Disruptor. The word typically makes me cringe. Since exploding into the industry vernacular, forms of the word have been invoked incessantly, often in self-congratulatory parlance, with all kinds of people across various disciplines proclaiming proudly how they’ve disrupted this or that status quo from which a tired industry must move on. (It’s not unlike calling one’s self a great beauty — a judgment best left to others.)

I’ve never heard Stella McCartney use the “d” word. Yet this is someone who, as a student at Central St. Martins, fashion’s hallowed bastion of nascent, unbridled creativity, found her calling to be creating real clothes for real women. Who, as a very young woman, said, “Yes, Mr. De Sole and Tom Ford, I’d love to join your Gucci Group fold. But no fur or leather.” Who in the time since has researched and developed various ways for a luxury brand to be responsible environmentally and culturally. Genuinely disruptive, on all counts.

This story first appeared in the November 13, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Tonight, McCartney will receive the Women’s Leadership Award from the Lincoln Center Corporate Fund, benefitting 10 residential arts programs. Among the evening’s highlights: her onstage conversation with Jerry Seinfeld. It’s Stella’s second trip to New York in 10 days. We met last week at the Mercer, shortly before she delivered the keynote address the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards dinner.

WWD: You’re here now and coming back next week for the Lincoln Center honor. Did you consider staying through?

Stella McCartney: I’m in and out of places quicker than I used to be just because of my four children. I’m really trying to make my weekends free from work. That’s really family time for me. The time difference is very forgiving this way, so it works really well.

WWD: By the time this runs, the Fashion Award event will have happened. What will the nominees have heard from you?

S.M.: It’s very straightforward, the journey of my career, really, talking people through from when I knew I wanted to become a fashion designer, how I approach that and how it’s led me to where I am today. And a little advice to people in the room who might want to hear.

WWD: What is your advice to younger designers?

S.M.: The main thing is to stay true to yourself as a designer. It’s incredibly important that if you have the dream of having your own house, you don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Ultimately, it’s unsustainable and people will see through. You have to work; you can’t expect your dreams to be handed to you on a plate. And my advice is to approach the industry in a different way, come at it with some point of difference. We are at a stage when the fashion industry needs to be comparable with other design industries, whether with architecture or technology or furniture design. One has to listen to the new generations to think outside of the box.

WWD: How do architecture and technology think outside the box in a way that fashion doesn’t?

S.M.: They challenge their sourcing, their materials. They have to work more in the environment in which we’re living. The fashion industry is slightly behind in that we’re trapped in this beautiful dilemma of luxury and the history of fashion, which is so desirable and so important; it’s the foundation for everything we all know and that’s what people come to us for. At the same time, we need to break into the next level of that. The history and confections and the timelessness, we need to hold that and cherish that and we need to take it with us to the next stage. In architecture, for example, one has to think, OK, we have to look at an earthquake situation, we have to look at lightweight materials. The automobile industry: We have to look at the more environmentally friendly materials. [In fashion] we have to question our resources, we have to question the sustainability of this technology. It’s the idea of breaking forward.

WWD: Do you think the fashion industry is as aware of issues and as open-minded as it should be? What about the larger world?

S.M.: We live on a far bigger planet than we realize and a lot of people don’t know who I am. People wouldn’t know about my house [ethos] if they haven’t researched slightly into me. I’m still the only house not working with [fur and leather]. I mean, there are very, very few houses not working with fur, only two or three in the luxury area. In that way, we haven’t moved forward. I think people talked about fur in the Nineties more than they do today.

I think that’s what the industry takes away — “oh, she doesn’t do furs or leathers; she’s a vegetarian.” I also don’t do PVC. I work with women’s groups in Kenya and I work with associations in Patagonia. It’s not just about my lifestyle choices. It’s more than that now. It’s very much about the impact — that water going into an animal for a handbag. That is not a good use of our resources. You don’t have to be a genius to work that out. It has a big impact, the chemicals used to turn the leathers. How that affects the local communities with PVC, how cancerous it is for the people working with it. It goes into the water. It’s a bigger story. Some people are thinking about it, but, the thing about our industry, you’re not answering to that many people. There aren’t many laws in place. The large corporations, the very few that run the industry, aren’t answerable to anyone.

WWD: Should there be laws?

S.M.: Should is never something I want to go into. When you’re talking about the impact of any industry, it’s not an easy thing to govern.

WWD: Especially this crowd.

S.M.: Part of what I’m saying to people: Be true to yourself. Don’t fake it if you don’t care. Don’t do it just to have a p.r. story to pitch. Do it because you mean it. It’s not only an animal thing. I’m saying push. The next generation of any industry needs to push it.

WWD: Beyond the major ethical/sustainability issues, in what areas can younger designers push today?

S.M.: Oh, I think they can push it on many different levels. They can question how they approach retail. They can question how they approach conventional fashion shows. They can question with whom they’re collaborating. They can look at a million different things: where they’re located; they can question in what cities they have shows. They can work with young journalists, bloggers, all different kinds of platforms that we have now. That side of things is obviously happening. There is kind of a void, isn’t there, in fashion? The generational gap seems larger in our industry for some reason.

WWD: Why do you think that is?

S.M.: I don’t really know. Our industry does take time. When you meet with a car designer — our industry is sort of in that category in design where it takes time to realize very beautiful things. The impact of a thought you may have now, it takes one or two years to realize. It’s not immediate. It’s not a bad thing, but I do think that unless people start having those thoughts for the right reasons, then time will pass and we’ll be left behind.

WWD: You said one of the things to push is the traditional notion of the fashion show.

S.M.: I always question that. I think we all do. There’s no easy answer to that one. We do it in a way where we have our [preseason] shows here in New York, and we have a lot of different shows, or events, I’d call them, in the year. We had the totally sustainable Livia Firth’s Green Carpet Challenge in London. We have two shows in September, one in Paris, one in London, one conventional and one completely unconventional.

WWD: How has your fashion philosophy changed since you started?

S.M.: It hasn’t changed dramatically from Day One. At a very early age, I had a passion and desire to dress women. I became very, very interested in the psychology behind that. The external is interesting, but equally interesting to me is the internal experience and how you emotionally feel when you wear.

WWD: What do you mean?

S.M.: What you’re wearing on the outside is not the only part of importance to me. From Day One, a part has been, why do we choose the clothes that we do? Why do we connect with certain pieces? How do touch and experience factor in? How do we see color when we put it on? How do we know immediately that something doesn’t work for us, and how do we know what does work? How does it make us feel? How does it affect our mood, and so on. I find it really interesting that people seem so scared of fashion, so intimidated by it. That’s something I never wanted to contribute to with my house.

WWD: Why are people intimidated?

S.M.: The industry doesn’t help people feel like it’s easy. It projects the most perfect ideals and tries to encourage women and men to aspire to those things and to bring them to their own lives. But it’s definitely a relationship that has a kind of distance. From an early age, I was aware of that. As a consumer, I was aware that I didn’t feel at home in certain retail environments.

WWD: Really?

S.M.: I would go in and I would be made to feel like, “oh, you’re young, you’re not wearing the right kind of things for this store and you don’t look like you can afford these kind of clothes, so please look around and the sooner you leave, the better.” Perhaps I pick up on stuff and maybe I was wrong, that’s how I felt. With my work, I just want to make women feel better. It really is as simple as that; I just want to capture something that they can connect to and they can feel the love and commitment that we have for them.

WWD: You’ve always said that you design for real women with real lives, and you’ve made that point consistently on your runway. Today, much of fashion seems to be in reality mode. Do you think you’ve gotten sufficient credit for being a groundbreaker on that point?

S.M.: That’s not for me to say.

WWD: That has always been your philosophy. It’s not a trend with you.

S.M.: I guess in writing [the Fashion Fund remarks] I was forced into revisiting my approach, where I started. It’s comforting to know I haven’t been bullsh–ting my way through. It’s comforting for me to see that my first reaction was: I want to be true to myself, I want to allow women to wear clothes and it’s OK. At the time, I was definitely looked down upon as a designer because I was putting wearable clothes on the runway in Paris. Again, whether it was true or not, I felt I was not taken seriously because at that time, you know better than anyone, it was the more crazy, the more unwearable, the better you were considered as a designer. I never fell into that trap. The weird thing is, I went to St. Martin’s. My life was all about that. I know I can do [crazy]. I just had a very clear decision to make. I can have my degree show that I can do crazy stuff, or I can now be true to myself and take the decision to show what I intend to show going forward as a designer.

WWD: At what point did you realize what was true to yourself?

S.M.: I just always knew. Being a woman designing for women, I didn’t want to wear a dress made out of papier-mache. I liked the concept. I grew up in an artistic environment, I understood art and sculpture. I understand that stuff, I appreciate that stuff, and I didn’t see the need for it in fashion. For me as a designer, I felt it more refreshing to allow women to be themselves and allow them to wear clothes [to facilitate that]. There was such a void in what was happening in fashion and what women were going out to buy. I made the choice quite early on. Because, I think, I was brought up appreciating art in every form, didn’t feel the need to kind of pretend that was right for me.

I did get it out of my system as an artist and I was happy to do so in all of my projects [at school]. When they said “this project is about touch,” I didn’t do a velvet dress, I went to the Braille Society and made a Braille dress. I took it to that level because I love exercising my creativity in that way. I just knew in my heart it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to wear the clothes I was making and I wanted my friends to wear them.

WWD: Is fashion art?

S.M.: You know, I would’ve always said no. But as I said, in the beginning, I would never call myself a fashion designer. Can fashion be art? It really depends on what you think art is.

WWD: Have you recently become more adventurous and artful — with your beautiful fringe dresses, for example?

S.M.: Those pieces are about celebrating movement and combining color and texture. When I look at fringing, there’s something really structural about it and strong and masculine, and there’s extraordinary movement and fragility. I love that one material that can capture that and compliment the female form.

I started at a place where I was crazy about vintage clothing because I couldn’t find anything like that, I couldn’t find a beautiful floral dress, and I couldn’t wear the vintage ones because they were cut in a way that felt like an old-lady dress. I wanted to create those pieces for women to wear, so I modernized them. But after a couple of seasons, a lot of other people started doing it, too. I didn’t feel I needed to do it as much anymore.

I wanted to move forward. I wanted to do masculine tailoring on the runway, but at the time it was much softer everywhere else. It was very fluid, not mannish construction, but Nineties office suits for women. After a couple of seasons, I saw how the houses would respond. I have to push myself in order to keep myself excited. Moving more into the evening pieces, for me, it’s something extraordinary about memory being attached to what we wear, how you can wear a special dress two times if you’re lucky — maybe even once if you have that rare piece — but the memory attached to it can serve you like 1,000 dresses. For me, with some of those pieces, that’s where I go, “OK, I wore that dress to this thing.” It’s so specific, it triggers everything about where it was, when it was, how I felt at that moment.

WWD: What are you wearing tonight?

S.M.: I don’t know quite yet. I brought two options. I will know at 5:15.

WWD: If you’re not sure what you’re wearing tonight, I won’t ask about you your look for Lincoln Center.

S.M.: I dress everyone else; I’m really bad at dressing myself. It’s not my priority. I find it much more exciting to dress everyone else. I’d hide in the corner if I could.

WWD: Do you ever think, “damn, I wish I’d planned something?”

S.M.: Oh, yes. I’ll arrive, look at my options and just wish I would’ve stopped for a moment and thought, “what am I going to wear in two weeks’ time?” It’s interesting, the psychology of me. I’m kind of devastated at the thought of focusing on myself. I don’t feel comfortable doing me.

WWD: Is it that you’re genuinely uncomfortable or that between work and family, you’re your last priority?

S.M.: I have far more important things to do.

WWD: How old are your kids now?

S.M.: Nine, seven, six and three.

WWD: Do you find it gets more challenging as they get older?

S.M.: Everyone told me that and I didn’t really believe them. My sister told me when [oldest child] Miller was like a week old, “sorry, it’s going to get harder.” Four kids later, I get it. It does.

WWD: Lincoln Center. Congratulations on the honor. You’re being interviewed onstage, or perhaps more correctly, having a conversation with your friend Jerry Seinfeld. Is it easier to do something like this with a friend or a professional acquaintance?

S.M.: I think it’s easier to do projects with friends. I think it’s probably nicer to watch. Again, I’m in denial a bit. I’m not so great at the focus being on me, so when this thing came about, I thought, “oh, my Lord.” But I know Jerry; we’ve spoken about it. He’s not a big fashionista so he’s like, “what do I have to do?” And I said, “we have to sit down and have tea.” We haven’t, so I should probably call him.

WWD: For someone who prefers to deflect attention, you’re amazingly calm, about this huge event next week at which there will be many performers in the audience, and about tonight. It’s after 5, you’re set to give a speech at 7 and you’re sitting here for a chat and a juice.

S.M.: You’re making me nervous. When Liv [Tyler] and I went to the Met, she was having her hair and makeup done and I was like, “someone else is doing your hair and makeup?” Maybe that’s why people say to me, “you know, you’re much more attractive in real life.” I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or a really bad dis. Maybe I should take more time.

WWD: There’s a lot of preening that goes on today. What does vanity mean to you?

S.M.: Gosh, what is vanity to me? I think it’s very personal. It doesn’t sound like a good word, where you go, ‘oh vanity!’

WWD: You don’t project vain at all.

S.M.: I wouldn’t say that I’m not vain; I wouldn’t say that I am. It’s not for me to say. I don’t know. I come from such an interesting background. My mother was interesting; she had no vanity to her. I don’t think my father really has a huge amount of vanity.

WWD: Does it blow you away that you can say about your father that he doesn’t have vanity?

S.M.: Not a huge amount of vanity. I mean, he is Paul McCartney. He has a certain amount of self-awareness. Vanity is a weighty word, isn’t it? I guess I was brought up in a way that was pretty real and honest and uninterested in being something for other people. It sounds really weird because my parents were onstage, so it doesn’t really match up. But there was a level of comfort, of being comfortable in your own skin.

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