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Stella McCartney: “You Shouldn’t Have to Sacrifice Your Style for the Sustainability Card”

Portrait of Stella McCartney.

Stella McCartney is barefoot and insouciant in an Alter Nappa (aka faux leather) dress in Prussian blue from her FW18 collection. She’s a great advertisement for her own brand, one that merges the masculine and ultra-feminine into a narrative of imperturbable cool. Her approach to sustainability, particularly her animal-free policy, is her prime contribution to the fashion of today, followed closely by her commitment to elevating everyday pieces such as tailoring, denim, and sporty separates above and beyond wardrobe basics. “From day one I never wanted to work with an animal product and be a part of killing an animal in the name of fashion,” she says resolutely, biting down on a banana. “Being vegetarian, I think that would be hypocritical.”

Originally printed in the January 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia.

The daughter of former Beatles front man Paul McCartney and his late wife, Linda, an animal rights activist herself, McCartney grew up in a modest farmhouse in Scotland, surrounded by the nature and wildlife that she now spends her professional life petitioning to protect. “There was a UN report many years ago that connected the eating, manufacturing, and production of animals with massive environmental disasters,” she says. “For example, every hour an area as big as a football pitch in the Amazon rainforest is cut down to raise cattle… That report really opened my eyes. From then on, I just started to notice a million other things.”

A youthful 47-year-old mother of four (two girls, two boys), McCartney is persistent in her convictions. What started in 2001 with her quiet, firm resolution not to use leather in her designs has escalated into a full-on challenge to her peers. “The fashion industry is the second most harmful to the planet. There’s so much work to be done.” Her aim? A wholesale change of operations; a new approach that will transform a linear economy – produce, consume, dispose – into a circular one which regenerates itself in diverse, non- damaging ways. Young, up-and-coming designers like Marine Serre and Matty Bovan are already experimenting with upcycled, DIY creations but a veritable fashion system revolution would require vast monetary and planning investments from enlightened governments. McCartney is convinced it can be done, on one condition: that the design fuels desire.

McCartney’s SS19 runway lineup – a cool gang including Nina Marker, Cara Taylor, Kaia Gerber, Nora Attal, and Fran Summers in no-makeup makeup – worked floral one-piece neoprene, signature maxi dresses, searing neon separates, masculine duster coats and suiting, tie-dye denim boiler suits, and retro skater dresses. “I think I was feeling a bit free,” says McCartney of her decision to add tie-dye to her offering. “Spring and summer, for me, are seasons when I think, let’s have some fun and let go… Tie-dye always says that. There’s a kind of rock ’n’ roll connotation to it that I associate with festivals and America – but I always found it a bit too garish; a little too high-street and ‘homemade.’ I wanted to elevate it.” She continues, “My intention was to do it in a way that I would want to wear it; in pulled-back colors, a bit dirty, a bit washed out.”

Planet-friendly fashion traditionally translates to visually lackluster linen and hemp sack cloths. Why would anyone pay a premium price for that? “You need to have a fantastic, beautiful product – that’s the starting point of all of it,” she continues. “I do firmly believe you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your style for the sustainability card. No one shares this point of view in my industry and so I sort of stand alone, sadly.” For decades, the term eco-fashion has prompted analogies of hippy communes and a bohemian look in varying shades of beige, but as time progresses, thankfully, so has technology. McCartney uses viscose sourced from sustainable forests in her materials (“I spent three years – my money, my cost, and my team’s commitment – sourcing a sustainable wood pulp that we can use for all our viscose”), uses recycled nylon Econyl fabric in her hit Falabella bags, and upcycled yarn for socks made with zero chemicals, dyes, or pesticides. “For us, the sourcing is the key part of the process; that’s where we don’t finish asking questions and challenging the system… trying to design in a sustainable way while also creating something that’s timeless and great quality.”

Stella McCartney Spring 2019 RTW.

On the Stella’s World section on her website – a page dedicated to explaining all the ways her label is committed to sustainability – she provides information on initiatives she supports. “I challenge you; it’s not easy,” she confesses. “It’s a very honest and personal point of view for me and I think a lot of people don’t have that sense. They don’t care. It’s much easier to work with the same 10 core materials that the fashion industry has worked with for hundreds of years because they’re in a chain of supply. Everyone knows the price point of that conventional viscose and they’ve got it in their margins.”

In 2015, McCartney introduced a collection of shaggy, fur-free coats, which has sparked debate surrounding the impact that synthetic alternatives can have on the environment. “Fake fur is definitely a conversation to be had. I never claim to be perfect because that’s just ridiculous – the minute I make anything I’m creating some kind of harmful impact on the planet,” she admits, “but fake fur is by far more sustainable and environmentally friendly than real, which is just disgusting; it’s the most un-luxurious sourcing of any material on the planet. I think you have to talk about human welfare as well – it’s not a job that I think people really choose to do, to anally electrocute animals for their skins. Cruelty, from my point of view, is a very unethical starting point for any product and unnecessary, especially when it comes to this conversation.”

The debate is clearly a complex one, and pro-fur campaigners argue that the synthetic microfibers found in faux alternatives find their way into our water supply and the stomachs of fish. They also highlight that acrylic or polyester used to make faux options aren’t easily biodegradable and will remain in landfill sites for hundreds of years – an argument the designer says is applicable to real fur, too. “Of course skins are environmentally friendly; we are also animals and if we died we would just biodegrade. The problem is, if you buried a leather bag tomorrow, it would still be there in 200 years’ time because of the amount of tanning chemicals on it. They’re made to last and sit in a warehouse. The same goes for fur, it’s coated in chemicals. The fur industry argues that it’s natural but there is nothing natural about it. It sounds good and if I worked for the PR company that did real fur and paid my wages then I would try to spin that one, too.”

Technology is never far from McCartney’s mind, as she describes a future of lab-grown fur and leather (“It’s a stem cell situation”) but until then, she’ll continue to problem-solve with fake fur suppliers, challenging them to produce a better yarn. “I hope technology will save us and create a newness to an industry that really needs it. Why are we the only people not working so closely with technology and yet we’re supposed to be at the forefront of everything? We’re in danger of being left behind.” This progressive approach was spurred by a 2005 collaborative collection with Adidas, a sports performance range that has since turned into a long-term partnership. “At the time I found women’s sportswear condescending and the product just deplorable… so that was the initial incentive for me. When I go to the gym, I want to have the same technical conversation as men and not be apologetic for how I look.” It’s a feminist stance and another example of just how forward-thinking McCartney is – she subsequently designed the kit for Team GB at the London 2012 Summer Olympics and a year later, picked up an Order of the British Empire for her services to fashion.

Stella McCartney Spring 2019 RTW.

Understanding the needs of her customer – of women in general, in fact – is inherent to McCartney’s appeal. House codes range from masculine (she trained on Savile Row) to playfully feminine (silky slip dresses, lace, flouncy hemlines). There are urban elements (city- slicker suiting and the aforementioned cult Falabella bag with its chain hardware) and countrified motifs (horses, florals, summer sandals). It is this understanding and appreciation for the multifaceted lives of modern women, with their contrasting personalities and refusal to be pigeon-holed, that has given the Stella McCartney brand that much sought-after quality: longevity. After 17 years, she recently bought back parent company Kering’s 50% stake in her label, signaling above all else a confidence on her part in the future of her business.

Her past also plays a role. “A lot of my masculine/feminine stuff comes from the observations I had as a young child,” she says. “My earliest memories are of looking at the wardrobe that my mom and dad shared and seeing their clothes blend seamlessly into each other. He wore Savile Row and she wore Savile Row… There was a real blurring of the lines.” Natural, carefree, and spontaneous, McCartney’s campaigns always portray a similar woman, often with an environmental message weaved in (see blond model Sophie Rask floating in a sea of plastic bottles for SS18). How does the Middle Eastern woman – often glamorous and with a carefully curated sense of style – relate to this less-is-more approach? “We’re living in a landscape that’s shifting. Some women love looking and feeling glamorous and that’s allowed too. Who are we to judge?” She reflects, “I’m instinctive in everything and I’m so grateful. I serve women, I provide a service for women and my intention is to make them feel better about themselves – that’s why I do what I do. I’m fascinated by the psychological connection between what you wear and how you feel and I think we – more than anyone on the planet – deserve to feel amazing.

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