Fashion is about change. Once upon a time, that observation referred to sartorial vicissitudes of silhouette, palette, fabrics. These days, it encompasses much more. Exhibit A: Stella McCartney, WWD’s 2019 Corporate Citizen honoree.
Today, McCartney is universally lauded as the high priestess of ethical fashion, recognized for her passionate rejection of all animal products and her brand’s increasingly sophisticated efforts toward sustainability. While she has always been open to sharing information and practices, as of July, McCartney has an official responsibility beyond her brand, as special adviser on sustainability to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman and chief executive officer Bernard Arnault.
That’s quite an acknowledgment by Arnault of McCartney’s industry stature, and not something the designer takes lightly. “For Monsieur Arnault to turn to me as a woman in the industry for advice and solutions, I take as a huge honor and I think is a very historic moment. The point is at Stella McCartney, I’m here to provide solutions,” she said. She partnered with LVMH earlier this year, after last year buying back the stake of her company then held by Kering.
Over the past few years, most of fashion’s power players have acknowledged that many of its sourcing and manufacturing processes wreak havoc on the environment. Those companies are now eager to position themselves in the forefront of sustainability initiatives. At the same time, a host of designers and brands have not gone fully animal-free, but have stopped using fur.
It wasn’t always that way. For years, McCartney was a lone-wolf and trailblazer. Arriving to the industry out of Central Saint Martins, she brought with her a global celebrity pedigree and a deeply held belief system antithetical to standard practices of the time. She was never shy about expressing her views to the larger set-in-its-ways industry. Rather than charmed by her zeal or interest in what she had to say, its denizens were often just plain peeved. No fur, no leather? No way! They wanted the defiantly plucky McCartney to just go away. She was for years, she told WWD in April, “the freak in the room.”
As such, her early recruitment by Gucci Group, which became Kering, was a bold move, and she’s proud of the fruits of that long relationship. “We all really enjoyed a wonderful growth period together,” McCartney said. “I learned a lot from them, obviously.” At the same time, she’s left a mark on the group. “One of the most fulfilling things for me was being able to influence the way Mr. [François-Henri] Pinault looked at the fashion industry. I think when we started our relationship together it was a pretty under-tapped way of how they worked at Kering. I think by them seeing the possibilities of everything that I could do at Stella McCartney and learning through me, I think they brought that into their other houses, which for me was incredibly fulfilling.”
Still, when McCartney had “the rare option” to buy back Kering’s portion of her brand and re-acquire 100 percent, she did, only to quickly partner with LVMH. She found the prospect of working with Arnault and his family “incredibly exciting,” and their willingness to take only a minority stake a major show of belief in her brand. But the biggest draw? The chance to “have Monsieur Arnault’s ear” on the topic of such great importance to her. “When he asked me to be his personal adviser on sustainability, I jumped at the chance at really having an impact internally on the largest fashion group in the world,” McCartney said. “For me, that is a really exciting opportunity, and one that will benefit all of us if we can introduce some of the things that I’ve done at Stella McCartney. I think it also gives a very positive statement to the fashion industry on the whole [about Arnault’s] commitment to the future of fashion being this way.”
Yet McCartney cautions that talk is not enough. She continues to maintain that fashion remains way behind other industries in its efforts. “I’m hopeful…that this is now a conversation that will stick,” she offered. “I think it has to because we all know that the fashion industry is a slow process and it takes a good year or year-and-a-half for what we’re doing today to even come into the marketplace. So if we don’t do it now, we could be in danger of being left behind or not being in fashion at all or being irrelevant. And not really delivering on what the youth desire from us and come to us for, which is being ahead and being the future.”
McCartney credits young people, whom she says are refusing to accept business as usual and increasingly consider brand ethics as well as aesthetics when shopping, with forcing change. “Tomorrow’s generation require a better way, whether it be in how things are made or just a more considered approach,” she said. “The people in a position of power do need to have information, they do need to have solutions and I’m very excited to stand here and possibly help with that.”
It’s well known that McCartney’s animal-loving, environmentally conscious ways started from birth. Paul and Linda McCartney raised their kids largely on a farm in Scotland. McCartney credits them with thinking “outside the box [to] change a lot of people’s minds and opinions, and save a lot of animals lives and do things for the right reason.” She notes that her mother started a vegetarian food line 40 yeas ago, “which is really crazy when you think about how that part of the food market is now the fastest growing, and how ahead of her time she was.” Now, being a mother of four has only strengthened Stella’s resolve. “I do think being a mum now definitely drives me more to be a better person in what I do. I think you start to realize that you’re trying to lead by example,” she said.
To that end, McCartney constantly challenges norms. At her spring 2020 show at Paris’s Opera Garnier, where she enhanced the elaborately gilded walls with projections of copulating animals, the show notes on the seats featured not information about the clothes (those were e-mailed later) but a timeline of her brand’s sustainability efforts. And an invitation for others “to join me in this fight, feeling encouraged and hopeful, fearless.”
By the way, the clothes in that collection looked great, a matter on which McCartney often gets short shrift. She is first and foremost a fashion designer, and acknowledges that sustainable practices should not come at the expense of strong fashion. “I don’t want anyone to sacrifice their style for sustainability,” she said. Herself included. “I think that 90 percent of the world looking at Stella McCartney has no idea that I’m a sustainable house or that my handbags are not made out of leather or I’m not using real fur or animal glues or PVC. They are [elements] that shouldn’t be seen to the consumer. These are things that I should practice as a better way of doing business.”