Getting face-to-face time with Stella McCartney is no mean feat. The designer’s diary is an intricate jigsaw puzzle mapped out months in advance, with every minute of her day accounted for. It’s no wonder, really, when you consider her to-do list: there’s her eponymous women’s, men’s and childrenswear label to manage, which has championed sustainable luxury fashion since its inception 18 years ago; her 15-year-long collaboration with Adidas that creates stylish, high-tech sportswear; and the small matter of raising four children with her husband, designer Alasdhair Willis. When we meet in a Notting Hill hotel at the end of a rainy day, she’s already ensconced on a sofa wearing a faded sweatshirt, navy Stella McCartney pants and Adidas by Stella McCartney Stan Smith vegan sneakers, and has spent the afternoon hosting back-to-back meetings. “Well, I definitely would enjoy being less busy,” she says wryly. “But there’s never really a moment to think about it. And anyway, I’ve got four children so even when I’m not busy, I’m busy.”
“In fashion DESIGN, we’re farming the LAND, but instead of making a veggie patty out of it, we’re MAKING a jacket”
Luckily she has enough passion and drive to keep her going. McCartney, 47, is an activist, and she wants you to be one, too. A lifelong vegetarian and vocal campaigner for animal rights, she’s spent the last few years tirelessly overhauling and reinventing her fashion house, determined to make it as sustainable and ethical as possible. (Last year, she bought full control of the label from luxury conglomerate Kering in order to manage its future independently, although she’s keen to stress that they were always fully supportive of her and her ethics.) It’s a mammoth task, one that’s not a box-ticking exercise or a clever bit of PR spin. While other big brands are only just beginning to think seriously about their environmental impact, she and her team are already experts at considering everything from the biodiversity of the soil that their cotton is grown in to the practicalities of making their sneakers 100% recyclable. In fact, calling them ‘designers’ doesn’t really do justice to their job descriptions: McCartney is actually a creative, a scientist, a tech entrepreneur and a farmer all rolled into one. “It’s fascinating because I grew up on an organic farm and now what I do for a living really is farming,” she says. “And I think that that’s something that people don’t really realize – that in fashion design, we’re actually just farming the land, but instead of making a veggie patty out of it, we’re making a jacket. That connection is something that I find really inspiring and challenging. It just drives me.”
She and her three siblings were raised in deliberately unstarry fashion by their parents, Sir Paul and Linda McCartney, and she chalks up her uncompromising approach to a combination of personality and upbringing: not only did her parents’ ahead-of-their-time attitudes shape hers (when her mother launched her vegetarian food line in 1991, it was revolutionary), it also influenced how she got dressed. “I’ve grown up in a family that doesn’t chuck stuff away,” says the designer, pointing out that she’s had the sweatshirt that she’s currently wearing since she was 12. “And it sounds silly, but I didn’t have a huge amount of money as a kid. My mum and dad were really clever; I went to a comprehensive [school] and I wasn’t given a load of cash, so I would go to vintage and second-hand shops and markets to buy clothes. I think that’s kind of the future, and I would encourage kids to rent clothes and buy second-hand because you don’t have to always go for that quick fix. It’s way more exciting and cooler.”
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when it comes to navigating the ethical minefield of what’s in your closet, to work out exactly how and by whom your clothes are made, which is why McCartney prefers to offer up easy solutions rather than make you feel guilty about your choices. “Someone said to me recently, ‘What I love about Stella McCartney is that I go in and I know you’ve done half of the work for me, so I don’t have to ask all these questions, like where was it made, how was it made, was it sourced correctly, da-da-da…’”, she says. “And it was something that hadn’t occurred to me but, you know, women come into my stores or into my environment and they know that I’ve already ticked off a lot of the criteria that they might look for and have to work much harder to find in other places.”
“For me, it’s ALWAYS been about giving women confidence in their WARDROBE and how they express WHO they are through what they wear”
Principles and ethics are all very well, but to really build a big-hitting fashion house you need truly brilliant, desirable clothes, and McCartney has them in spades. She’s built her career on making flattering, hard-working and just-directional-enough pieces (her sustainable summer capsule for NET-A-PORTER is a case in point), putting them on the catwalk back when ‘wearable’ was a dirty word in the world of runway fashion. It’s easy to forget now that she was a controversial choice when she was appointed Creative Director at Chloé in 1997, deemed too safe. But her approach struck a chord with women everywhere and, as a result, the list of famous faces that she’s dressed over the years is long and pretty extraordinary: Gwyneth Paltrow, Michelle Obama, Julia Roberts, Olivia Colman, Madonna and more, not to mention that headline-grabbing halterneck dress that she created for Meghan Markle’s wedding to Prince Harry. “For me, it’s always been about giving women more confidence in their wardrobe and how they express who they are through what they wear,” says McCartney. “I try everything on because the tiny details make all the difference. If a pant is sitting on my waist rather than my hips, I feel like a completely different woman; I hold myself completely differently if I’m wearing a heel or a sneaker. It all makes me feel like I tap into different parts of my personality and being a woman.”
“My mum had the COOLEST sense of style ever. It was a true reflection of her not giving a s**t what PEOPLE thought. Being the wife of a Beatle, I think that’s pretty IMPRESSIVE”
She has a canny knack for blending the masculine and the feminine, as adept at whipping up a barely-there lace-trimmed silk slip dress as an oversized pant suit, and rather than wanting to make you look on trend, she wants you to look like the best version of yourself. “My mum was my big inspiration,” she says. “I think she had the coolest sense of style ever, but for me it was cool because it was her. It was a true reflection of her really not giving a s**t what people thought and, being the wife of a Beatle, I think that’s pretty impressive. It’s not that she was overtly confident, it’s just that she really knew herself and wasn’t afraid to be herself. So I admire women who have a real level of honesty through what they wear.”
McCartney doesn’t claim to have all the answers and she’s still working on getting sustainability right, both in the office and at home. But she’s got her kids in on the act, too – her daughter recently persuaded her to start buying wooden rather than plastic toothbrushes – and is feeling inspired by the likes of global campaigning group Extinction Rebellion and teen activist Greta Thunberg and how many people they’ve managed to mobilize. After years of campaigning herself, she’s mastered the art of inspiring rather than lecturing: it’s impossible not to feel enthused by her passion for sustainability as she reels off facts about the volume of fast fashion that’s sent to landfill each second, or the latest cutting-edge technique she’s been exploring.
“When I was younger, being a vegetarian and an animal activist was a very delicate subject matter and it was always met with a lot of defensiveness or quite a bit of aggression,” she explains. “It was never an open-hearted conversation that you could have with people, so I had to be mindful of how you could plant a seed of change in people who maybe didn’t have that upbringing or the same point of view. It’s never been my way to tell people off and make them feel bad, because I think it’s an overwhelming and daunting conversation. So I try to give information that’s honest but not too terrifying.”
“I’ve always liked knowing that a [lot] of people who BUY our products don’t have any idea that it’s not [real] LEATHER. That’s how you know you’re doing your job PROPERLY”
She’s hopeful, too, that now that labels from fledgling start-ups to huge luxury brands are starting to put in the hard work and the next generation is being more vocal about demanding change, she might be able to start shouting about it less. “I’ve always secretly liked knowing that a large percentage of people who come and buy our products don’t have any idea that it’s not [real] leather or what’s at the core of our value system,” she says. “I take pride in that because, for me, that’s how you know you’re doing your job properly.”
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.