How do you interview Stella McCartney without mentioning the Beatles? I grew up on Paul McCartney’s dulcet Liverpudlian tones, for heaven’s sake. It was the soundtrack of my childhood. I had my first proper car accident listening to “Rubber Soul” on cassette at full volume. But Stella is famously prickly about her dynastic fame. How sick she must be of the constant questions about her dad and mum. And, as a hugely successful fashion designer who has flown in the face of her often fierce critics, Stella is every inch a star in her own right. I decide not to mention the Beatles at all.
So, subconsciously humming “Love, love me do”, I’m wandering up and down Golborne Road trying not to arrive too early for our appointment. Stella HQ is situated at what used to be the unfashionable end of Portobello, but now appears to be half highly fashionable and half still unfashionable. Elegant gift shops and designer handbag stores sit incongruously between Turkish coffee bars and barber shops, second-hand furniture emporiums and Lebanese restaurants. And the Stella McCartney building is the most incongruous of the lot – a dove-grey, minimalist refurbished church with shuttered windows that project a heavy-lidded look of disdain, and a stuck-up nose in the form of a tall oak door. In Bond Street, it would be right at home. In west London, it’s imposing. Next door is a fishmonger’s shop.
A deliveryman has parked outside and is trying to manoeuvre six newish chairs in and six oldish chairs out while holding open the heavy door. The chairs aren’t posh, but they’re cool. A slice of golden sunshine cuts across the reception area of frosted glass and polished concrete, populated by Stella girls. They wear black leggings and short, flippy skirts, oversized sweaters or jackets, and lizard-print cashmere scarves worn à la supermodel. Sloppy boots or ballet pumps are uniform. Yet, for fashion girls, and in a building so coldly minimalist on the outside, the inhabitants are unusually warm. Laughter rings out from behind the scenes. Two or three of them scurry out to help the delivery guy.
“Stella is in, but running late.”
“Please wait here.”
“Would you like tea?”
Dove-grey felt banquette in the style of a Chesterfield. Also not posh, but cool. Love, love me do.
Stella McCartney, the second daughter of you-know-who and you-know-who, has lived her life in the spotlight – originally the one that put her parents’ lives into sharp relief, and now one all her very own. Married to Alasdhair Willis, the horribly good-looking furniture and branding wiz, and dividing her time between a smart Notting Hill town house and a Georgian pile in Worcestershire, she is proper mates with some proper celebs. Apparently, she bumps into Elle and Claudia on the school run. She hangs out with Kate Hudson and Kate Moss. All of which seems fascinating to us (the press), but is just normal for her. Remember, this is the same girl who, as a child, got to hang out with Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, David Bowie and Stevie Wonder, when they happened to pop by. Extraordinary has always been her everyday.
McCartney first ruffled feathers in the fashion industry even before she had left Central Saint Martins. Her 1995 graduation show starring Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell set her up for a series of snipes regarding the perceived unfairness of using her famous connections. Her appointment to Chloé two years later prompted more criticism – this time from fellow designers. The underlying summation was always that she wouldn’t be where she was if it weren’t for that surname, leaving her an even bigger mountain to climb than if she hadn’t had the surname at all. As she herself has so succinctly put it, for every door that her father’s fame opened, a mind closed. No surprises, then, that the Stella I meet behind the glass walls of the boardroom of 92 Golborne Road on a sunny March morning takes no prisoners.
“I love this building, of course I do. Definitely. But we are moving,” she begins, issuing a steely blue-eyed glare under loosely tied-up hair. “It’s got a lovely energy. It’s where we built the brand. Yes, I’ll be really sad to go.”
And are you moving because you need bigger premises? I offer
(rather limply, I admit, but “Hey Jude” is striking up in my head. Don’t hum, don’t hum.)
“Well, it would be a bit sad if we needed to move somewhere smaller, wouldn’t it?” she shrugs. “That would be depressing wouldn’t it?”
This has been a good year for Stella. A very good year. As well as designing the London Olympics and Paralympic Games uniforms for Team GB, which was “really exciting, you know,” and a hugely successful ongoing collaboration with Adidas, she also celebrates 10 years of her own fashion label, which she set up with The Gucci Group (now known as the PPR Luxury Group). Profits are up. She has 23 stores worldwide. As well as the fashion line, her brand now also produces skincare, fragrance, lingerie, eyewear, childrenswear and, of course, sportswear with Adidas. A lot has changed over those years, and I wonder if the design aesthetic at the heart of the brand has evolved.
“No, my aesthetic hasn’t changed,” she pauses as she thinks and taps a pen on the large white boardroom table. “Maybe it’s progressed. The core values certainly haven’t changed. Maybe we have refined and built on those. But we are in a lovely rhythm now as a brand and as a team. We’re all on the same page internally. We’re quite small, considering the scale of the brand. But we’re comfortable. And by remaining small, we remain agile – we can respond quickly to things.”
Does she think that as women’s roles in society change our fashion needs change? “I’m aware that I’m 40,” she concedes, with a smile. “And I’m a mother. And I’m working. Compared to my mum, I guess things have certainly changed for women. And compared to her mum, things have changed for women. When you’re a woman designer with kids and a life outside of just doing fashion 24/7, it has an impact on how you think and work.”
So does she think women designers have a better understanding of how women want to dress? Do they have a more practical view of what women want to wear? “Do women designers have a more practical view of what women want to wear?” she repeats back to me, slightly incredulously. “Than who?” Men!
“Oh, no, I don’t believe in generalising like that. I’m not going to say things like, ‘Yes, women are better…’ This whole thing about men versus women, I find a little bit unnecessary. We don’t need to compare ourselves to men. We just need to get on with it. Plus, I like men. To be honest.” She is laughing.
“Let me put it this way: hopefully, women are finding a new confidence in the way they dress. Perhaps that’s a better way of looking at it. I believe our brand encourages and enables women to understand how they want to dress and what they need in their wardrobe to feel comfortable and confident, long-term. My collections are lifetime products that are timeless, that will be with you season after season. When you are designing high-quality pieces for women that are outside of just doing trend-driven pieces – and that is something we strongly believe in – I think you have to focus on the bigger picture rather than the immediate. Do you understand?” she asks. The orchestral section from “A Day in the Life” is beginning to gather momentum.
The latest Stella McCartney womenswear collection is about to hit the stores. A vivid blue – almost as intense as Yves Klein blue – runs throughout, appearing in long-sleeved skating dresses, oversized coats, lean shirts and skirts to match. Jacquard, tweed and graphic embroidery are the classic ingredients of the collection, offset by sporty features like side zips and varsity jacket-style collars – the kinds of details that always run through her collections.
“I’m often asked if I get influenced by working with Adidas, but I’ve always had an element of sport in my collections. I guess for me the two go hand in hand. My brand has a lot of different voices: we have lingerie, sunglasses, beauty and kids’ clothes, but they are all one brand. One doesn’t really influence the other dramatically; it’s more that they all influence each other. The blue in the collection is just because it’s a strong colour for this season. It’s a very different tone of blue from the one I use in the sports collection. It’s much richer. But that’s also because of the fabrics. It’s really key when you’re working with these colours that you translate them onto the correct fabrics – those that can properly absorb and project the depth of the colour.
“I always start with the fabric when I’m doing a collection, but my inspiration is really varied,” she continues. “I could get just as inspired by, say, an empty biscuit wrapper as I can by an amazing Lucian Freud exhibition at the National Gallery. I do as much as I can with the time I have as far as going to see exhibitions or films is concerned – that more traditional sense of research. I might get inspired by riding my horse at the weekends, or by being out in the countryside listening to the birds sing – totally non-connected things. I think that way of looking at things is just the way I was brought up. That’s the way I always worked at Central Saint Martins.”
After her degree, McCartney moved to Savile Row, where she learned more about traditional tailoring while simultaneously making clothes with her friend Phoebe Philo in her garage at home. When the call came to take up the creative reins at Chloé, she was only 25.
“I wasn’t actually overwhelmed at Chloé at all. No, weirdly enough, I think I was naïve about the reality of what I was letting myself in for. I think you get more overwhelmed the more you know,” she laughs, looking into the middle distance. “It was really only after a couple of seasons that I started to feel the magnitude of what I’d taken on. At the time I honestly, stupidly, thought,” she continues, stressing the word “stupidly”, “that it would be a very low-key affair. I really thought no one would notice – that I’d just slip in. I was working on my own label coming out of college, and because I hadn’t had a lot of training or experience on the business side, the idea of going to Paris – of stepping away from my own brand for a moment – was to get some distance and figure out how to come back to it. That was really the plan. Chloé, at the time, wasn’t a successful brand. I mean, no one was talking about it. It was really neglected, not one of the big players.”
With Philo at her side, McCartney rethought the Chloé brand, resisting wherever possible the demands to stick with a modest and demure signature. At first, some of the critics, particularly Karl Lagerfeld, were vicious.
“I’m not stupid. I understand the thinking behind the negative criticism – I understand it very well – it’s part of how I was brought up. It’s human nature. But it didn’t make me angry. It is what it is. I just get on with it.”
Once McCartney had tripled profits at Chloé and outwitted her detractors with a super-cool signature aesthetic achieved through good old-fashioned slog, she negotiated a deal with the Gucci Group to set up her own label. That was 2001. Since then, her brand has spread across the world, and annual profits are estimated to be £75m – thanks in no small part to a devoted band of celebrity followers.
So, the tricky question: would Stella McCartney be Stella McCartney without the connections – or did she create her own spotlight? With the typical down-to-earth practicality that comes with experience, she dismisses
“We live in an interesting time, when fame and fortune are revered. People almost seem to look for fashion guidance from celebrities. So yeah, I do know a lot of famous people. But I also know a lot of unfamous people. And I think that they are all equally great at times, and equally not great at times. Designing clothes that make people feel better about themselves is what I do. That’s it.”
The Stella look has been adopted by leagues of women who appreciate the hair-tucked-behind-the-ears lack of pretension in her clothing. Her principle of not looking as though you’ve tried too hard is because, actually, you haven’t. Stella, however, has. I wonder how she manages to balance her very hands-on career with the very hands-on parenting style for which she is well known. With four children under the age of seven, there must be sacrifices.
“Its funny,” she says, “but I don’t actually travel that much. I try to keep it to a minimum. The team knows that I won’t be apart from the kids for more than three or four days. That’s the rule. And if I ever feel that I am doing too much, then I get moody and everyone can see that I need a couple of days off with the kids. I think it’s important that they always come first. The travel side hasn’t overwhelmed me. When I do the shows in Paris, they come with me. And if I go to, say, New York for a presentation, it’s just two days.”
But thinking about it more, she is less confident. “I think that you do get to a stage when you realise that you’re working really hard at work and working really hard at home. So there’s no downtime as such. But that’s what I have chosen to do. And I feel really lucky to be able to have all that. At the same time, though, sometimes you feel that you don’t really do anything 100%. That’s being honest. So when I’m at work, I’m worrying about the Easter bonnet that I need to make, and while I’m at home, I’m worrying that I didn’t finish fitting that skirt before I had to come back for bedtime. In any work – not just fashion – you could stay until 4am and you still wouldn’t be finished. But I try to give myself a break – because it’s allowed. My mum always used to say, ‘You know, it is allowed’.”
The not insignificant 350-acre country estate where the young McCartney family spends its downtime is the kind of rural retreat that Stella has always dreamt of. Patrick Demarchelier has captured the elegant English eccentric interiors for American Vogue, along with the doe-eyed McCartney children and Stella’s much-loved horses. Would she ever give up London for the kind of lifestyle she grew up with?
“I work well with opposites,” she begins. “I belong in both the country and the town. The brand reflects that too. I work a lot with tweeds, which you would associate with the countryside. But they’re stretch fabrics, so they look quite urban. So, on a personal level and on a professional level, I love opposites. However, I would rather have more days in the country than in London,” she continues. “I would rather have one day extra a week. Or two,” she adds quickly. “I struggle a bit with city life. I thought that when I had kids I would move to the country. I grew up in the country, and I thought I would want to do the same thing for my children. It just hasn’t panned out like that. I admire people who do just up sticks. But I do love my job, you know – I have a second family here. The trick is to find the right balance. The trouble is, I’m the kind of person who tries to do everything. Even when it’s the weekend, instead of thinking, Right, let’s slob, because my brain has been so switched on during the week, my body is going, Hmmm, what shall we do now? Shall we have a picnic? Shall we go for a pony ride?
“I often wonder what it would be like to not be working and to be a full-time mum. I am always thinking to myself, Wow, what would that be like? You sit in these interviews and you say all this work-related stuff, but you do always wonder, What am I missing right now? What is my one-year-old doing right now? And I could decide right here that I’m only going to do two days a week at work. But that’s simply not what my life is. It’s not what this brand is. You see the potential of something like this, and it’s such an exciting thing that you want to do it as well. It’s a balance. My kids are happy. They’re full of love and full of life. Sometimes they say, “Oh Mummy, do you always have to go to work?” I’m not going to lie. So I say, “Well, we live in a house like this, so…”. I drive myself crazy sometimes,” she admits. “I do this thing where I try to figure out how many hours I have not been with them.”
So the duality that I had been expecting to find at the heart of Stella McCartney is not the one I found. She’s not the daughter of a celeb/fashion designer. She’s a fashion designer/mother of four who, like all working mothers, struggles to do the right thing for everyone. In Stella’s case, that means playing second fiddle to four miniature big personalities, a successful husband, a horse, a dog, and a chic Notting Hill fashion house full of little Stellas. Frankly, it’s a wonder she’s sane.
“I mean,” she shrugs, “my mum and dad worked. And that wasn’t the worst thing in the world.”
And with that, she’s gone. My 50 minutes are up, and it’s time for her to do the next thing on her list. And, good grief, I haven’t mentioned you-know-who and you-know-who once. But it’s clear she’s a chip off the old block, and has turned out just as normal as they could have hoped. And I’m back in Golborne Road. Here comes the sun, doo doo doo doo…
Hair OLIVER DE ALMEIDA WAQUED
Make-up NAOKO at Balcony Jump Model
ANNALEISE SMITH at Select
Deputy Fashion Editor POPPY ROCK
Photographer’s Assistants OLIVIA ESTEBANEZ and MATT LAIN
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