Halfway through our lunch at the Mercer Kitchen in New York’s Soho, I try a little of Stella McCartney’s order, a plate of organic raw kale salad with parmesan and lemon. She keeps insisting I do, perhaps because I had been a little sceptical when she ordered it. (When I listen back to the tape I can hear myself squawk, “Raw kale?”, with a woeful lack of Manhattan sophistication in the modish greens arena, as the waitress takes our order.) She’s right, it’s delicious; but it nearly blows the roof of my mouth off. It could more accurately be described as raw jalapeño salad with kale. As I gulp down San Pellegrino, McCartney picks up her fork, cool as a cucumber. “Yeah, right? I’m actually dying inside. Can you put that in the piece, that I ate a plate of chillies while we were talking? I think you should mention that I can fricking master a jalapeño.”
I should have guessed. This is classic McCartney. You don’t get to hold your own in a 50/50 partnership with luxury giant Kering over 13 years, or to build a label with annual profits of £3.4m without using fur or leather in an industry built on bags and shoes, or to win three British Fashion Awards and an OBE, without having a steely core. It makes sense that beneath the kale – vegetarian, skinny, fashionable, totally on-brand – there is a kick.
Stella McCartney is a complicated brand. This, I suggest to her, is a key part of what makes it compelling. To make it in fashion’s premier league, as McCartney has done, you need to create more than beautiful clothes. You need to create a brand that has value in the name itself, so that the customer who spends £50 on a keyring or £80 on an iPhone cover feels they are buying a drop of that essence. Stella McCartney is principled and serious, but also beautiful and whimsical and fun. House codes range from masculine (a period spent training with Edward Sexton of Savile Row made an indelible impact on McCartney) to ultra-feminine (lace dresses and flourished hems are recurring motifs). There are city-slicker elements (the Falabella bag, with its chain hardware, is pure urban energy) and country-girl elements (horses, wild flowers, chunky lawn-picnic sandals). And it is these contrasts, these tensions, that women relate to, because being a woman in 2014 is – above all else – complicated. The brands that feel old-fashioned now are those that are one-dimensional, whether hearts-and-flowers romantic or pure power-dressing. Women do not see themselves in these simplified terms.
“I’m a woman designing for women, and there are so many layers to that,” McCartney says. “On the one hand, it brings an effortlessness but it also means that I think and overthink every detail, whether it’s physical or mental or even – in some sense – spiritual. I can debate for weeks whether a trouser should sit on the waist, or a centimetre below, or on the hip, whether it should have a zip or a button, because I find personally that a detail like that can have a massive impact on how I carry myself that day. If I wear a slouchy jean, that will affect my posture and my whole manner. What I’m projecting will be a reflection of that waistband, a detail you might not even notice.
“Fashion is psychology, so there’s a whole holistic sense of self that I’m thinking about when I’m designing. And of course, I want the clothes to be modern and cool and relevant. And at the same time, they have got to be perfectly constructed in the most beautiful fabric, because I want them to last not just your lifetime but your daughter’s lifetime and her daughter’s lifetime. And that’s just scratching the surface, because inside of that I am trying to source those beautiful fabrics in a responsible way, I’m trying to show that it is possible to have a solid business in luxury fashion that is led by a woman. And yet I don’t want anyone to feel any of that. I want the woman who comes into my store to feel at ease, to see a dress and try it on and to love how it makes her feel. At that moment, what I want to do is uplift that woman. So, yes. There is a certain level of complexity.”
McCartney’s world has never been what you might call one-note. She grew up the daughter of an impossibly wealthy, famous pop star, but living on an organic farm and attending the local state school. At 15, she interned with Christian Lacroix; by the time she completed her foundation course at Ravensbourne and enrolled at Central Saint Martins she had notched up placements at Vogue, Betty Jackson and Joseph. Hired by Chloé soon after graduating, she confounded critics with a series of well-reviewed collections; but in 2001, her star took a dive when the first own-name Stella McCartney show, featuring Cockney rhyming slang, took a critical battering. Since then, she has steadily built a business with an aesthetic that spans from sportswear (her Team GB designs grew out of a decade’s experience designing Stella McCartney for Adidas) to a growing presence in eveningwear. (Her name is increasingly dropped on the red carpet, despite the fact they don’t “actively compete” in that market, as her PR puts it. “We don’t pay people to wear dresses, is what he means,” McCartney chimes in.) Oh, and somehow in the midst of all this she has had two sons (Miller, nine, and Beckett, six) and two daughters (Bailey, seven, and Reiley, three) with Alasdhair Willis, whom she married 11 years ago. The family spend weekdays in west London and weekends at a Georgian manor house with horses, and home-grown kale, in the 400-acre garden.
McCartney has used fashion to build herself an environment – a wardrobe, in fact – that incorporates all of this: her background, her beliefs, the worlds of work and of being a mum, her London and country lifestyles. Today she is wearing an electric-blue sweatshirt with an embossed pattern over a silk shirt in deep french navy, with faded slouchy jeans and heels, all from her label. “I’m a head to toe-er. I don’t wear anything else. I wear my own lingerie, I wear Stella For Adidas socks. Some pieces are new and some are old – these jeans I’ve had for about five years, the shoes are brand new. But it’s all my stuff.” The only non-McCartney pieces she wears are the odd vintage piece from Linda, her late mother (“but not so much these days”) and wellies by Hunter, where Willis is creative director.
McCartney’s is a privileged life, but like that of any working mum it gets gritty at a granular level. She’s in New York to present her pre-fall collection; after our lunch, we will head uptown to the Park Avenue mansion where models will play hopscotch and throw shapes in miniature electric cars, and guests will include Patti Smith, Jerry Seinfeld, Liv Tyler and Susan Sarandon. But, discussing schedules, we discover we are both on the red-eye home to London, heading directly to the airport after the event. “Well, that’s because we’ve got kids,” she says. “But you just know, don’t you, that if we were men with children, we would fly home tomorrow. Why is it that as a mum, you don’t get to go back to your hotel and sleep?”
As a lunch companion, she has a standard level of food neuroses for a woman of our age. She demands that her male PR order a side of chips. But, he says, I don’t want fries. Yes, but we want some, McCartney says. “We’ve got to have something exciting on the table, right?” she appeals to me. (She has two, maybe three, chips.) She is slim with a honed body and looks young for 42, not in a Botoxed way, but because there’s something eternally childlike about that freckled, foxy colouring, and because money itself smooths years off the face.
The orthodoxy of the day around how to be a good mother while working hard is a spiel about being in the moment: when I’m at work I’m committed to work; when I’m with my kids I give them 100%. But McCartney, typically, questions this simplistic mantra. “It’s not really like that, is it? Because you’re reading the bedtime story and suddenly you remember a call you didn’t make. And when I’m dropping my kids at school I’m noticing what people are wearing. The idea that you can have no life outside of that one moment doesn’t make sense to me. When I had Miller, he came three weeks early, just before my fashion show. So the DJ was practically the first person to meet him, in the hospital room, talking about show music.” We discuss how, recently, high-profile examples have led to it becoming acceptable for female designers to take maternity leave. “It’s brilliant. I’m a bit annoyed I missed out. But really, I wouldn’t change a thing. My kids are great. Just great.”
Most successful fashion designers start off approachable and normal, becoming neurotic and difficult as the skeins of the industry wind more tightly around them. With McCartney, it seems to have been the other way around, a spiky relationship with the media gradually mellowing. “It wasn’t easy navigating publicity, when I started, because I grew up with ‘being famous’ and I’m just not into it, and I guess defensiveness gets read into that. And I didn’t get an easy ride at the beginning. But I think people have now accepted that I genuinely am a fashion designer, that I have only ever worked, and so I feel more comfortable.” Her designs for Team GB, while initially met with some scepticism, ended up casting the happy, patriotic Olympian glow over the McCartney name, drawing her closer to the British public. She is still awed by the experience. “Having the chance to be any small part of that historic moment was pretty life-changing.”
I am interested in unpicking the emotions behind the McCartney ethics. Stores are powered by renewable energy, with wood floors made from sustainably managed forests; fabrics are organic where possible (34% of denim, 36% of jersey); no leather or fur is used. Are animal rights what matters most? “It’s all one thing to me. I ride my horse and I’ll notice a tree coming into bud and connect that with the weather. I was brought up a vegetarian on an organic farm, so it’s a natural mindset for me. Fifty million animals are killed every year for bags and shoes. Even if you’re not interested in the cruelty aspect, there’s a huge environmental impact. Vast water resources, and grain that could otherwise be going into people’s mouths, are going through an animal in order to become an accessory.”
The hardest part is squaring principles with the relentless demands of a business of this scale. “There’s no doubt I would have a business five times bigger if we didn’t work like this, but doing it this way is so much more exciting to me. Luckily, I like a challenge.”
When I interviewed McCartney five years ago she was vociferous in her frustration at how few other fashion companies had followed her ethical lead; now, she seems resigned. “This industry is supposed to be about change, but it’s not changing much.” Fast-fashion companies such as H&M, Levi’s and Adidas are more engaged with the ethical debate, “because those bigger companies have more people to answer to. The luxury industry has no one to answer to and they literally get away with murder. But it’s complicated, because there’s an argument that better-made, better-quality clothing is itself more sustainable. Buying a dress for a fiver and throwing it away after a couple of weeks is not environmentally friendly, whatever the fabric.”
McCartney inherited her uncompromising spirit from her mum, Linda, who died in 1998, when Stella was 26. “My mum had a massive influence on me, not just in what she wore and how she looked, but in her spirit. She was married to one of the most famous men in the world and she didn’t wear any makeup, ever. I mean, have you ever seen the wife of a man like that rock up with no makeup on? Because I haven’t, since. That courage, that inner confidence, is something I’ve never experienced in anyone else. I certainly haven’t got the balls to do it. I find everything about her pioneering, and amazing. She had a beautiful ease with herself.” That, she says, is her ideal. “That ease, that freedom and confidence. That’s what I want to help the Stella woman to find.”
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