Stella McCartney launching her latest fragrance L.I.L.Y. at Selfridges in February
She’s one of fashion’s coolest most influential women, and 2012 is most definitely her year. With the prestigious job as creative director of Team Great Britain for the Olympics and Paralympics, Stella McCartney once again flexes her high performance-wear muscles to design the athletes’ competition outfits.
At just 40 years old, McCartney’s ethically minded luxury fashion brand has gone from strength to strength, now owned by the fashion giants - PPR group (formerly called the Gucci group). In a frank and rather illuminating lunch with Tim Blanks for Interview magazine, Stella speaks about shocking the critics, being an irreverent youngster and how sitting on a horse in a field is her favourite place to be…
TIM BLANKS: One thing I love about fashion is that there is still this capacity for amazing surprises. Do you feel like that about what you do?
STELLA MCCARTNEY: My biggest surprises in my everyday job have to do with the challenges of trying to be slightly more responsible as a brand. My big surprises are when I say, "That fair-trade knitwear we did last season in Peru, I want to do it again," and someone else says, "Okay, it rained for two months and that factory sat on a mountaintop and it doesn't exist anymore."
BLANKS: What's your response to something like that? You find another way to do it?
MCCARTNEY: It's normally out of your hands. To use that exact example, we did organic fair-trade sweaters one year with that factory, and the sweaters were a big success and everyone loved them. So then we were like, "Okay, we'll do a new style next year with you guys," and something happened where they just couldn't deliver. They couldn't handle our production needs. You just have to be very agile. When you're trying to have moments of responsibility in the fashion industry, it's not as easy as just doing the same old handbag every season with the same old factory in the same old materials.
BLANKS: Is it easier now than when you started?
MCCARTNEY: You would think it's always easier than it really is. Rule number one: We're not perfect. That's the most important thing to get across. Each season I naively think, Oh, it's gonna get easier and easier. But, you know, it's very much driven by the economy. So one season I can say, "Where's that organic yarn that I used last season?" And next season I'll hear, "Oh, that place went out of business because nobody ordered that organic yarn apart from you."
BLANKS: It feels to me that there's been a shift over the years towards just quietly getting on with things, where once there was a lot more noise. But did you feel at the beginning you had to try hard to be noticed, maybe even shock people?
MCCARTNEY: Maybe. I didn't feel that I needed to do anything intentionally. I was just younger and a little bit more irreverent, and I was quite "fuck you." You know, I was quite angry at the beginning of my life.
MCCARTNEY: I guess I felt the eyes. It was just . . . I don't know. What do I think? I haven't had a great deal of time to reflect on it. I just think it was the irreverence of youth, and I was just a London girl who was really trying not to pay too much attention to everyone else's issues.
BLANKS: I mean, you hadn't grown up in public, but that whole thing inevitably intruded. There was no way around it.
MCCARTNEY: I find it interesting now to think about. I probably didn't have permission to be a fashion designer because I had a famous set of parents, even though I'd done the exact same training as every other fashion designer I'd known. I didn't grow up in public, as you say, but people knew who my dad was when I came out. I mean, I didn't go, "Hi, my dad's Paul McCartney."
BLANKS: Was there ever a moment where you thought, Actually, this is a useful thing in my life?
MCCARTNEY: No, I never intentionally thought to use it. At the same time, I didn't shy away from it. I was just kind of quietly up-front about it. My first show, I used famous models, and my thinking about that was other people in my situation would probably use those models if they knew them, so why would I go out of my way to not use them? Because I did think maybe I should not do that. But in the end I decided that's a bit strange—I'm not doing something I would naturally do because I'm worried that some people are going to make a negative judgment about me. So I didn't knowingly promote it, but at the same time I did try to react to it in a realistic way, which is that sometimes it helped, and sometimes it didn't.
BLANKS: But now this fabulously ironic situation has arisen where Paul is your dad, rather than you being his daughter.
MCCARTNEY: I wouldn't go that far. I think that people are probably just more used to me now. My mom's dad always used to say it was important to have staying power. And I've always really believed in that. My main thing with the brand, and as a human being, is to have staying power. To not disappear.
BLANKS: Do you make a point of asking those questions when you're with him? My dad died when I was young and I think about all the things I never got to ask him.
MCCARTNEY: Well, I think about that with my mom. Obviously, being a woman, I've probably got a couple more questions for her than I do for dad. I feel like a different person since my mom passed away, like I'm driving a ship with my husband alongside me and we're leading these four children into unknown waters. And at the same time, I have this other little family that is Stella McCartney Limited, and I'm on a journey with them as well. I feel like I'm in the thick of it. I mean, the eye of the storm. Sometimes I'll get into the bath with all my kids and they'll look at me and say, "Oh, it's just us! It's just our family in the bath!" And I remember that feeling, when it was just our family. It's such a powerful moment. I grew up with the six of us, and now our family's got six, so I'm very aware of the numbers and the way it slots together.
BLANKS: And you grew up on a farm when you were a kid. Now you've got one, too.
MCCARTNEY: It's my favourite place to be. In a field on a horse, with my kids on little horses behind me. We rescued three ponies from New Forest [in Hampshire, England]. They round up the wild ponies and they auction them for dog food and everything, so we rescued three, and that's what they ride. We're having to break them in. They're really cute. They're wild and hairy and this little [Indicates a horse that's knee-high to a grasshopper] . . .
BLANKS: Where does the riding thing come from with you?
MCCARTNEY: My mom. She rode [in dressage competitions] when she was younger. My mom was obsessed with horses. She and dad rode all the time. He still does.
BLANKS: Can you see the changes Alasdhair has made in you?
MCCARTNEY: Oh, every day I see them. He's an amazing man. I'm very much in love with him.
BLANKS: Was it love at first sight?
MCCARTNEY: It was pretty close to that. We definitely had chemistry pretty early on. I mean, we met and then we were on a date that evening.
BLANKS: How much time do you actually spend away from home?
MCCARTNEY: I had a four-day rule when I first had Miller [her oldest son] and then it slowly went to three days and two days. I get really agitated when I'm away from the kids for too long. I'm excited to have gotten to where I can take the kids with me now sometimes.
BLANKS: When Lee [Alexander McQueen] died and when John [Galliano] imploded, people blamed the overwhelming pressure of their jobs. Do you believe that's what happened?
MCCARTNEY: I'm sure there were many factors. I don't think anyone can give an exact reason. Yeah, there's a lot of pressure in our industry. We all feel it. But I think there's a lot of pressure in a lot of industries. Sometimes the fashion industry can get a bit kind of isolated and it's all "Oooh! It's so relentless!" But I don't see our industry as the only one like that. But I do think that personality comes into play a lot. I also try not to take myself too seriously. When I feel myself getting nervous and stressed and self-absorbed, I try to just go, "Oh, come on."
Stella McCartney with Phillips Idowu and Jessica Ennis
BLANKS: The Olympic Games is a big part of your year and it's not just an incredible professional endorsement, but it's the first time anyone has attempted what you're doing.
MCCARTNEY: Yeah, no designer has worked with the entire team before. Between the Olympic and the Paralympic teams, that's 900 athletes, which is thousands upon thousands of products. The magnitude of that is way out of my comfort zone. What's most mind-blowing about it is I'm serving the nation a bit, serving the team, trying to bring them together.
BLANKS: Some of them have very special needs.
MCCARTNEY: Well, all of them have very special needs. They're all trying to win gold medals.
BLANKS: I imagine the Olympics are a pinch-me moment. What are your others?
MCCARTNEY: Babies, marriage . . . Losing my mom. That was a punch-me moment. I think the moment that I'm very proud of is building a business without using animals. And, hopefully, changing people's perception of how you can do luxury fashion.
BLANKS: You feel you have?
MCCARTNEY: I might before I die . . . [laughs] I don't think I have, no. But I think I am definitely in the process of doing something very different from other luxury brands. I did always say I wanted to infiltrate from within. That was always my reasoning behind going into partnership with a luxury group that uses a lot of leather in their products. I'm also a real believer that just doing a little something is really a lot better than doing a lot of nothing.
BLANKS: Do you believe in destiny?
MCCARTNEY: I don't know. I'm a great believer in going with the flow. But I believe in luck, too. I feel very lucky. But at the same time, I do work hard. I think deep down I'm spiritual, but there's nothing I practice. I can do a bit of TM [transcendental meditation] when I remember to. And I went through a period of doing yoga, but it was Ashtanga, and it was much more hardcore than chilling out.