Stella McCartney joined WWD’s Bridget Foley in conversation at WWD’s Apparel & Retail CEO Summit at the InterContinental New York Barclay hotel on Wednesday.
While Stella McCartney is heralded as a front-runner of the fashion sustainability movement, she sees it another way; first and foremost, she’s a fashion designer, but she was fortunate enough to never have to compromise her ethics since the label’s inception in 2001.
And today, the fashion industry is finally ready to reap what McCartney sows (McCartney referred to herself and the industry as “farmers”), as the consumer demand for sustainability is growing at a rapid pace.
WWD: Do you think the message of the fashion of your fashion gets lost sometimes or downplayed or underplayed?
Stella McCartney: It’s not something I think about but when it’s pointed out to me I do register it as something that’s happened in my career.
You have to remember I went to Saint Martins in London, and I’ve wanted to be a fashion designer since I was six or seven. I was very determined and when I came out of school, I went to Paris. When I started I was Paul McCartney’s daughter, but I came into the realm of fashion with that label, so I had to shave that puppy off for a while.
I kind of went out in one label into another, but the reason I came into any label was because women wear my clothes. And when I started in the late Nineties, fashion wasn’t really to be worn.
WWD: That’s another point of difference.
S.M.: Well, I’m a woman designing for women, and I think, well, I want to wear the clothes, and I want everyone to want to wear the clothes; I want all of you to wear the clothes, and that’s not because I want to make money out of it. I feel it’s really important to me when you wear clothing it’s a reflection of who you are and how you feel, and I believe it’s a very interesting job in that sense.
I think that’s lesser talked about.
WWD: How would you describe your aesthetic, and how did you arrive at it?
S.M.: I arrived at it because I’ve always wanted to wear the clothes myself, and I wanted all my friends to wear it at a time when the clothes I wanted to wear I couldn’t find, so I sort of arrived at it there in a simple way.
But my aesthetic is one that is quite effortless, a masculine and feminine tension at the moment. I studied at Saville Row for a period of time, men’s tailoring because women’s tailoring was harder to find.
My aesthetic is also more and more one of an activist and somebody who wants to stand out for the right reasons and consume in conscious ways.
WWD: Let’s go back to when you arrived in fashion, you said that you felt like the freak in the room. You were this young girl with a very fancy name. What was that like when you were willing to be outspoken and did not have this résumé behind of proven fashion veritas?
S.M.: Well, we’re all freaks in the room right now. When I first started people didn’t notice it. And I really stand by that still today, you shouldn’t sacrifice any style for sustainability. My personal belief system is not one that I want to put, and project onto my customers. I think still that 90 percent of the people that come to Stella McCartney, they don’t know that this is a non-leather shoe or that my fabric is woven in a more sustainable way or that my bags aren’t leather. I don’t think that people know it.
So that’s important to me, that’s really important that you shouldn’t have to be told what to do by me. You should enjoy it. It’s a process of desirability.
WWD: Isn’t there an inherent dichotomy between growth and sustainability?
S.M.: I mean yeah, they’re completely at odds with each other. I feel if I can show our industry that I can have a healthy business that is invisible in the fact that I am being way more sustainable, and that I can have a 78 percent sustainable runway show in Paris a couple of weeks ago that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with every other house that isn’t — then I feel I can show everyone else that you can do it. When every single other person will start doing that — then I will leave the room.
WWD: Your 78 percent sustainable runway show a week ago, tell everyone about the sustainable projections on the wall.
S.M.: You know the thing is for me, it’s a difficult conversation for people to digest. It’s an inconvenient truth. It’s not easy, and we’re all terrified. A lot of people in the room have kids, and we’re terrified for them, and it’s not really fun most of the time.
I also try to bring color and light to the conversation, and I want to bring solutions. I want to show that you can do it, but I also want to have fun you know and not sit here and preach to everyone and make people feel scared.
So, at my show in Paris a couple of weeks ago in the Opera Garnier, I projected images of animals having sexual intercourse.
WWD: Many different species, not the human species.
S.M.: I like the word “populating.” I think it’s very respectful to the actual reality.
I’ve shown at the Opera before and it’s really hard to do anything; you’re talking about Versailles essentially. So I wanted to do something, we had these printouts on the table sort of my timeline of what we’ve done at Stella McCartney, and we had that on the seats. We had a big roundtable, a sustainable talk the night before, so I was kind of hammering home a message.
WWD: So to speak.
S.M.: But you know, I just think it’s 10 o’clock in the morning; you guys are all sort of jaded and over it by then. Let’s all have some fun.
WWD: You mentioned the timeline that was also on the seats at your show, can you give a couple of bullet points that you’re most proud of on that timeline?
S.M.: It’s a rather confusing subject. I don’t feel like any of us really get it. Sustainable is where natural is, right? What does that really mean? What I really wanted to do was just have factual information for everyone, so you can see when we started and why we do what we do.
From Day One, we didn’t use leathers, feathers, furs or any animal glue. I wanted to say, we don’t do that, but this is the impact of everyone that does do that.
On the other side, I wanted to show the pros and cons, if you like. And one of the other points on there I am super proud of is we have sustainable viscose — rayon, for the Americans in the room.
It’s one of the most used fabrics, and it cuts down around 150 million trees a year, it was 100 million last year and it’s already 150 million this year. I spent around three-and-a-half years with my own team to source a forest in Sweden where we could get that viscose fiber from the trees where we replant trees, so it’s sustainable sourcing. It’s simple right, it’s a no-brainer.
I want to offer an alternative for the people in the industry.
WWD: You often note that fashion is one of the most egregious industries in terms of the environment, why do you think that is? Why has fashion been slowly catching up?
S.M.: I think that for every industry, the industrial revolution wasn’t meant to cause this problem. It was meant to make life better for people. All industries have an impact.
I think the fashion industry is elitist in a way. We like to think we’re sort of not accountable, we’re a little above the conversation. We’re not. We’re really, really responsible. We have to also be ahead of the curve.
For me going into fashion, I was like: “We’re going to create the future, right?” That’s what I wanted to do when I got into fashion design, to make trends, to make things fashionable and really we follow a lot more than we lead.
It’s time to own it and respond to our consumers, too, because this is non-sustainable in itself. It doesn’t happen overnight.
WWD: Increasingly, consumers are driving this conversation and wanting to shop brands that support their own values, but at the same time, human resources executives are finding they want to incorporate this into their hiring practices. How does that wrap into sustainability?
S.M.: We have a lot of young people come to us and really express a desire to work with us because of our ethical point of view as a brand — not because they like my handbags.
I think it’s a big part of the conversation because it shows that future generations aren’t going to stand for this and change is going to happen.
WWD: Do you think that fast fashion is a little bit of a scapegoat?
S.M.: We all know there is a divide between income in the world, and the majority of people can’t afford my clothing but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to.
I think the reality is that fast fashion is hugely damaging to the industry. Every single second a truckload of fast fashion is incinerated or landfilled. It’s worn up to three times maximum before it’s just thrown away. Yeah, that’s a problem, we can’t pretend it isn’t.
I think we all need to look at that as an opportunity. Technology is a huge kind of hope for me that we can upcycle, have a circular economy, we can rent clothes, we can use vintage — there are other ways that you can get fashion now.
WWD: You have said you’re a designer but also part-farmer, part-scientist.
S.M.: I suddenly came to a realization that was obvious to me. We’re farmers in the fashion industry — we work, we crop, we work with seasons, we yield a crop, we just do something different with it. It’s no different from the food industry, and that has a massive impact.
WWD: You use recycled viscose, do you use any recycled cotton?
S.M.: That’s where we bring a lot of tech in; we work with a company that extracts the cotton in a nonchemical way to get a different yarn, and we can completely circularize the entire situation.
WWD: Let’s go back to the origins of the Stella McCartney brand. Early on, you were with Chloé, then did Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole come to you? How did that conversation go with a leather house?
S.M.: Well actually, Tom and I became friends through this question. He was doing Gucci, they had just bought Saint Laurent, and he was doing both. So he asked me if I would come and do Gucci, which I really wanted to do; I was like, “Hell yeah.”
He said to me: “I would love for you to do Gucci, and we will give up fur for you.” And you have to understand this was 20 years ago, and for Tom to have that commitment then was great, and I said: “Well, that’s amazing Tom, but you know I don’t do leather either,” and I just remember his face, all the blood just drained out of his face.
I said: “But Tom, if you haven’t noticed all my shoes aren’t leather already. What’s the problem? You’re Tom Ford, and you haven’t noticed, so let’s give it a go.” Anyway, that didn’t work.
I was heartbroken, and a week later he called me and he said: “Well if we can’t do Gucci together — would you like to start your own label with me?”
And I was like, “Hell yeah!” Again.
WWD: Last year you bought back Kering’s ownership share because you wanted to own 100 percent, but then you very quickly turned and partnered with LVMH, can you talk about that?
S.M.: Yeah, well we had a 50-50. And I love the Pinault family; I love working with Kering, we’ve never had a problem, and we’re still great friends actually — which is a miracle.
It just so happened that I had this very fortunate area of my contract that I could keep the auction rolling to buy back that 50 percent and have 100 percent, and I think that’s leftover from my family history that “You can’t lose your name,” so I put that in the contract.
Once it was announced that I was taking 100 percent, I was very fortunate that a lot of people came and expressed interest in investing in the house. You know I look at those things. I’m a “yes” person in a “no” kind of way.
I’m very open to options, so I was very honored. And one of those who expressed interest was Mr. Arnault. For me, it was a minority stake, which was a big priority that I would be taking a majority of the brand.
I had spoken to LVMH a number of times, and it never really felt like the right time, and now Mr. Arnault wants me to be his personal adviser on sustainability. I feel very honored to have his ear, and for him to want me to help create solutions for the group.
WWD: Can you talk about your upbringing relative to your ethos?
S.M.: I grew up looking at nature, looking at the seasons, loving animals, and you know I always say that I’m very privileged in that I didn’t have to compromise my own ethics going into my career.
My mom was a New Yorker, and she grew up in a much more conventional way than my father. When she came to England, she was one of the first to make vegetarian cookbooks, and from the cookbooks, she started a vegetarian food brand. She was well ahead of her time, that was 30 years ago, and it’s still going strong.
I didn’t see the magnitude of what she was doing until I became a mom.
WWD: Save for the occasional sergeant pepper jacket, you mostly have stayed away from Beatles references in your clothes until recently with the All Together Now collection. Is that something you had to work up a comfort level with?
S.M.: Yeah, definitely I have avoided all things Beatles and McCartney-esque for a while. Last year, my dad did a screening of “Yellow Submarine,” and I just sort of saw it with fresh eyes. It felt like I was OK with myself to bring it into my work.
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