LIFE WITH GUCCI: A SLOW, STEADY START FOR STELLA MCCARTNEY

Byline: James Fallon

LONDON--Stella McCartney is going back to square one.
McCartney, who formed a 50-50 joint venture with Gucci Group in April, is reestablishing her own label after three years of designing the Chloe line. And the process will be neither quick nor easy.
"I'm just a fashion designer starting my own label and that's all I want it to be," McCartney said in an exclusive interview over afternoon tea at Browns Hotel here. The hotel is around the corner from the temporary office and studio McCartney has been given by Gucci until she finds a site of her own.
"Our philosophy for the whole thing is that it is a natural progression. We're not thinking, 'Oh, we have all this money from Gucci now let's go out and blow it.' We're a start-up. I don't want to be a big show business character."
McCartney and her chief executive officer, James Seuss, could simply be trying to manage expectations of what is bound to be one of the most-watched debuts in years. The designer said her first collection under her own label will be spring 2002. She also confirmed she will show in Paris, while her company will be based in London.
"Paris has been really good to me. It's a place where I have deep connections," McCartney said. "But we are a truly European company--we're based in London, showing in Paris and manufacturing in Italy. It's a mixture."
She and Seuss remain vague about the details of the new company, mainly because they haven't been settled. There are now 10 employees at Stella McCartney, which officially has been in business for a month (McCartney recently took all her staff out to dinner to celebrate and gave them each a key ring from Tiffany). For example, they declined to project sales or discuss when the first free-standing Stella McCartney store will open.
"It's still really getting started," McCartney said as a pianist played in the background. "We're looking for a location for the studio, figuring out the label, working on hangers and bags--everything. It's a lot, but it's great fun, too. We'll do shoes, sunglasses, bags, a fragrance, shops. We'll do all of that. But only over time. We're not going to do it all tomorrow."
The one thing that is most developed is McCartney's first collection. "It's in full stress mode but we're in good shape," she said.
While she declined to be specific, McCartney admitted she is looking both to pick up where she left off with her previous own line and use a lot of the knowledge she gained at Chloe. McCartney launched her first line in 1995, the same year she graduated from Central Saint Martins. She showed at her then-studio in Notting Hill and quickly established her signature mix of feminine and masculine, combining vintage-style slip dresses or camisole tops with mannish-style tailoring. Her shows were relaxed affairs, with models like Yasmin Le Bon wandering around the studio and casually trying on looks while photographers snapped away.
There was a large amount of publicity about McCartney's own line, based upon the fact that she is the daughter of ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney and his late wife, Linda. The hype exploded when she was chosen in fall 1997 to design Chloe, succeeding Karl Lagerfeld. Her partnership with Gucci came after 18 months of speculation over how long she would remain at Chloe, where she oversaw a five-fold increase in sales and the launch of such lines as eyewear and the diffusion collection See by Chloe.
"My style has changed because it's matured," McCartney said, sipping mint tea, but eschewing the cakes and scones. "It's not changing dramatically from what I did before with my own line or at Chloe because that is my signature--that's me. But now it seems everyone has a better idea of what Stella McCartney is than I do because they think it's only one look. Now I want to bring it back more to me."
She hopes to mix and match her styles even more while simultaneously introducing more special pieces with limited production, as well as limited appeal.
"I want it to have charm and be special because I think that is what customers want today," McCartney said. "I mix and match everything, and more women do that, so I want my collection to be that way. It's more about a sense of individual style rather than a dictate by me."
Seuss and McCartney both stressed that the fashion world won't be seeing the new Stella McCartney collection everywhere next spring. Distribution in the first season will concentrate on wholesaling to the top stores in each market. While neither pinpoints a figure, they nod in agreement when asked whether it will be fewer than 50 stores worldwide.
"I want the first collection to be quite tight," McCartney said. "I want it to be exactly what it is--me starting my own company as if Gucci had nothing to do with it. That is why we are partners--they didn't want me to launch this huge thing. Where would I go from there?"
Gucci, of course, is providing financing and such back office services as accounting, media buying and site searches for possible stores. But McCartney and Seuss insisted the partnership is a learning curve for Gucci as well as for them. After all, this is the first season for the group's two new young designers, McCartney and Alexander McQueen, who also has a joint venture with the Italian company.
McCartney, who is against the use of animal fur or leather in fashion, acknowledged the criticisms of her for signing with a group that uses them extensively in its other collections. But she shrugged them off, saying Gucci is as excited about learning how to use alternative materials as she is about working with them.
"I decided to go with them because it felt right with the top people," McCartney said. "Everyone is excited about it being non-leather and they are learning about it just like me. Sure, Gucci uses leather, but they also already use a lot of canvas and other materials that aren't leather."
As for the criticisms of her by Karl Lagerfeld, McCartney simply laughed. "He's always slagging me off, always. What did I ever do to him? If you noticed, I've never slagged him off. Never. I think it's great he knows who I am. Who would have thought I would get slagged off so often by Mr. Lagerfeld? There must be some deeper issues he has."
Whatever those issues might be, McCartney is having too much fun to worry about them. She seems energized by the challenges ahead in building her label from zero.
"I'm really enjoying it now. This is why I said yes to Gucci, for the feeling I'm having now.
"I have a vision for the way I want a woman to dress, perhaps because I'm a woman and know what I like to wear. So many people are forgetting about what women want to wear. It just seems the industry is working for the industry now which is, like, yech! I'd rather get out of this industry if that's what it is going to be like and go and work in a vegetarian restaurant.
"It's not about what it looks like in the studio or on the runway. It's what it looks like on a real person that matters. That isn't easy, but it's what's fun."

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