Designer, campaigner and working mother, Stella McCartney understands the challenges that face the modern woman. She opens up to Jess Cartner-Morley in this exclusive interview for the Fashion magazine.
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.