I would like my daughters and sons to go into any industry and feel that they have permission to shift it,” declares Stella McCartney. That would be the Stella McCartney who has quietly become one of the most successful fashion designers of our age, despite never working with leather – arguably the most important material in the luxury fashion industry, which historically relies on handbags and shoes to shore up its profits. So if anyone knows anything about shifting an industry, it is her.
In 2001, when Stella was first approached by Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole of what was then Gucci Group (subsequently acquired by the Pinault family’s PPR conglomerate, now Kering) to launch her eponymous label, she remembers shocking the Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent creative director with the revelation that she doesn’t work with animal products. “[Tom Ford] was like, ‘What, you don’t use leather?’ He was really surprised,” she adds gleefully, “I thought that was amazing that it was unnoticed. For me that was a really positive thing. I’ve always been of the belief of infiltrating from within.”
Stella’s entre into the fashion industry wasn’t without its doubters. As the daughter of former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney who harnessed best friends Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss to walk in her Central Saint Martins graduation show in 1995, she was frequently accused of inheriting rather than earning her success, while her commitment to sustainability was dismissed as idealistic and unrealistic.
Today, nearly a decade and a half after venturing out on her own, following a stint as creative director of Chloé from 1997-2001, Stella has neatly proven her detractors wrong, both in terms of her skill as a designer, and in her unwavering belief that a fashion company founded on ethical principles can be economically viable. She relishes showing, “the people on the business side of fashion that you can approach any industry in a more mindful, responsible, environmentally friendly way and still have a successful business.” Adding, “You know, we are really successful, thank God, and they see that in the numbers. I’m sort of like, ‘See, I knew I could do it.” Does she feel vindicated? “Of course secretly I’m hoping to prove people wrong – all of the judgments and labels that were put on me – hopefully the staying power of our house shows that you can do it differently. And we’re healthy. There aren’t many fashion houses that are surviving you know, it’s the reality.” Profitability came for Stella McCartney within five years and the UK business, including worldwide licenses for lingerie, fragrance and the sportswear line produced with Adidas, increased its profits by nearly 23 per cent last year.
It wasn’t just her lineage and principles that made Stella a target for vitriol in the early days, she was also derided for designing the kind of clothes that women might actually want to wear away from the catwalk. “When I started I was slightly ridiculed for making wearable clothes. That was so not the thing to do,” she muses. “As a woman I always felt talked down to by the luxury fashion industry. Luxury fashion can at times sadly make women feel inadequate or insecure, or not good enough, not young enough, not thin enough, not beautiful enough,” she explains, adding passionately, “There’s no part of what I do that is trying to make women feel bad about themselves. I’m so proud that we make clothes that women wear.” Stella also rejects the distance that many hallowed names try to maintain from their customers, suggesting that the industry, “can create a void that a lot of luxury houses think is really important to maintain that luxury edge. We do the opposite, we want to be with our women in the same room.” She admits that complete inclusivity is not entirely possible, and there will always be items bearing her name that many women cannot afford, nor indeed fit. “It’s tricky,” she agrees, “I’m sure we have millions of products that are just for a very specific kind of woman but the point is that we do have many products for many different kinds of women. Most women can identify with many parts of what we do.” That could be a gorgeous lace-trimmed bra that goes up to a very non-fashion F cup, or a designer gym outfit by Stella Sport, the more affordable offspring of her partnership with Adidas, a collaboration which led to her appointment as creative director for Team GB in the 2012 London Olympics. “I’ve always felt – and I think that’s what makes us so different from a lot of the other houses of luxury fashion – that we are with our women. We are a gang of women that are all supporting each other and through my clothes or my bags or my shoes we are all one voice.”
Cardigan, Dhs10,700; shoes, Dhs3,250, both Stella McCartney
Stella will be connecting with her global gang on a far more meaningful level than simply accessories via her work with the White Ribbon campaign, an organisation that seeks to prevent violence against women. She has designed a limited edition White Ribbon badge for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which takes place on November 25. “One in three women globally are abused and that’s a high, high, high number,” she says. “We all need to know that and we all need to know, no matter where you live, no matter what your background, it’s not acceptable.” It’s a dialogue she will be continuing when she visits the UAE this November on her first official work visit to the region. “We need to communicate with each other, even on the most painful of subjects, even the biggest secrets that we have. No matter what your background and what your religious beliefs, no matter your situation, women need to support each other,” she urges. “We’ve never had such incredible opportunities to talk to one another as a globe, as a planet. We’re at the height of communication and we really need to access it for these kinds of causes. We don’t just need to Instagram and chat about the mundane, we need to also engage in important subject matters.”
Styled by Katie Trotter. Prices approximate. Hair and make-up: Toni Malt. Model: Grace Plowden @ Models1. Fashion assistant: Sima Maalouf. Shot on location at Six Senses Zighy Bay, Oman. The full version of this article appears in the November 2015 issue of Harper’s Bazaar Arabia