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Less Is More for Stella McCartney and Her New, Clean and Green Skin Care

“I obviously wanted to do the cleanest skin care that we could do in luxury, the purest of the pure,” said McCartney of her new line, Stella, created in partnership with the designer's minority partners at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

LONDON — It’s summer in London and Stella McCartney is wearing strappy sandals, but there isn’t a drop of polish on her nails. It’s a personal choice rather than a political, or environmental, statement. She has worn polish in the past, but now, not so much.

McCartney, 50, takes a similar, minimalist approach to her daily beauty regimen.

“I literally drag my ass out of bed. I brush my teeth. Lately, I’m using an eco-toothpaste that has coconut oil, and the taste is really good,” she says. After splashing her face with water, she cleanses and moisturizes with the three products from Stella, her clean and minimal skin care line that launched last month.

“That is it. Then I’ll put on some SPF, which is a whole other conversation that breaks my heart,” said McCartney from a rose velvet vintage Italian sofa at her Bond Street store.

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She’s sitting upstairs, where the walls are covered with handmade papier-mâché recycled from her office paper waste, and the garden terrace is a jungle of green vegetation.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to do an SPF in a sustainable way, so we’re just going to have to wear hats for the rest of our lives. Or, we’re going to have to suck it up. Because, you know what? We’re not perfect. You will find loopholes in everything I do, but I will tell you about them in advance,” said McCartney.

She developed the products, Reset Cleanser, Alter-Care Serum and Restore Cream, with her minority partners at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The ambitious project aims to tick as many eco-boxes as possible using the fewest number of products, and ingredients.

“I am not that person who wants to buy into a million products for different areas of my face. I don’t want all of that stuff in my life,” said McCartney. “I want less, and I want it to work. I want it to be honest and to complement my way of thinking, and of living life.”

Even her daily makeup is minimal: a little bit of an eye crayon, and a swoosh of mascara. “At the end of the day, I literally want to take off my makeup, and clean my skin. I don’t want to have makeup remover in my life. It feels terrifying. What is it anyway?” she asked.

McCartney has brought her textile research, and passion for upcycling, to bear on her new beauty venture.

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“All that nature has to offer me is a miracle. We are here to learn from nature and to benefit from it, with respect. So much learning comes from this process, and so much more is to come. This is not a closed book,” she said.

Stella McCartney
Stella McCartney Zoe McConnell/WWD

Earlier this summer McCartney released a bag made from mycelium, or mushroom, leather, which is made using minimal energy. She’s been collaborating with the California-based company Bolt Threads on the mycelium project, and in the past has created sample clothing from mushroom material.

She’s a longtime user of deadstock fabrics (sometimes even sourced from rival designers), and for years has been working to find eco-alternatives to fur, leather and suede. Biodiversity, organic cotton farming and protecting the bits of the soil that can absorb CO2 emissions are top-of-mind at her fashion house.

She believes that if a brand wants to be truly ethical and sustainable, “you have to start at the birth of the food chain.”

An ace communicator who’s spent much of her life in the media glare as a daughter of Paul and Linda McCartney, the designer is outspoken — but not preachy — about her views on animal rights, the environment and sustainability.

In June, she was among more than 1,000 members of the British public to receive an honor from Queen Elizabeth in the monarch’s annual Birthday Honors list. McCartney was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, or CBE, for her services to fashion and to sustainability. She’s among a series of business leaders working with Prince Charles on a series of environmental projects, and last year represented the fashion industry at the G7 summit in Cornwall, England.

Her company, which was part-owned by Kering until 2019, when LVMH took a minority stake, was among the first in luxury fashion to publish an annual environmental profit and loss account, which calculates a brand’s impact down to the decimal point. When McCartney partnered with LVMH three years ago, she also became a special sustainability adviser to the company’s founder and owner Bernard Arnault, and to the group’s executive committee members.

Of Arnault, she says “he wants to learn and progress. He has many children and grandchildren and knows [the need to be sustainable] is here to stay. At LVMH there is a genuine passion for the future of the luxury industry,” says McCartney, adding that her beauty team at LVMH is pushing boundaries that she never thought were possible.

“They have been so hungry to find new ways, new solutions,” she says.

A vegetarian who loves horseback riding, and who was flying the antifur, feather and leather banner long before the cause was fashionable, McCartney is repulsed by the use of animal products in beauty.

She lists pig stomach lining (a source of collagen) and crushed beetles (used to make red pigment) as just some of the ingredients that offend her.

Animals don’t need to die for the sake of high-performance skin care and makeup when there are so many natural solutions, she believes. “You can still have a really brilliant product that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any other competitor. And I don’t think you should compromise style, make, manufacture, design or quality to sustainability,” she said.

McCartney, a mother of four, has other reasons for keeping things clean, uncomplicated and vegan with the new line. “I want my teenage daughter to love it, to use it, and for it to be good for her. I want her largest organ not to have a ton of chemicals sucked into it at that age,” she said.

For the past three years McCartney and a dedicated team from LVMH have worked on the formulations and packaging, with the products’ fresh, grassy scent developed by the perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, who describes it as one of the most interesting projects of his career.

Stella
Stella George Chinsee/WWD

At first, McCartney didn’t want the skin care to be scented. “She didn’t think scent brought added value,” says Kurkdjian in a Zoom interview. “But then she understood, little by little, that the right scent can transmit the idea of a product’s efficiency.”

Kurkdjian recalls that after McCartney agreed to adding scent, she insisted on using “only what was necessary,” and deriving the “maximum effect from a minimum number of ingredients.”

For the scent itself, he said McCartney talked to him about conjuring “the wind on your face, the smell of the breeze from far away, and the feeling of being on top of a cliff.”

That request dovetailed with McCartney’s overall inspiration for the skin care: a childhood spent in the Scottish outdoors, at her family’s farm on the Kintyre peninsula.

“That part was easy. The tricky part was how to get there,” said Kurkdjian.

He drew from a modest list of about 40 ingredients based on their ability to biodegrade, renewability and the amount of water and energy needed to extract, process or create them.

The recipe includes phellandrene, which is found in black pepper; piperitone for a whiff of green; caryophyllene, a naturally occurring molecule that lends an earthy freshness, and hindinol, which adds a note of tea rose, and what Kurkdjian describes as the “creaminess of sandalwood.”

The chief notes of the scent, which is called High Cliff, are clove leaf, pine resin and mentholated eucalyptus.

“We were constantly asking the questions, ‘What does it mean to be green or eco-friendly?’” Although it may have been frustrating at times, Kurkdjian said he liked working with so many restrictions. “That’s when the creativity happens,” he said.

It’s likely that High Cliff is just the beginning. No one at LVMH is talking — yet — about a new stand-alone scent, but it would be surprising if one wasn’t already in the works. McCartney has had a number of scents in the past with names including Pop, L.I.L.Y. and Stella, but they’re no longer on the market.

Kurkdjian wasn’t the only one trying to push the green envelope. McCartney handed the team at Louis Vuitton similar challenges.

“I wanted to do the cleanest skin care that we could do in luxury, the purest of the pure. I wanted to replace bad with good, and not just create a ton of stuff unless it felt authentic,” said McCartney. “I don’t think the world needs me to create products for the sake of it, and to own a shelf in Sephora. I am not driven by scale or by ownership, but by providing a solution that doesn’t exist in the way that we deserve right now.”

Much as she did with Kurkdjian, McCartney painted a picture for the LVMH team of rough-and-tumble times in the Scottish outdoors, and her desire for the products to capture the natural beauty of a country she has described as “one of the most magical, inspiring places on the planet.”

Always the first of her four siblings to jump into the freezing cold loch, McCartney describes the water as having “a golden copper-brown color. I remember diving really deep down and looking back with these shards of light coming through, and the minerals glittering everywhere. I was a teenager then, and my skin felt really good after I’d gone for a swim in that water. It was so inspiring for what we worked on here,” said McCartney.

She recalled “the streams and the algae that we would see as kids, the tadpoles, and all this stuff growing, and living. I remember the smells of broken grass, those textures and the way things felt. We were alive to the topsoil, picking bluebells and wildflowers and eating them. They were wonderful moments, and the idea was how do we bring that into the product, and into people’s homes, bathrooms and habitats?”

LVMH responded to McCartney’s wishes by setting up a dedicated maison to house the new skin care line. The new maison, which sits within the group’s Luxury Beauty division, aims to tackle the challenges inherent in building an ultraclean, green collection, and to “raise the bar on sustainability in beauty,” according to Stephane Delva, director of new beauty projects at LVMH Perfumes & Cosmetics.

The LVMH/McCartney beauty team, which works between France and England, had to think in a different way. McCartney wanted the ingredients to be few, sustainable and multitasking, and everything had to be cruelty-free, certified vegan and conform to the strictest regulations.

The products are all made with 99 percent, or more, natural-origin ingredients. The remaining 1 percent, or less, comes from synthetic ingredients used as preservatives.

The raw materials are sourced locally, in northern Europe, and derived from food waste such as squalene, a by-product of the olive oil industry, and cherry blossom extract, which functions as an antioxidant. There is also organic rock samphire, which is meant to be rich in unsaturated and saturated fatty acids, and phytosterols to smooth fine lines and wrinkles.

Lingonberry extract, a superfood ingredient with polyphenols, is aimed at restoring an even complexion and supporting elasticity and visible firmness, while organic birch sap is meant to hydrate and restore visible firmness with minerals, sugars and vitamin C.

Patrick Choisy, director of innovation, natural materials and sustainable development at LVMH Perfumes & Cosmetics, says the formulas are aimed at protecting and nourishing the skin so that it can function properly in the long term.

The products are also meant to multitask: the serum can be used as an eye contour cream and on the décolleté. McCartney said that, depending on what her skin needs on a particular day, she’ll either use the serum or the cream, or mix the two together.

The packaging is a mix of the disposable and the long-lasting. The products come in squishy, baby-food-style pouches fit inside recycled glass bottles and jars. The pouches, which are made from monoplastic, can be thrown away, and are recyclable. The jars, which come with airtight pumps made from recycled plastic, live on.

The Restore cream, including the glass jar, costs $105, while the refill is $85. The Reset cleanser is $60, with the refill priced at $45. The Alter-Care serum is $140, with the refill costing $110.

McCartney doesn’t like that prices are so high, but that’s the reality for now.

“That’s why I was so insistent on having the refills, because they’re more affordable, and approachable,” she said, adding, “you can’t buy sustainability cheap. It’s a lie, and it’s not the answer, because anything that’s cheap is mass, and somewhere down the road it’s not true, and it’s not reliable.

“I don’t love that my clothes aren’t cheap as chips, but I’m really happy they don’t become landfill every second, or are burned every second. I do think that if you invest a little bit more, you get so much more, and cherish it. We don’t need all this s–t that’s out there,” she said.

The brand worked with an external eco-design partner to minimize its impact and to scrutinize every stage of the product life cycle.

As with the fragrance, McCartney and LVMH banned ingredients where the production or extraction processes were considered to be “polluting.” They have also decided to ship, rather than fly, products to the U.S., slashing the carbon footprint of the collection by more than a third. They’ve also eliminated any need for cotton pads, and single-dose samples.

Stella skin care will be supporting the NGO Wetlands International, donating 1 percent of net sales to the preservation of Scotland’s peatlands, the largest carbon store on earth that covers around 23 percent of the country’s land mass. According to the team, more than 80 percent of the Scottish peatlands are in a state of degradation, and need urgent help.

This isn’t McCartney’s first run at skin care, and the designer was eager to get back in the game after her first collection, Care, was paused. At the time, McCartney’s former licensee YSL Beauté wanted to prioritize the designer’s fragrance business, and it was never revived.

McCartney launched Care in 2006, and was a pioneer in what is now known as clean beauty. She was also the first luxury fashion brand to take the organic route into skin care. Care had a cult following and featured ingredients such as grape seed oil, white mallow extract and soybean — utterly kooky for a luxury brand in those days. All products carried the Ecocert organic certification label.

“It was heartbreaking that Care didn’t find its feet. It was way ahead of its time. People didn’t understand it, and the whole thing was a fight. But this is the rebirth of it in the reality of today, and I love this more because it’s delivering more on what I wish I could have delivered on then. I’m so intrigued and excited about where we are now in beauty. And this new line is the best of the best of what we can do now,” said McCartney.

Her goal is to challenge the fashion and beauty industries. “I’m no longer just a fashion designer, I’m creating luxury products and I’m now a semi-politician, it seems. I cannot take this range into Asia because I will not test it on animals. But I want to open this up to the world, and I want laws to change.”

Beauty in particular, she adds, is based on “old testing, and an old kind of legislation.” Old thinking, she argues, is “the big killer in all of our industry. If we just keep using the same eight materials and the same supply chains, it’s not sustainable.”

Even the distribution is unconventional: the line is a direct-to-consumer proposition that launched last month on stellamccartneybeauty.com. No splashy rollout here. According to industry sources, first-year retail sales should be approximately 20 million pounds. LVMH declined to comment on the figure.

While McCartney may be an impassioned campaigner, she’s not an ideologue, and she doesn’t harangue, like so many other activists. She sees shades of gray, and is sometimes willing to compromise.

So, when her teenage daughter asked her to go to the nail salon, she couldn’t say no.

“I try and be a nice mom, so when we were in L.A. last summer, I took both my daughters. I thought ‘I can’t be this awful eco-warrior that won’t let her younger daughters have their moment in the nail salon.’ But then I walked into the salon and my reaction was, ‘What is happening? What is that smell?’ It went against every single pore in my body, everything I believe in. I wanted to cry. It was awful,” she said.

While more beauty products will be forthcoming at Stella, it’s safe to say that nail polish won’t be one of them.