCartney's torch lit. Her privileged position allowed her, as she admits, to be stubborn, although it undoubtedly cost her much needed business at the time.
A lacto-ovo-vegetarian, McCartney considers the use of animal products in fashion to be unjustifiable but says there are times it is hard to keep up.
"I'm not perfect," she says, "but for me it is really about the principle. My mother always taught me to do unto others as you would have others do unto you, so my first decision is always based on: can I do this in a more ethical and environmental way without sacrificing design? If I can, then there is no reason not to."
To set the record straight, she tells me: "I don't use any animal skins or furs in my collections at all." And nor, it seems, should anyone: "I simply cannot see how it is justifiable to kill animals for their skin. It's completely unethical and unnecessary. Aside from being barbaric it also has a huge impact on the planet."
She steamrollers on: about 50 million animals die for the sake of fashion ever year, she says, which not only is wasteful but also significantly contributes to climate change, as farming uses a lot of water, energy and land - devastating forests and polluting oceans. What McCartney has done is to find good alternatives.
"In our ready-to-wear line, we use 'freedom silk', a process that, instead of boiling the cocoon, allows the moth to be set free and the silk is used from the cocoon left behind." The downside, she explains, is that "the quantities are limited and the quality is more rustic looking than I want to achieve, but we are working on it". McCartney married the British publisher Alasdhair Willis in 2003 in a private Catholic chapel at Mount Stuart House, the ancestral home of the Marquess of Bute on the Isle of Bute, Scotland. Her dress was an updated version of her mother's dress from her marriage to Paul in 1969, which she designed with the help of Tom Ford, who was her boss at Gucci. The service was attended by, among others, friends Gwyneth Paltrow, Liv Tyler, Pierce Brosnan and Madonna (whose dress McCartney designed for her wedding to Guy Ritchie).
Her four children - sons Miller Alasdhair James Willis (born 2005) and Beckett Robert Lee Willis (born 2008) and daughters Bailey Linda Olwyn Willis (born 2006) and Reiley Dilys Stella Willis (born 2010) - are, in her own words, her biggest achievement, "the most precious thing in my life".
Is she thinking of slowing down? "Not at all, if ever I need to push myself even further now," McCartney says. And although she admits it is often a struggle she continues to keep her empire close.
"I'm the creative director so I must have a complete overview of the brand," she says. "We have grown into a luxury-lifestyle brand, so there's a lot more to it than simply designing the ready-to-wear collection. I am involved in the stores, ad campaigns, the set for our show, the music; I try to cover everything."
What she fails to mention is how much "everything" is exactly. There are the collaborations with Adidas, H&M and Puma, along with the fragrance line, the eyewear line, the accessories line (made from man-made fabrics), the ski-wear collection, the organic skin range, the bridal lingerie collection and more. Her designs have settled into a distinctive aesthetic, somewhere between masculine tailoring and femininity.
"For me, you can never have one without the other," McCartney says. "That exact moment when they both meet is so important to the Stella McCartney brand."
It is an exciting time for female designers - aside from McCartney there is Hannah McGibbon at Chloé and, of course, Philo, who is now at Céline. McCartney agrees that perhaps women have a better understanding of other women's needs.
"Personally I have a vision for a way I want a woman to dress, perhaps because I am a woman and I know what I like," she says. "To me it's not what it looks like in a studio or on the runway, it is what it looks like on a real person that matters."
It is clear McCartney has inherited her mother's grit and determination, and it has meant a steady plough towards success, with many triumphs, notably the Elle Style Award for Best Designer in 2007, Best Designer at the British Style Awards in 2007 and the Green Designer of the Year at the ACE Awards in 2008. In 2009 she was honoured by the National Resources Defense Council of the US, was featured as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people and was recognised as a Glamour magazine Woman of the Year.
And while, yes, her collections do perhaps lack the stroke of genius of the late Alexander McQueen, the avant-garde silhouette of Prada or the seamless flow of couturist ideals, they do, however, sell. Why? The answer is simple: women look good in her designs. McCartney does wearable brilliantly, and she never pretended to revolutionise women's clothing.
"I am much more driven by the way that men or women choose the things that they wear and how it makes them feel good, how it affects their mood," she says. "I try to take that on board. When I am designing I very much design each item rather than outfits. I am not really a head-to-toe designer. Every piece is an object. I am very interested in the psychological aspects of what I do."
We can't help what we are born into. It's just the way the coin flips, and it happened to land McCartney into something remarkable. Blame luck if you want to, because really, unlike many other designers of now, McCartney and her wearable designs are very much on our side.
There is one thing, however, I simply can't let go. Honestly, that upbringing can't have been normal all the time?
"OK, sometimes there was mad stuff on holiday, like hanging out with Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger," she says. "But it didn't seem mad at the time. I was just hanging out with Mum and Dad's friends. Except maybe Michael Jackson, I definitely knew who he was." But that is a whole other story.
I have time, I tell her. But Stella McCartney rarely talks. She mostly refuses to open up much.