This month, Vogue celebrates four fearless creative forces, role models, and mothers with a quartet of covers.
McCartney and her children (clockwise from top left), Bailey, Miller, Beckett, and Reiley, all wear Stella McCartney. Hair, George Northwood; makeup: Kirstin Piggott. Fashion Editor: Tonne GoodmanPhotographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, January 2020
“I’M SO OFF MY TITS ON COFFEE,” Stella McCartney admits, knocking back yet another cup in the foyer of a boutique hotel a stone’s throw from her home in London’s Notting Hill. “I had four school drop-offs this morning,” she explains. “I start at 6:30 a.m., and by the time I get to work [by bicycle], I feel like I’m literally done for the day. I’m a big hot sweaty mess, too,” she adds, having decided that a thick organic-cotton flying suit (no pesticides used in its production) was the way to dress for a Monday morning that started grimly overcast but soon turned sultry. “It’s just so difficult being in fashion, isn’t it?” McCartney sighs. “We have to pretend to be so perfect. I’m the one that comes in with a punk-rock kind of ‘fuck this perfection,’ ” says the woman who famously turned up, with Liv Tyler, to the Costume Institute’s 1999 “Rock Style” exhibition, both wearing jeans and custom T-shirts spelling out ROCK ROYALTY. “It’s not maintainable, it’s not wise, and it’s very old-fashioned. So there you go.”
McCartney does the school run five days a week with daughters Bailey, 13, and Reiley, 9, and sons Miller, 14, and Beckett, 11. “When you’ve got a job and you’ve got kids,” she says, “it’s when you get to see them, and you have to wake up super early and engage in that moment. Then I try and squeeze in some exercise, and then I go to work. And I try and get back for the bookending of being a mum.”
On weekends, McCartney spends more time with the family when they decamp to an estate in the wilds of unfashionable north Gloucestershire, the result of a house hunt born, as McCartney has explained, of “a desperate mission to find land so that I could ride my horse.”
McCartney married the dashing and protective Alasdhair Willis—the former publisher of Wallpaper and a creative guru himself—in the fall of 2003, and their aligned aesthetic passions run the gamut from the innovative indoor-outdoor architecture of the midcentury Sri Lankan architect Sir Geoffrey Bawa to old English roses. Over the past 15 years, the couple have transformed their handsome but once desolate Georgian manor house, sitting in bleak open farmland, into “a redbrick box within a garden within a garden within a garden,” as McCartney describes it, a breathtaking landscape of grand walled enclosures and allées of trees reflecting both her belief that “being out in a beautiful garden is nicer than sitting in a beautiful room” and her husband’s passion for such stately English flowering landscapes as Hidcote and Sissinghurst. “We planted a million trees,” McCartney told Vogue in 2010, “made another Eden.”
“You know what I was doing this weekend?” asks McCartney. “I was riding my horse barefoot and bareback, with my daughter [Reiley]. It was about as good as it gets.”
On a visit there in 2010 I was intrigued to discover—among the bridle paths, wild meadows, orchards, and Downton-scaled rose gardens and herbaceous borders—a series of reed-filled ponds that turned out to be the McCartney-Willises’ off-the-grid sewage system. “See?” says McCartney with her impish laugh. “Being an environmentalist can be sexy!”
McCartney has been environmentally conscious since childhood. “I was privileged,” she has admitted. “I grew up on an organic farm; I saw the seasons. My parents were vegetarians—they were change agents.” (That childhood idyll is evoked in her late mother, Linda McCartney’s, book The Polaroid Diaries, which also captures the world of McCartney’s American relatives, including her Eastman grandfather, who lunched at the exclusive Maidstone Club and hung de Koonings and Rothkos in his Billy Baldwin–decorated Fifth Avenue drawing room, where the infant McCartney amused herself with Joseph Cornell’s magical shadow boxes, alluringly placed on a child’s-height shelf.)
The great outdoors is also reflected in McCartney’s state-of-the-sustainable-arts London flagship store—which she designed herself, with a soundtrack that includes a three-hour loop of her father, Paul’s, demo tapes along with a Bob Roth meditation in the changing rooms. “The audio is important for me,” she says as she proudly walks me round it, “because it’s obviously such a big part of my upbringing.” There are papier-mâché walls made from “all of the shredded paper from the office,” along with a silver birch grove and a moss-covered rockery of giant granite rocks brought from the 1,100-acre McCartney family farm on Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre. “My personality is this sort of contrast between the hard and the soft, the masculine and feminine,” says McCartney. “I wanted to have life in the store—to bring nature into the experience of shopping,” she explains as she takes me up in the Stellevator to the floor where she fitted the Duchess of Sussex for the glamorous halter-neck dress she wore for the wedding reception following her marriage to Prince Harry. There are also pieces from McCartney’s “All Together Now” Beatles collaboration, inspired by a friends-and-family screening of Yellow Submarine that her father staged on the film’s 50th anniversary. “It just blew my brains because I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid,” she recalls. “It’s astonishing—just mental and so trippy and so childlike and so innocent and so heavy and so meaningful.”
Since McCartney’s 1995 Central Saint Martins graduation show, her brand has been defined by the urgent desire to do away with animal cruelty in the fashion industry. And while, 20 years ago, there were fake furs on the market, the only glues available were animal-based. “I imagine Vikings sitting around a pot, boiling down the last bones of the elk that they skinned for the fur,” says McCartney. “And I think, Wow—we’re still there.” Today McCartney uses renewable energy where it’s available for both her stores and offices; the eyewear she shows me in her store is bi-acetate, and her sneakers are made with biodegradable Loop technology; she uses regenerated nylon, polyester, and cashmere but also works with producers making innovative fashion fibers—building fake fur from sustainable corn fiber, for instance, producing vegan microsilk, and growing mycelium-based “leather.”
“I was always a bit of a freak in the house of fashion,” McCartney says. “My regime, my culture, has been different from day one.” In Paris, where she was appointed creative director of Chloé in 1997, she struggled with the perception that at 26 she was too young and unqualified for the job (“The Beatles wrote Sgt. Pepper when they were 26,” she told Vogue tartly), and her working practice was “totally at odds with the rest of the industry,” as she recalls. Even now, she says, “every single day in our office is this sort of daily challenge—a way of trying to perfect and persist and find realistic solutions within the luxury-fashion sector—and even in a more broadstream way with the collaborations with Adidas [initiated in 2004]. Each day,” she says, “there are questions that I ask that we try to find an answer for. And if we can’t, we’ll try again tomorrow.”
Despite what she refers to as “a lot of resistance,” McCartney turned the Chloé gig (which lasted through the launch of her self-titled brand in 2001) into a triumph, tripling sales. Today, as we march inexorably to global Armageddon, her commitment to cruelty-free fashion and sustainability is fast becoming the industry norm. In recent years, for instance, luxury brands including Gucci, Prada, Michael Kors, Armani, and Chanel have declared themselves fur-free. “I’m hugely relieved,” says McCartney, “but I’m actually astounded that it’s taken so long.”
McCartney now gives scholarships at Central Saint Martins, her alma mater, for students who “adhere to our ethical charter,” and helps young designers navigate the complicated terrain of sustainability. “We’re in the farming industry in fashion,” she says. “We look at the biodiversity and the soil. It’s crazy. It’s basically exhausting. It’s much easier not to do it. So I kind of understand why the world hasn’t quite followed.”
BUT McCartney has far more ambitious goals for expanding her global industry reach. Last year, she bought back full ownership of her label from Kering, 17 years after the group’s then–creative director Tom Ford had urged the company to invest in McCartney’s fledgling brand. Following her move, “people began to show an interest quite quickly,” as McCartney recalls. “I was fortunate enough that Mr. Arnault was one of the people.” She’s speaking, of course, of Bernard Arnault, the all-powerful chairman and chief executive of LVMH, which acquired a minority share in Stella McCartney in July. “I think it’s incredibly exciting. It sends a big, big message to the industry if Mr. Arnault is asking me to be his personal adviser on sustainability at LVMH. I think that was one of the attractions for me—it is a big, timely statement, and hopefully game-changing for all of us.”
McCartney points out that the fashion brands with the biggest environmental impact in terms of scale are “the high-end luxury houses, and then the fast-fashion sector. They have massive impact in a negative way, and they can have a massive impact in a positive way.” These fast-fashion retailers, as she observes, turned from fur far earlier than luxury brands. “They’re more in touch with the youth,” she says, “and what the next generation of consumers actually wants. It’s a given for my children,” she notes, “that you have to show some kind of mindfulness or awareness.” (In recognition of the next generation’s activists, McCartney has launched the Stella McCartney Today for Tomorrow Award—video nominations via Instagram—“to celebrate,” as she says, “a new generation of change agents and eco-warriors under 25 who are kicking ass for Mother Earth.”)
She may have her work cut out for her. A week after our coffee klatch and four days before presenting her spring-summer 2020 show in Paris (“our most sustainable collection ever”), Arnault, addressing an LVMH sustainability event in Paris, called out 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg for “indulging in an absolute catastrophism about the evolution of the world” in her electrifying appearance at the United Nations summit on climate change. “I find it demoralizing,” he added. It was perhaps no accident that McCartney raced to put together a sustainability panel (no questions, no photographs) of her own on the eve of her show at the Opéra Garnier—a panel that included Extinction Rebellion activist Clare Farrell, the legendary environmentalist and activist Yann Arthus-Bertrand, and author Dana Thomas (Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes), who noted that “we wear our clothes seven times on average before throwing them away . . . we’re perpetuating this bulimia of buying, using, and throwing away.”
“What we’ve seen over the last few weeks and months,” McCartney said, pointedly, “is children and young people taking action.” The designer also addressed the issue of young activists’ rejecting the idea of consumerism. “If the youth of today stop buying into it,” McCartney added, “then obviously, the people at the top have got to deliver on that.”
Rayon, or viscose, an indispensable fashion fiber, for instance, is created from wood pulp. “This year alone,” McCartney says, “up to 150 million trees have been cut down just for viscose.” McCartney now sources hers from sustainable forests in Sweden. “I’m trying to create something that’s still sexy and desirable and luxurious that isn’t landfill,” she tells me. “Every single second, fast fashion is landfill.”
Does McCartney feel that she’s had an impact on the practices of other brands? “That’s not for me to say,” she demurs. “That would be so unchic of us. But we are a kind of incubator. I have sympathy for how hard it is to shift the massive Titanic ship away from the iceberg,” she says. “We’re a little agile sailboat, and we built the ship. And I think that’s easier than changing something that’s been going in one direction for so long.”
While she was at Kering, the company developed an environmental profit-and-loss tool that assigned a monetary value to environmental impact—something that led to McCartney’s decision (to give just one example) to stop the use of virgin cashmere, a material with 100 times the environmental impact of wool. (It takes four goats to make enough cashmere for a single sweater, resulting in a need for grazing land that has destroyed the steppes of Mongolia and led to desertification and sandstorms in northern China.) Her label now uses regenerated cashmere, made from factory scraps that are shredded and respun into new yarn, and focuses on alpaca (“a much more friendly material”) and traceable wool (four sweaters from one sheep).
McCartney also holds an annual forum for all of her suppliers to talk with them about what her company requires and to share information on recent advances. “A lot of people see change as something scary,” she says, “but the mills are interested in working with innovators.
“I think that in a sense we’re a project,” she adds. “We’re trying to prove that this is a viable way to do business in our industry—and that you don’t have to sacrifice any style or any edginess or coolness in order to work this way. At the end of the day,” she says, “we’re a fashion house trying to deliver on the promise of desirability. Without that, I can’t even have this conversation. So I have to try and find a healthy balance—and doing both jobs is a balance. It’s the same as being a mum. My other ‘family’ is work. And I have to find the balance between this conversation of fashion and the conversation of consciousness—and they have to complement each other.”