Up close in Hong Kong with Stella McCartney, a ‘woman designing for women’

The fashion powerhouse talks about providing style and comfort for real women, animal rights, the power of consumers to promote ethical fashion, and how she combines style with sustainability

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 April, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 April, 2016, 3:28pm

After people get over the famous surname, it’s Stella McCartney’s consideration for the freedom, style and comfort of real women that has made her stand out as a fashion designer.

Take her new swimwear range as an example: it can be anxiety-inducing territory for many women, so McCartney didn’t skimp on providing support, giving not only the right fit but also instilling femininity and sexiness to the collection. Feeling good in her garments is just as important as looking good in them, she tells me.

“Unlike a lot of other women, I don’t think my outfits start with my shoes. My emotional start to the day in my wardrobe is my lingerie, whether I’m feeling sexy or a bit insecure and want more support, I have a place for all of those emotions in my collections,” McCartney says on a fleeting visit to Hong Kong.

How Madonna’s dancers became models for sexy new Hong Kong lingerie brand

“Everything I’ve ever done [in terms of new fashion lines] has come from the heart; it’s me trying to bring solutions into our lives, as a woman designing for women,” she says. Having established foundations in lingerie and performance sportswear, creating a swimwear line was “a no brainer”.

Stella McCartney girls are still the coolest on the block

“I love the bodysuits that I make with lingerie, which I’m wearing now, and love the sportswear that I did with British Olympics athletes, so to bring the two worlds together – you can really serve a purpose,” she says.

McCartney works on her designs in an instinctive way, and each collection responds to the last. For her latest show in Paris, for autumn-winter 2016, she revamped many of the “greatest hits” of her brand: silky pleated cocktail dresses that swung low, tailored suiting with a modern edge, as well as oversized outerwear and playful sports luxe separates.

Her father, who sits front row each season, told reporters that it was one of his favourite shows. Is he always so supportive?

“That was sweet, and yes, absolutely,” she says, suddenly beaming.

Swimwear isn’t the only thing to have been keeping the fashion powerhouse and mother-of-four busy recently. There’s also the launch of a new fragrance called Pop (a project two years in the making).

She’s a woman with a lot on her plate: environmental activism, raising a large family and running an international business, with several lines ranging from sunglasses, to ready-to-wear, to children’s wear as well designing outfits for Britain’s Olympic and Para Olympic teams again.

With all of these business projects, she says, the goal is to create beautiful solutions for the client, while working within her principles. A lifelong vegetarian with an unwavering devotion to animal rights and environmentalism, the daughter of former Beatle Paul McCartney and his late wife, photographer-activist Linda was an advocate of sustainability long before it was the industry’s latest buzzword. From the very start of her career she has opposed the use of leather and furs in fashion.

Despite all the publicity for her stance, there are still many of her customers, particularly in Asia, who don’t realise that she uses no leather or fur.

“If they don’t know that this part is a sustainable wool, this is an eco rubber or non-leather, that’s really cool … I quite like that, as it means that I’ve really delivered on the design side,” she says.

It’s clear that she is really excited at the potential of driving change in the fashion industry. With the eco-fashion movement gaining global momentum, McCartney has inadvertently become its poster girl.

“The issues are leather and furs, and PVC and the chemicals used for tanning and the hundreds of millions of animals killed a year for fashion only. We don’t have the resources to sustain that,” she says. “The reality is we’re not perfect. [As a brand] we don’t preach, it doesn’t feel right for us to ram what I believe in down people’s throats, but I’m excited about giving information.”

McCartney adds bluntly: “I’m not encouraged by my fellow creators.” This woman does not mince words when it comes to issues close to her heart.

If they don’t know that this part is a sustainable wool, this is an eco rubber or non-leather, that’s really cool … I quite like that, as it means that I’ve really delivered on the design side
Stella McCartney

Yes, what about that? The huge amount of furs and leather on runways at the recent autumn winter shows cannot have gone unnoticed. If high fashion collections are anything to go by, the anti-fur movement seems to have losttraction since the 1990s. Is this turning out to be a Sisyphean mission for designers like McCartney, I ask. (Weeks after our interview , Italian fashion mogul Giorgio Armani announced that all his lines would be going fur-free.)

Armani’s decision to go fur-free shows younger generation he’s still a leader

“People are afraid of being alternative because essentially they are afraid that they’ll lose money. But I’m making a great business from being alternative,” McCartney says.

Indeed, her success has proved that profits need not suffer when sticking to principles. McCartney has a more successful accessories business than lots of fashion houses that use real fur and leather. She’s been awarded an OBE, featured in the Time 100 list, and picked up a ridiculous number of Best Designer awards.

By getting the numbers, McCartney makes a compelling case for the non-fur and leather route if an appeal to the conscience doesn’t.

“The reality is that I’m THE fastest-growing brand in the Kering Group and I’m not using any leathers or furs,” she says of the luxury group which owns 50 per cent of her brand. “I’m having an internal impact there.”

As the world’s second most-polluting industry, fashion has to be accountable for its impact on the planet, McCartney insists. The reality is that it’s not just designers but business leaders who need to shift the way things are done.

A groundbreaking example of McCartney’s ability to create fashion solutions without compromising on her principles is the Stella McCartney x adidas sports range for women, launched more than 10 years ego.

“When I started, women’s sports performance was secondary to men’s; we were bring talked down to. We didn’t have any of the tech that men had, it was all ‘My Little Pony’ pinks, and I was quite frankly offended.”

So she became one of the first to combine cool style with the latest in performance technology just for women. And her label continues to lead the market, which other brands have rushed to, realising its lucrative potential.

It’s not hard to see how frustrated McCartney is at the foot-dragging reluctance in the luxury sector to embrace new, more responsible ways. Whereas other polluting industries such as carmaking have been embracing new technology for sustainability, she says fashion is still “living in medieval times in regards to who makes their garments, the conditions they are being made in, where they are making it, and what they are making it out of”.

The tide may be turning, however, as more consumers demand transparency from their fashion. More young designers are exploring new ways of sourcing and manufacturing, as well as technological advancements so that a luxurious feel and quality needn’t be sacrificed when going green.

Some ethically inclined younger labels – including Maiyet, which support artisanal trades, and Stella Jean, which produces through the Ethical Fashion Initiative – have found success based mainly on their chic styles. And this is key, too, for McCartney, who argues style and substance can’t really be separated. The real driver of change will be consumer power.

“Consumers should demand more information, whether you’re buying food, or tech or fashion – ask questions, write to people, feel confident enough to protest,” says McCartney. “For me, the ethical side and psychological, intuitive side of fashion have always driven me as much as creating beautiful objects.”