“We’re all in this together” — a universal mantra of the coronavirus era. Sometimes that commonality is comforting in its more superficial aspects. Last week, when uncooperative English-country cell service put the kibosh on a no-visuals conversation with Stella McCartney, her p.r. went swiftly to un-planned B: Zoom. We settled in to chat equally undone, granted, with Stella flaunting a much better top, a sweatshirt from her collaboration with “We Are the Weather” author Jonathan Safran Foer. (Full disclosure: Before joining, I switched out of my Clorox-spotted, Bronx County DA sweatshirt, an artifact of a younger brother’s stint on my couch 25 years ago.)
While some people embrace the primp-up-at-home approach to quarantine, that’s not Stella’s thing. “I put makeup on for the first time in a month last week, when I had to do something,” she offers. As with most conversations these days with someone you haven’t spoken with recently, ours starts with “How are you coping?”
“I couldn’t be luckier,” Stella says, ever self-aware. “I’ve got a little bit of help here, which is a massive blessing. I can’t complain.”
Like millions of others, she is working through 24-hour household-running, juggling work, meals and homeschooling of her four kids, ages 15 to nine. Her day starts with Stella McCartney brand meetings — more frequent and of broader scope than before lockdown. While the kids are old enough that interruptions aren’t an issue, she goes into “tough-love” mode when it comes to school. Last week, English schools were still on Easter break, so she was anticipating readjustment this week. “They all go to different schools and each school has handled it in a different way. Some are more tech savvy than others,” she says.
As for cooking, Stella is top chef, but lately, she’s getting help. Because her work day starts early, she tries to think through each day’s meals the night before. But on this morning, she woke up to a surprise. “My daughter Bailey had already cooked tomato soup. I have to say, it was delicious,” she boasts. “It’s great, they’re getting into [cooking], I mean, they’re making fun of me because it’s, like, soup every day. I’m such a waste-not, want-not type, it’s at the core of everything in the brand and in my personality. Literally, I’m using everything. It’s great. That’s how I was brought up.”
To our primary purpose: a check-in on Stella’s business in the age of COVID-19, and what this particular Earth Day represents to her. I learned after we spoke that even from quarantine, she’s found a way to celebrate its spirit. Stella worked with Ocean Outdoor, the digital advertising company, to host a major screen takeover at London’s Piccadilly Circus. It launched on Tuesday and runs through Sunday at midnight, rotating a series of upbeat messages including “Mother Earth has started healing” and, captioning a photo of the Earth painted on Amber Valletta’s face, “For us, every day is Earth Day.”
WWD: I just saw Barry Diller on “Squawk Box” [on April 16]. He was not optimistic.
Stella McCartney: Well, f–king welcome to Stella McCartney, Bridget Foley.
WWD: Thank you. How are you feeling?
S.M.: I am very much split. I’m split between my personal emotions, and then obviously, I have a business to run. I’m living two lives right now. I’m the mother of four, I’m a wife. I’m cooking three meals a day and I’m loving it. I’m with my babies, and blessed to be in nature and not in the city. I’ve got my horse. So I’m fine in my solitude.
Then, obviously, there is a deep sadness for all of the lives that are lost and for what people are going through. I have a huge respect for the people on the front line here in England in the NHS and all of the emergency workers. That reality, the mindfulness of what other people are going through, and that we’re all connected in all of the same thoughts, which is a really heavy realization, not to be lightly dismissed. I am very aware of that. Then, there’s the side to me that employs hundreds and hundreds of people globally. Obviously, we are affected as a business, like every other business right now. I’m always wanting the business to do well because of what we stand for as much as anything, and also because I’m a businesswoman. But right now you think, “Wow, this is the first time we are all connected in so many ways.” That’s the important thing that sits on my mind.
WWD: It’s odd that that connection comes through isolation.
S.M.: Yes. I have a large family network so I’m not isolated that much on my own. The first couple of weeks were really interesting for me on a working level because in our industry, we work with teams, and we feed off each other creatively. I was trying to settle into working via device and using my teams in a different way. [Now] all of us are feeling connected. I’m more connected with teams globally than usual — “let’s meet with China; let’s meet with Japan,” bigger meetings with teams. I’ve enjoyed that and I want to carry through. One of the big questions here is how does this impact our lives going forward, when things get back to whatever the new normal will be.
I’m looking to my team a lot, also. Holistically, making sure my teams are OK mentally and emotionally. And that, normally, I don’t have time to do; [usually] I’m just getting involved in my day-to-day. But now I’m like OK, we need to have calls every week just to check in on everyone and see how everyone is feeling. I worry about people, just how they’re doing. My teams in Italy, they’re not allowed out, they’re allowed out to go food shopping and that’s it….I’m mindful of that, like how are you all doing emotionally and mentally because that’s hardcore, going out or not going out and looking out and seeing nothing there. That’s quite hard hitting. I’m not sure if any of us really know how that will affect us all.
WWD: Nuts and bolts, I’m sure the specifics vary from region to region.
S.M.: Yes. there’s one side that’s creative and there’s one side that’s very, very much responding to different regions and who is quarantined, who’s not. Obviously, we’re massively based in Italy, so it’s been a big conversation about what we can make, what we can’t make, what we can have access to. When you do work in a sustainable way, you have to work far in advance to be sustainable. I develop the majority of my fabrics far in advance, and I have such a deep commitment to my suppliers and to where we’re growing the yarn and the process and the entire circle-ness of it all. I try to remain respectful and loyal to X amount of [suppliers] because I know they’re my reliable source points.
WWD: Quarantining with family is very different from quarantining alone. But it still puts stress on work.
S.M.: I grew up in a creative household. And creatively, it was pretty much isolation. When The Beatles broke up we moved to a farm in Scotland, completely isolated. My mom and dad did an album; my dad did an album of McCartney, and I think it was his best work. It has been a massive impact on my life, that isolation, on how I think and how I live my life through my business, through my family, through my friendships.
The majority of my friends are artists or work in the creative fields, and the majority of them work in isolation; it’s just what they do. Name-dropping, I checked in with David Hockney, and he said, “I’m painting more than ever.” The birth [of] creation is a very insular moment. And then [creatives] go into a teamwork frame, if at all. So my dad will write an album on his own. When he has that creative birth, he will then take it to the next step, engineering it, producing it, art-working it, and ultimately it goes on tour in front of hundreds of thousands of people. So it’s sort of this journey….Our industry goes very quickly away from isolation in the creative sense and goes into teamwork. It becomes a production line, if you like.
WWD: It sounds as if you prefer a longer solitary creative process.
S.M.: I seem to be busier than ever because I’m doing more and more calls. This is taking me away from my creative process and isolation, so I’m trying to find a balance, which is at the core of everything we do at Stella McCartney. Maybe the answer to all of this is trying to find the balance.
WWD: Other designers have talked to me about the creative process being teamwork. It sounds as if your process still starts singularly.
S.M.: My name is on the door of the brand, so everything that it stands for has come from me at some stage in my thinking, from my belief systems and my creativity. And then the team around me, we all feed off each other and we all create from that starting point. In our industry we all complain about not having time. So I want to be respectful of that right now and [think of] how can we find that balance between teamwork and creating with your team and bouncing off of each other and all that stuff.
Even before all of this happened, I was already approaching spring like this. I was like, OK, how can we not buy new fabric for spring? How can we look at everything that we [have already]? I’ve done that for years. It’s the way that I work; it’s the way my mind works. What have we got in stock, how can we repurpose it? How can we give it a re-life or a rebirth? We did all the upcycling two seasons ago on the runway. How can we look at what’s in a warehouse somewhere? So it’s a really interesting moment for our brand.
WWD: What does your sweatshirt say?
S.M.: It says We Are the Weather. It’s my Jonathan Safran Foer collaboration. We Are the Weather — it’s very apt. It feels like most of what I’ve done seems apt right now. It seems like everything I’ve done in my career seems to be quite apt right now.
WWD: To that point, and going back to what you said a moment ago, do you think you’re a bit ahead of other brands fabric-wise?
S.M.: My viscose comes from sustainable managed forests. It took me three years to [develop it]. So once I’ve taken that long and it’s the only source I have, I then commit to it. I [now] have had to look at all the business, which I do anyway, but it’s more magnified. Then that goes into, can we have access to [product for] our e-commerce if [production] is all in Italy, and da da da. And what markets are opening up more than others, or which ones are going into isolation or coming out of isolation. We’re all doing the same thing I’m sure.
WWD: What differences do you find among the various global markets?
S.M.: Every single market is reacting differently. But what people are buying is what would be expected, much more home pieces, much more classics. We’re so lucky in that we have real iconic, timeless, staple pieces — the Falabella bag, for example, the Elyse shoe. It’s not dissimilar to what I’m sure a lot of brands are finding. Hopefully people will lean toward a more mindful culture now. To be a more conscious consumer more than ever, I hope, starts to have some kind of resonance with people. And I think that that’s what we represent in the industry.
WWD: It surprises me that people are shopping at all for clothes or accessories. You’re finding that people are shopping?
S.M.: They’re not shopping as much. I think the whole reality of this is buy less, care more. That’s the highlight for me, but it has always been the case. As I say, before when I was looking at doing spring, I was already thinking, why do we offer so much product? Waste is a big, big, big issue in our industry, and I am a massive fan of trying to reduce waste or do better with the waste that exists. I think we probably waste the least out of all the brands, we’re so mindful and careful. The challenge for me to my teams is how can we be better at our production and how can we be much more efficient. So we’re pretty on it.
I think that now more than ever is the time to look at our industry and say, OK, the truck loads of fast fashion that are incinerated or buried. That’s $100 billion worth of waste a year in fibers, in resourcing. It’s crazy. There is just so much we don’t need. And I agree, I don’t think anyone needs to buy anything ever again. It’s how you repurpose. This is what I think all the time; this is not anything new for me. That’s why I’m [looking] to the classics that I’ve created, because they’re timeless. It’s how I approach the birth of design — by starting with, how can I create something that lasts somebody a lifetime, and then another lifetime after that? How can I design something that is so not relying on a trend so that it can be recycled or repurposed or resold or rented? How can I encourage all of that? I am so open-minded to all of that.
WWD: When you have that attitude about less is more and less is better, how do you keep on a growth path?
S.M.: There’s real growth. We’re not a massive, massive brand. Look, there’s always going to be brands, there’s always going to be products, you’re always going to want a mug for your cup of tea, and when your mug breaks, you’re going to buy another one, or you’re going to get bored of that mug and you’re going to go, “I want a new mug; I deserve a new mug.” That’s OK. It’s allowed, we’re allowed to consume. What we need to do is consume in a better way. And what companies have to do for the customer is make better and source better and be better brands. We are really f–king good at that at Stella McCartney. That’s a nice mug, Bridget. You’re allowed to buy yourself a new one in a week.
WWD: Thank you. From a craftsperson in Ireland.
S.M.: Exactly! Look, my way of thinking has always been, it’s allowed. You’re allowed to buy s–t, right? No one is going to stop buying s–t, but people are going to, I hope, buy more locally now, they are going to buy better, they are going to buy more online. That will reduce a lot of carbon in the air.
For me, I’ve always had this really difficult dilemma where it’s like, if I do things mindfully and ethically and environmentally, [does] that mean I’m not allowed to have a successful business? But I believe now more than ever that my business model should be more people’s business model. When everyone is doing things [mindfully] then fine, then we can have a non-growth conversation. But right now I need to set an example, I need to show people that you can have a healthy business, you can employ people, you can employ mills in Italy, you can work with farmers all over the world. You can create commerce in a more conscious way.
WWD: During these massive global quarantines, we’re seeing cleaner air and cleaner water; it’s been measured. But it has taken a total shut down and total isolation. So does that make you optimistic or pessimistic?
S.M.: I’ve been really optimistic that we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in a matter of weeks. Pollution — you could see the results really quickly. Obviously I never envisaged a shut down so dramatically.
WWD: No one did.
S.M.: More than ever now, we need to have these conversations, and we have to learn. [Otherwise] I think it is such a disservice to the suffering. I feel like every single person that has lost their life or lost a loved one from COVID-19, that cost and pain and suffering needs to see something good come of it. If the people in power can respect those lives lost with some kind of environmental respect and management and policymaking, then I feel like it’s not in vain. People have got to stop and ask, “What was the cost, and what can we do in a positive way [to honor] the pain that people have felt?”
WWD: Yet some public health protocols seem at odds with environmental protocols. We’re all washing our hands constantly, so we’re using more water than ever. Also, the return to single-use items. In New York State, the plastic-bag ban went into effect only a while ago, and it’s now suspended. And before it closed, Starbucks stopped accepting customers’ containers, at least temporarily.
S.M.: The single-use plastics — that’s where tech will come in. I’ve been looking for many, many years at things like that. We’ve been looking at a company making single-use items that are completely biodegradable. It’s now looking at single-purpose spoons and cutlery, because obviously, the world wants disposable spoons and cutlery. Look, water. We’ve done so many things over the years at Stella, just simple things like clever care such as a whole campaign around not dry-cleaning, not washing your clothes so much, turn your washing machine down, doing it less frequently. The amount of water we use just in the fashion industry — the facts are ridiculous. So outside of washing hands, there are ways to reduce water consumption, many, many ways. And that’s just everyday practice in pretty much every industry.
WWD: Do you see a dichotomy between the environment and the public health issue or do you think ultimately they come together in the big picture?
S.M.: Ultimately, they come together in the big picture. Ultimately, we’ve got to have some kind of respect for animals on the planet and we’ve got to stop the way in which we farm them and kill them and eat them because it’s a hotbed for disease. It’s not an industry that is healthy or pretty. I’m not isolating out a nation because I think the entire globe is guilty of how they farm and kill and manufacture animals. We have seen many diseases come of that. So, you know, it ain’t gonna go away until somebody looks at that predominantly. They are all connected. And I think it’s so interesting that it’s the conversation nobody is really having.
WWD: Why not?
S.M.: Because people don’t feel good about the fact that they kill billions of animals a year. There is a guilt attached to it. They don’t feel proud of it so they don’t want to talk about it. They know it’s wrong, and it’s hard to face that. We are all part of it. Well, I’m not part of it. But the majority of the planet is part of that conversation, and responsible. Again, I’ll be the glass half-full type where I say, “you don’t have to give it up completely if you can’t, but just reduce it and just buy it better.” Draw a line in how you consume. Set yourself goals, set yourself parameters that are better. Because it comes down to individuals. The individual consumption and demand will dictate what the ceo’s and the businesses invest in, what they buy into.
I’ve been working on my mom’s vegetarian food [company] since she passed away 22 years ago on Friday. She started it, what, 30, 40 years ago? She started a vegetarian, alternative food brand, and it is growing year on year. And I have never seen more competitors in a most exciting way. My mom would be so happy. She probably would have closed the business, seeing how many vegetarian alternative competitors there are now. That’s not because KFC loves chickens. It’s because they see that the consumer wants a vegan KFC. The biggest burger selling at Burger King right now is the Impossible Burger. This is due to customer change. This is the reaction to hopefully the new way of life.
WWD: Do you oversee your mother’s company?
S.M.: Well, the whole family does. We create the products, we create the range, I do the packaging, we look at the marketing. It’s a family brand..
WWD: That’s amazing. How long has it been?
S.M.: I don’t know the exact founding year. I need to look at it, actually; this reminds me. I want to put it on the packaging when we re-brand. [Linda McCartney Foods launched in 1991.]
WWD: You have stayed faithful to your upbringing, and the tenets you were raised on. Do your kids embrace the lifestyle that you live at home? Has any of them ever questioned it?
S.M.: Yes, they do. They are exactly how I was. But I think now there’s more people around [with similar views], although there’s still not a huge amount of vegetarians. Like, surprisingly, not all their friends are veggie. But it’s a much more well-versed conversation now. They are a lot less freakishly alone. But it’s very similar. I remember when I was really young, I’d say to my mom and dad, “why are we vegetarian? Why can’t I eat meat?” And they would say, “Well, you can eat meat because it’s an individual choice. But this is why we choose not to, because we don’t want to eat a dead animal.” My kids have asked me the exact same questions, and I give them the exact same answer. I’m like, “You are totally free to do what you want to do. I really respect your choice, but this is why I do it.” I see it through their eyes. Because when you’re part of a high-profile family that the world knows doesn’t eat animals, you don’t feel like you can go and sneak chicken Kiev on a weekend.
But at the end of the day, my kids — I believe very much that children are so beautifully connected to nature and they’re so innocent and they’re so pure and the minute you say to them, “Look, there’s a chicken alive and there’s a chicken deep fried. Do you want to eat it?” I mean, nobody wants to eat stuff if they see how it’s made. I don’t think anyone would eat it if they really saw how it got to their plate.
WWD: What do you think the lasting impact will be of COVID-19 on the industry?
S.M.: I don’t know what the lasting impact will be, if any. My biggest fear is that things will just get back to what we consider normal, whatever that is. But I think that the immediate impact will be thinking differently, I hope. I’m always trying to push myself and my teams. They laugh at me. I’m, “OK, so what are we going to do? How are we going to do this differently?” For me, if every single day I didn’t try and figure out how to come at something differently, I feel like I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.
I think that the entire industry now, and anyone in business now, has had to stop and say, “this is a moment I didn’t see coming. How am I going to be the one to think outside the box?” We are all competitive. We all want to win, and we all want to come up with great ideas. Right now people have got to push themselves and try to guess what might happen next. It’s a breaking of the norm as we have known it. I think if you are in fashion, you need to think that way every single day, regardless of the coronavirus. That’s our job. But there are obvious ways in which things will change. I think people are going to be much more cautious with their money. They’re going to invest more carefully, and they will buy in a different way, physically and emotionally.
WWD: Small picture, back to spring, a little more on your thoughts right now.
S.M.: We started working on spring, and then we paused. But I feel like at Stella we need to do something to [speak to] this moment and not just say, let’s just cancel everything until it’s over. For me, it feels like creatively we should be more inspired than ever to stand out. So I have been working on this little idea of individual pieces and individual gems, and being mindful of the two ends of the spectrum. I think some people will come back and go, “oh f–k it, I deserve to enjoy fashion for a second. I have been sitting in my flat in my pajamas for three months.” So I think there’s going to be [some people who want to shop].
Again, it comes back to working sustainably. I’m trying not to order new fabrics for [spring]. I’m just like, what have we got? We have fabrics that we buy in bulk because they are sustainably sourced. They are our go-to’s. We’re not like other fashion brands.
WWD: No, you’re not.
S.M.: I have a relationship with environmentally friendly suppliers. I have even created them in some instances. That’s the core value system of the brand, so that’s what we can go to. We’re lucky in that sense. It’s like saying I know that I can get my organic oat milk from this supplier, that’s not going to change. It’s just then left to me as to what I print on it this season or if I can embroider on it this season, which I probably can’t. I work like that anyway. My upcycled collection [fall 2019], those pieces all become limited editions. My final coat was like five seasons’ worth of prints sitting in a warehouse. So it shows that if you are sustainable as a business in fashion, you’re kind of ahead of the game when something like this happens. I’m not reliant on the same things that other people are reliant on because I am much more reliant on a sustainable source.
WWD: Your ethical premise becomes pragmatic business.
S.M.: Yes, and it becomes a supply chain conversation. I know there’s only two non-leather suppliers that I want to work with, with whom I’ve developed a soft non-leather or a faux fur. And so they are who I go to. I never start a season with, “let’s see 700 fabrics from Italy.” It’s not how I work. I’ve got my own little supply network. Over 60 percent of our environmental impact happens at the raw material stage, which means that this is where we have the biggest positive impact as well. If I didn’t use a fabric maybe in one season because it didn’t feel right, I don’t then sell it or chuck it away. I go, “OK, maybe I’ll use it next season.” It will sit somewhere and then I’ll reuse it.
WWD: How will this crisis impact the show system?
S.M.: I feel like we’ve been having that conversation for 20 years. Like, ugh. You know?
WWD: Yes. But do you think this is, finally, the essential reset button?
S.M.: I think maybe more the conversation is, it’s our job to come up with newness, come up with different ways of grabbing attention and reflecting the feelings, the thoughts of other people. We represent that in what we do. So there’s always got to be a new way of doing it. We all think that fashion shows are medieval. We all question how that works and if it needs to be done that way. It’s just always hard to find an answer on that one. This will [force the issue], for sure. Exciting new ideas will come out of this, for sure.
NOTE: On Monday, Stella’s p.r. Arabella Rufino sent word of the screen takeover at Piccadilly Circus. Asked why she planned the initiative at a time when there are so few people on the streets to take it in, Stella sent a thoughtful reply. “For the first time in history, we can truly measure the damage done by human activity,” she wrote. “Will we go back to the norm, or will we give Mother Earth the respect and time she deserves to continue healing — so that these city centers with their huge screens can be seen through unpolluted air? I hope we can learn from this moment of pause and that nature can reclaim its rightful focal place in our lives. My message is a gentle, loving reminder: Every day is Earth Day.”
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