Women's Fashion

A Stella performance

When Stella McCartney joined Chloé, she quadrupled sales. Then she tripled turnover at her eponymous brand. She tells Vanessa Friedman about the choices that have turned her into a global powerhouse.

September 17 2010
Vanessa Friedman

Last spring, Stella McCartney – 39-year-old founder of an eponymous fashion brand, official designer of the 2012 Team GB Olympic outfits, mother of three (by the time of this publication, possibly four), environmentalist, vegetarian, daughter of a Beatle – held a party in New York, in an art gallery in the West Village.

There was an a cappella quartet singing and swinging in the garden, and a cart serving shaved ices, and woven-knit handbags under Perspex. There were margaritas and Coke bottles spilling out of old picnic baskets, and a chessboard left for the playing, and there were mini veggie hot dogs and burgers and some corn on the cob, and among the galleristas there were friends famous (Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts) and non-famous (everyone else), and models dancing and eating.

Oh, and there were clothes – a gorgeous garden print on shift dresses and cropped swing jackets, and shorts and shirts in antiqued lace, and T-strap trapeze shifts, and a perfectly cut black-and-white tuxedo. Together they form Stella’s spring pre-collection, which goes into stores in October, and which were theoretically the point of the event, but also in the mêlée and laughter and chat in the gallery, kind of beside the point. Which was, in fact, actually the point.

Confused? That’s because you’re used to the traditional practices of the fashion world. Let Stella explain: “Why would I go to New York and not have a party?” she says, a few months later, in her three-storey, wind-powered, classic-on-the-outside, wood-and-concrete-on-the-inside London atelier in a grotty street in west London. It is worth noting that she is always “Stella”, even to those who don’t know her, and not as much because of her famous last name and the possibility of paternal confusion, as because to a palpable extent, le brand, c’est elle (more on that later), and thus people who know the brand feel they can be on a first-name basis with the brand’s founder/mogul/designer/doppelganger.

Said doppleganger rolls her big, make-up-less blue eyes and says with mock puzzlement: “Why would I go to New York and just show my collection?”

Well, it is suggested, because that is what most designers do with their pre-collections. But Stella has never really paid much attention to conventional fashion wisdom (she famously does not use leather) and has never really thought of clothes as disengaged from life – hers, or anyone else’s. And almost 10 years after she relaunched her namesake house, it seems the rest of the world is starting to come around. As luxury exits the recession chanting words such as “values” and “investment” and “easy”, all of which have been attached to Stella’s work since the start, her particular approach to brand building seems less idiosyncratic and simply more relevant. She’s not just a niche any more.

“I think in the past few years, we’ve really seen Stella go from a very specific brand to a global powerhouse,” says Natalie Massenet, the founder and chairman of e-tail destination Net-a-Porter, who has been buying Stella since 2006. “She has become a go-to resource for every aspect of a woman’s wardrobe. We have about 400 brands represented on the site, but there are only a handful that we buy across all categories – shoes, ready-to-wear, lingerie – and she is one of them. She sells equally well in every area.”

“Stella has moved a long way past her original London hippie-girl look,” says Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue. “Her aesthetic has solidified into a style that combines relaxed shapes with a quite dramatic edge: her ruffles are very big, her plunges deep. It’s quite unique, actually.”

“The brand has continually surprised us with its growth,” says Robert Polet, CEO of Gucci Group, the luxury conglomerate that owns half the company, rather chortling with glee. After all, it was not always thus; we are speaking here of a brand that was launched a month after September 11 2001, and is run by a woman who, on her début and for obvious reasons, many perceived as unduly privileged and not deserving of her fame.

And yet now Stella McCartney has 16 stores around the world – the most recent opening in Milan and Beirut – as well as 600 wholesale accounts. When Polet arrived in 2004, the brand was losing money, but he saw it become profitable in 2007, and turnover almost tripled between 2004 and 2009. Aside from womenswear, it makes shoes, bags, sunglasses, lingerie, organic skincare and perfume, and has an extremely successful partnership with Adidas.

The brand also helped pioneer the one-off collaboration, creating a sell-out capsule collection for H&M in 2005, and two children’s collections for Gap for winter 2009 and spring 2010. The 40-something Salma Hayek just wore Stella at the screening of her new film Grown Ups; 20-something Amanda Seyfried wore Stella to the MTV Movie Awards; and 30-something Kate Winslet wore Stella to the Baftas.

“The thing is, this is the only brand in our portfolio where the designer and brand are one,” says Polet, “which means it is very much alive, and it progresses through life contemporaneously with its founder. You can’t talk about the appeal and personality of the brand, which is significant, without talking about the personality of its namesake.”

“Her personality?” says Shulman. “She’s extremely determined and opinionated. She’s always been very clear about what she wanted, and what it would take to get there. She’s not the child of a Beatle for nothing.”

Growing up in the East Sussex countryside, Stella was, she says, “fascinated by the visual aspect of clothes. I was very taken with Mum and Dad’s wardrobes, the contrast between masculine and feminine, tailoring and vintage – all the stuff that makes up the human aspect of clothing.” She was also, like her mother, Linda, a vegetarian, and her love of clothes and animals is rooted in her personal history; both play a role in how she thinks about her business today.

Stella attended Central Saint Martins, where she famously created waves (and envy) by using supermodel friends Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell in her degree show; the collection was picked up by New York’s Bergdorf Goodman, as well as retailers in London and Tokyo, and in 1995 Stella version one was launched.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” she laughs now. “It was me and Phoebe [Philo, her first assistant, now creative director of Céline] in a room in my flat, making stuff out of vintage lace. I started really from the point of a consumer, not a designer – I was making stuff I wanted to wear and couldn’t find – and though I know it is hard to believe, I was incredibly naïve.” She also very much defined a look – “cool London chick” as otherwise embodied by herself and Philo, with their sharp tailoring over lace camisoles, and antiqued tea dresses.

When, just two years later, she got a call from Mounir Moufarrige, the then chief executive of Chloé, who was looking for a replacement for Karl Lagerfeld, who had left the house, she didn’t think anyone would care. “Now, of course, I look back, and it seems incredible that I didn’t realise if Karl Lagerfeld left and was replaced by Paul McCartney’s 25-year-old daughter, it would create a storm,” she says. Still, she closed her line – “I knew I couldn’t sustain it as it was at the time” – and went to Paris.

And, for the first time, she found herself doing what someone else told her to do. “They essentially said. ‘OK, you will do 200 exits and there will be 2,000 people invited, and sleeves must be this length’ and so on, and I just thought, ‘Oh…’” It was the last time too; by the following season, she had begun to assert herself, adding spaghetti straps, cutting the number of outfits shown to 70, and even airbrushing T-shirts. “Paris fashion was quite mature at that point,” she says. “It was pretty shocking.” Despite having to deal with the grief of losing her mother during her time at Chloé, sales almost quadrupled, and Tom Ford, then creative director and vice-chairman of Gucci Group, came calling.

The original offer was to run Gucci. Ford knew that Stella was anti-fur (she is a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), but he didn’t know, she remembers, that she was also anti-leather and, “Well, clearly, Gucci is a leather house, so that wasn’t going to work…”

Though Stella is now practically a poster child for the anti-fur, vegan fashion movement, at the turn of the millennium it was a less-well-known fact; she hadn’t hidden her feelings, but she hadn’t advertised them, either. The decision was a personal choice that had to do with not being “hypocritical; it seemed silly to say I won’t eat meat, but I’ll wear the skins. But I’m also very aware that it’s my decision, and I don’t want to hold myself up as some sort of ideal. I’m not. I’m not a green goddess. I think it’s a story that the press glommed onto after exhausting the stories about my parentage.”

Still, Ford didn’t want to let her go; he was very taken with Stella, telling reporters if he were a woman, he’d be her. Instead, he offered to set her up in her own house via a joint venture, with each owning 50 per cent of her company (this is the only Gucci Group brand with joint ownership; the rest, including Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent, are majority or wholly owned by Gucci).

As to charges that she is being hypocritical by going into partnership with someone who makes leather, Stella simply says, “Am I sleeping with the enemy? To a certain extent, but I think it’s much more interesting to infiltrate from within. Because it’s my name on the label, I think I can be quite honest about what feels right.”

“She’s clearly very in charge of her own collection,” says Shulman. “And it’s very important for a business to have a strong identity.”

“She has outstanding instincts,” says Polet. “More than that: she has a unique ability to create products her women didn’t know they wanted until they see them.”

“Because what we do is very much a reflection of me, if it works for me, it usually works,” Stella says. “I’m most interested in the end consumer, as opposed to, say, the fashion world itself.” Indeed, as much as possible, she has constructed her company to fit in with her life, the two melding to create products that are themselves more than the sum of their parts.

She has consciously kept her staff small – there are about 25 in London, plus a sales team in Milan and communications office in New York – so that she “knows everyone in the building, and what they do”. Her clothes – clothes by Stella – seem to represent to women pieces of a life they would like to live as much as garments in themselves; a life in which, like Stella, you can have a family, and work for the environment, and look good, and run a company, all at the same time.

This was particularly true of her autumn/winter collection, where garden-party floatiness was traded for streamlined tunics striped in camel and black and slickly cropped black trousers (£735 and £414 respectively). Coats were rigorous and knee-length with a sharp notch at the waist (£1,525), and dresses were simple silk shifts in strong shades cut to mid-thigh in the front but sweeping into a train at the back (£755).

“If I had to say what I am trying to achieve it’s to create a context for natural confidence,” says Stella, “which are words I often think of as contradictory, especially when it comes to women, where being confident is often associated with being aggressive or unnatural. I want to show you don’t have to be dictated to by fashion. You don’t have to have that handbag this season – you can decide what you want when you want. I mean, this shirt” – she pulls at the zebra-striped tank top she is wearing over grey denim leggings – “is about three years old.”

Massenet, also a mother and businesswoman, says she buys a blazer from Stella every season and wears it for years, and speaks fondly of “a black lace dress from a few seasons ago”. There is a reason Stella has won not just Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards (2007) but also a Woman of Courage award from the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s Women’s Cancer Research Fund (2003) and was named a Glamour 2009 Woman of the Year – not to mention one of the Time 100 most influential people.

“She can say, ‘I will work, and have a family, and I will not eat meat, and you shouldn’t eat it either, and I’ll tell you why,’ – and she can take all that and make it into a brand, which is really an achievement,” says Polet. “It’s why people want her life.”

Her London office is steps from her house, and shoots for look-books and ad campaigns tend to take place in a studio around the corner to, as her communications manager says, “lessen the time in the car”.

“We have maternity and paternity leave, and if you have a child who knocks out a tooth, as mine did, you can run out and go to them,” Stella says. “Fashion has traditionally not been an industry that is family-friendly, and I think that needs to change. Of course, I always feel I am not doing either part of my life 100 per cent right, and I recognise I’m very privileged because I can afford a nanny and the support I need, but you do the best you can.”

This humanity is, of course, also part of her appeal, the same way Stella’s admission that, even though she “tries to be as wheat-free as possible, when I get on a plane, I eat every cookie and bit of bread that comes” is, and her acknowledgement that she doesn’t use Twitter or Facebook socially because “I think it’s good to hold some information back; maybe it’s my upbringing.”

Stella wakes up with her children and they have breakfast together before she takes them to school; she is usually home by 6.30pm; they spend the weekends together at their house in Worcestershire.

“She stands for something people like,” says Shulman.

“I’m not tied down by the history of the fashion industry; we don’t isolate ourselves from the rest of life,” Stella says. “There’s always a guilty card, always an element of embarrassment at a dinner party to say ‘I do fashion,’ but I think it really depends where you take it.”

So just as this works for her, it works for Gucci Group, who say, “She is a real example to many of us, both because she shows you can do things other people have not done yet, and for her constant questioning.” The effect is not just financial; her environmentalism has also crept into company policy, and she sits on the board of parent company PPR’s women’s charity.

“It’s so gratifying,” she says. “But it’s part of a process. I think of it like a life, a straight line: here is the beginning, and every season or every year I try to edge it forward, and it keeps going.” She laughs.

“Where it will end, I don’t know.”