STELLA McCARTNEY:

Reimagining what we wear

Words: Charlotte Core

Stella McCartney is an ardent torch-burner for progressive advances in sustainable fashion. Fact. She’s also the owner of one of the world’s most famous surnames. Go figure. But perhaps less well-known is the misty-eyed nostalgia she holds for her upbringing in remote, rural Scotland – complete with indelible memories of raiding her parents’ joint mix-and-match wardrobe – or that her earliest inspiration came in the form of a pistol-toting, fringed-suede-wearing Doris Day in Calamity Jane.

As her unwavering commitment to sustainable, leather-free and fur-free design inspires ever more of her design counterparts, not to mention the world at large, we sit down with one of design’s true megastars to discuss how her hard-fought principles are being embraced by consumers and the industry alike, after being branded an ‘eco-weirdo’ for what has felt like years. With her SS20 collection her most sustainable yet, and the small matter of two hugely successful Olympics sports kits to her name, we celebrate a voice with the power to hurdle many of the challenges planet-friendly design continues to face.

You grew up on an organic farm in Scotland. What was that like?

My favourite memories growing up were those times spent on our farm up in Scotland, just the five of us [her siblings and parents Sir Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney] at home together, constantly playing games, messing around in the middle of nowhere, with no one else around. We lived a very funky, free life there, and it’s something I will always cherish. We are, and always were, an incredibly tight family.
 

How do you think this time influenced your career?

One of my biggest memories as a four or five year old was sitting in my parents’ wardrobe and realising that my mum and dad shared it! There was this absolute androgyny. Half of the things I assumed were Mum’s, Dad was actually wearing as well; they would swap. I’ve since worn a flowery shirt out of the archive, and been, like, ‘Oh, look at this blouse of my mum’s. It’s so cool!’, and then we’d find a photo of my dad wearing it. It was so modern. This was years ago, but today it’s a cutting-edge conversation to have. This upbringing, and being around clothes from a very young age, was a huge influence on me and has heavily inspired how I work today.
 

What song reminds you of a good time?

I would be crazy to not say that my father and The Beatles have been massively influential to me. To listen to his creations my entire life, even from the womb, I think has probably shaped me in more ways that I could ever know. I don’t think I could pick one song as there are too many, but the album “Ram”, which he created with my mother in the 70s, is a massive influence on me, both emotionally and creatively – I think it’s probably my favourite album ever made. I love the rawness of this album. I love that my mum and dad just wrote it, and played all the instruments themselves, and produced it all themselves. I think it’s a great testament to their love affair.  

 

I would be crazy to not say that my father and The Beatles have been massively influential to me. To listen to his creations my entire life, even from the womb, I think has probably shaped me in more ways that I could ever know.

What inspired you to work in the creative industry?

When I was growing up, I used to watch a load of old Hollywood films…lots of Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, but one of the biggest icons for me was Doris Day. I think it was probably that she wasn’t stereotypically falling into the category of women at that time, and she had incredible talent in both acting and in singing, and was very individual. One of the biggest films that influenced me growing up, and really inspired me to do what I do today in fashion, was Calamity Jane – it really appealed to my masculine and feminine inspirations. The fact that she was basically a complete tomboy, and then she changed at one stage of the film into this glamorous, beautiful woman… I love that the two of those moments collided and complemented each other. I think that film had it all: it had colour, it had glamour, it had fashion, it had animals, it had humour, and it had this boy-meets-girl character.

 

What’s a piece of advice that’s stuck with you?

My very chic grandfather on my mother’s side always told me that ‘Staying power is the most important thing’. I have carried that all through my life. But you also have to be responsible in every way – that’s how you will stand out. I want the way I do business to become the norm in this industry, so I am no longer an exception.
 

What does great style mean to you?

I believe great style should be effortless, and should go hand-in-hand with being ethical and responsible. First and foremost, I’m a fashion designer. I want to design beautiful, effortless, luxurious, desirable products, but I want them to be responsible and mindful and ethical, and you don’t have to sacrifice either of those things.

 

I want the way I do business to become the norm in this industry, so I am no longer an exception.

Tell us about your time on Savile Row. What was it like cutting your teeth there, and what did you learn that’s stayed with you?

I like to think that there are interesting similarities between fashion design and architecture, in that, when I was at Central Saint Martin’s, I realised that I wasn’t learning the technical side of fashion design. The focus was on being creative rather than learning the technicalities, such as cutting patterns for a tailored jacket, which is what I wanted to do, so I went into Saville Row. I remember working with those guys who I thought were like the builders of the fashion industry. You know, the nuts and bolts. Making a jacket is really like building a building, and it was just fascinating to me. I am constantly referring back to the skills I learnt in those three years, and tailoring is, and always will be, completely part of the Stella McCartney DNA.
 

Why do you love what you do?

I love that we’ve challenged the norm since the beginning, when people thought I was a crazy ‘eco-weirdo’ and they didn’t want to listen. I’ve stuck by my beliefs and haven’t changed the way I want to work, even when people would tell me I wouldn’t have a successful business if I did things my way. I feel like what we do at Stella McCartney, and what we’ve been doing from the start, is finally being recognised and taken seriously. I find that a great honour. It has given us this incredible platform to encourage and talk about other ways of doing business in fashion, to challenge the status quo and have a positive impact on the planet.

 

I love that we’ve challenged the norm since the beginning, when people thought I was a crazy ‘eco-weirdo’ and they didn’t want to listen. I’ve stuck by my beliefs.

 

You have – from the very beginning – been an advocate for more sustainable fashion practices. What’s been the most rewarding moment?

Having the opportunity to be at the forefront of innovation in sustainability over the past 20 years has been hugely rewarding and is now something our customers are demanding more and more of. It’s what drives me!

For example, we have been using organic cotton since 2008, and now use this throughout all our collections. Another huge achievement was that we stopped using PVC in 2010, which is by far the most toxic of all plastics, and developed an amazing alternative called PU, which has less impact on the planet while keeping the same qualities of PVC. We now only use regenerated cashmere, which has around seven times lower impact than virgin cashmere, and is made from post-factory cashmere waste. For our Autumn 2020 collection [coming soon to selfridges.com], we introduced a new fur-free-fur called KOBA®, which is made of plant pulp and recycled polyester and uses around 30 per cent less energy and 63 per cent less carbon emissions, which is incredible – and we are the first brand to use it. We also worked with a new denim partner to create the world’s most sustainable, biodegradable stretch denim.

I am incredibly proud of our work with sustainable viscose. It’s one of our most-used fabrics, and it avoids cutting down around 150 million trees a year. It took around three and a half years to source a forest in Sweden where we could get that viscose fibre from the trees, but also where they replant trees so it’s sustainable sourcing. It’s a no-brainer! It’s innovations like these that we plan to develop through our future collections and also explore new areas of innovation as we want to keep growing this arm of the business.

You’ve previously said that you “love the challenge” of sustainability. What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

The decision to create a sustainable brand was easy; it’s what I grew up with, and what I was taught from a young age. At first, I was criticised – people said I could never have a successful business without using leather or fur. It’s brilliant to see the shift; I need more people to come to my side of the world! I remember being so excited when I read that Selfridges was the first major department store to ban fur all those years ago – I think it was 2005, right? – which was long before many luxury brands stopped producing fur. And then I remember seeing last year that you were the first major department store to ban the sales of exotic skins!

There’s just no reason to use fur or skins anymore – it’s ridiculous. But, I think, at the end of the day, the consumers are the ones that have to demand change – they are going to be the ones that will make fashion houses pay attention. It’s time to reconsider this industry and the impact it’s having on the planet.

 

At first I was criticised – people said I could never have a successful business without using leather or fur. It’s brilliant to see the shift… I remember being so excited when I read that Selfridges was the first major department store to ban fur all those years ago!

Your SS20 collection is your most sustainable yet – tell us how you managed it.

Yes, Summer 2020 is our most sustainable collection to date. Every single season we try to get better, and better, and better, so this season is a huge achievement for us. We have an incredible sustainability team who are on the ground, speaking to our suppliers, visiting the farms we work with, analysing our supply chains and traceability, looking at human rights and social sustainability, and also meeting exciting start-ups that we hear about. They are the eyes and ears, and we have regular meetings to discuss our findings – we can talk about it for hours! It’s important that we are constantly ahead of the game and that we align with people that have the same vision and beliefs as us, as we only want to be a part of initiatives that are working to genuinely advance change. We don’t join things just to be a part of them. We are past the point where just talking is an acceptable action. The initiatives that we get behind are ones that are pushing to make change, to really and radically shake things up, and address the serious issues we are facing as humans and as an industry.

What’s been the trickiest product to produce sustainably?

Producing our ‘alter-nappa’ [faux leather] took years of hard work, but it’s one of the areas I’m most proud of. I grew up in a vegetarian household, so I always knew that that was something I would carry through into my work. You can come to Stella McCartney and a small thing you can do is buy a non-leather bag, and that has a huge impact environmentally (our animal-free leather has up to 24 times lower environmental impact than real leather). I still think that a huge per cent of the people that come to Stella McCartney don’t know that we sell non-leather shoes or that my bags aren’t real leather. I honestly don’t think that people can tell as we have managed to get to such a high level in quality – and to think how many animals’ lives have been saved!
 

We’ve recently seen many labels change their approach in order to take sustainability more seriously – what do you think has been the biggest catalyst for change?

I would say it’s the consumers that have been one of the real driving forces in demanding this change when it comes to brands taking sustainability more seriously. Consumers are now asking for clarity on where the stuff they buy comes from, pushing brands to be open. We all need to be more transparent about how things are made, where they are made and what their impacts are for the planet.

What does success mean to you?

I’m just proud that I’ve managed to stay true to what I believe in, to not have compromised anything when I had people around me telling me I needed to do things in a certain way to be successful. To me, that is what I’m most proud of.
 

You designed the Team GB Olympics kit in 2012 and 2016 – what was it like to see the athletes wear it during the Games?

I’ve been lucky enough to have had a lot of career highlights, but I have to say that designing the Team GB kits were some of the most extraordinary moments to be part of, and seeing the athletes win medals in a kit that I had designed for them was incredibly rewarding. First and foremost, I had to deliver the best performance wear for the athletes, but I had to please the nation as well! As a nation, we have so much pride – which is something so special – so that was vital to capture in the designs and was truly an honour to work on.

How do you see the fashion landscape changing post COVID-19?

I really hope that one of the things the pandemic will bring us is our sense of values. For instance, our values around sustainability and social responsibility should be in sharp focus for all industries. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world… The equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is burned or landfilled every second, and for the first time in history we can truly measure the damage done by human activity. Our children and children’s children are going to be having geography lessons on this impact in years to come. We have seen, in such a short period of time, how incredible nature is and how she bounces back so quickly, so I really hope this causes a turning point. Time is up. Our house is on fire and we need to act.
 

What are your hopes for the future of Stella McCartney?

I would like for Stella McCartney to be a zero-impact brand, which we are getting towards. My personal goals are to lead by example – in order for that to happen, the core of it is design and how we communicate what we do and our message for the rest of the world.