A Forgotten Pioneer: Stella McCartney's Sustainable Utopia
There are few high-end designers who are capable of unifying an uncompromised commitment to sustainability with a unique and responsive brand ethos. Caught between the polarizing worlds of fast-fashion and high-end design, large brands struggle to balance price-point with quality and sustainability, leaving themselves ultimately disengaged with broader, more socially- and environmentally-conscious audience. Independent labels with smaller production demands are attempting to bridge this gap—offering garments at competitive price points while emphasizing the principles of sustainability and democracy in fashion—but this is something rarely seen at a larger scale. However, even before consumers understood the importance of sustainable fashion, Stella McCartney pioneered a revolutionary stance in the fashion industry that is somewhat lost in the thick of current mainstream fashion trends.
Best known for her eponymous label, Stella McCartney is one of the most interesting designers to have become victim to the mass appeal and competition of the very trends she pioneered. In recent years, numerous labels have joined the circuit in offering sustainable garments that exude natural confidence and subtle femininity. Still, no one is able to recreate McCartney's signature mix of environmentally friendly materials and sharp, simple tailoring with quite the feminine edge her work embodies.
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Born in September 1971 to former Beatle Paul McCartney and musician, photographer and animal rights activist Linda McCartney, Stella McCartney spent her formative years traveling the world with her parents. Despite their success, the McCartneys wanted their children to lead as normal lives as possible. Stella and her siblings attended a local state school in East Sussex. Her interest in fashion began at only 13 when she began making her own clothing, and just three years later she undertook an internship with Christian Lacroix. She completed an art foundation at Ravensbourne College and then obtained a degree in fashion design at Central Saint Martins. Despite already having wide exposure to the industry, McCartney chose to shadow Savile Row tailor Edward Sexton to learn more about his trade.
McCartney received instant praise after showing her graduation collection in 1995 with her friends Kate Moss, Yasmin Le Bon and Naomi Campbell participating as models. The collection was supplemented by a song penned by her father called "Stella May Day." The show made the front-page news the next day and received praise for its use of supermodels, the inclusion of a Paul McCartney tune, and Stella's use of sustainable materials in the form of sophisticated, yet sexy tailoring. The entire collection was purchased by London retailer, Tokio, and also stocked in Browns, Joseph, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.
Before sustainability was a topic in fashion, McCartney advocated for the use of environmentally-friendly materials. Similar to her father's support for PETA, she protested against designers who used animal fur and those who wore it. McCartney refrained from using wool, silk, and any other animal-derived fabrics in her designs. Her vision was realized in 1998 when McCartney was appointed Creative Director of Paris fashion house Chloé for her innovative, yet questioned approach to sustainable design. The decision was heavily criticized by former Creative Director Karl Lagerfeld, famously stating, "Chloé should have taken a big name. They did but in music, not fashion. Let's hope she's as gifted as her father." Despite Lagerfeld’s doubts, Mounir Mourfarrige, the man who hired McCartney for Chloé, recognized the value of her famous family name. McCartney was well aware of his game, but believed she could run a Paris fashion house—few major designers enter the industry better prepared than McCartney. From birth, she was exposed to the brutal demands of touring and media attention. She even discards Moufarrige as "[Her] last connection to the McCartney thing."
Despite initial criticism, McCartney's cutting-edge approach to tailoring was greeted by considerable commercial and critical success. She was later accompanied by her assistant, classmate, and friend, Phoebe Philo, who would later replace her as design director. Even with an enormous level of expectation to live up to, McCartney and Philo designed clothes that showed their interests at the time—freely and crudely expressing the desires of young women. Skintight pants, skimpy sequined dress, and airbrushed t-shirts were all staple designs released under the duo's free-spirited design style.
McCartney resigned from Chloé in 2001 to enter into an eponymous joint venture with the Gucci Group (now the PPR Luxury Group). McCartney entered the fashion house with the intent of developing her own label as a global luxury brand. As part of her uncompromising nature, McCartney negotiated equal ownership of her brand with the help of her uncle and his lawyer, John Eastman. "In Gucci Group, I have found a partner with the skills necessary to make this business a success. I have always wanted to start my own label and I feel ready for the challenge," said McCartney in a statement. She showed her debut collection at Paris Fashion Week in October of the same year. Unsurprisingly, the audience was full of celebrities including Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Damien Hirst, Chrissie Hynde, and of course, Sir Paul McCartney. Her inaugural collection included the now famous T-shirt with "Bristols" emblazoned across the breast.
Her collections following her departure from Chloe fell short of expectation with critics claiming the garments to fall into a "flashy boisterous parade full of risqué slogans." Her Spring/Summer 2002 ready-to-wear show featured an almost pornographic dress reading "Slippery When Wet," cropped T-shirts that had "Raspberry Ripple" scribbled across the chest, and uninspired garments distastefully draped in electric blue sequins. Critics argued her street-tough aesthetic did not mix well with the expectation of the Gucci Group. However, by the following season, McCartney found a fresh voice in the form of delicate washed-out colors and embellished details. Her shows demonstrated more polish and softness, a confident stride for a young designer taking her place on an international platform.
For the next several years, McCartney experienced the heaviest momentum of her career earning her the title of "Stella Steel." In 2003 she married Alasdhair Willi and launched her first perfume, Stella. In 2004 she designed clothes for Madonna's Re-Invention tour, Annie Lennox's summer tour, and costumes for her close friend Gwyneth Paltrow's film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It was clear McCartney was beginning to develop a sophisticated and relevant style for her time.
McCartney capped off 2004 by releasing her eponymous collaboration with Adidas, a landmark in her career which fully transitioned her edgy aesthetic into one that encapsulated the more sporty and sophisticated demands of the early 21st century. The collection, simply dubbed Adidas by Stella McCartney, was a sports performance line for women. This was the first instance where McCartney moved away from high-fashion, tailored silhouettes, and perhaps the catalyst that initiated her future involvement in menswear.
Beyond her progressive design, McCartney was also an early proponent of the democratization of fashion, offering sub-lines for larger retailers at a lower price point. In 2005 it was announced that McCartney would design a range for H&M. The 40-piece collection was launched in November and sold out immediately. H&M's head of design, Margareta van den Bosch released a statement claiming, "We are thrilled to collaborate with Stella McCartney. Her designs are modern and cool, yet classic and wearable. We have long admired her sense of tailoring and femininity." In 2007 she undertook another high street collaboration, this time with Target. The collection, again, sold out instantly. Although the democratization of fashion is stressed far more often today, McCartney always wished to offer her garments to everyone.
From 2007-2011, McCartney's label underwent rapid expansion to include a fragrance brand, a line of lingerie, a 100% organic skincare line, and a capsule children's collection for Gap Kids. Her success continued as a result of her long-running relationship with Adidas. In 2010, McCartney was appointed the creative director of Adidas' 2012 Olympic Team GB ranges. The appointment was the first time a high-end designer was tasked with designing sportswear for the Olympic Games. McCartney quickly became one of the powerful figures in Britain, enjoying inclusion in Telegraph's list of the most powerful women in Britain in 2011.
While McCartney's support for sustainability and affordability was refreshing at the time, the driving force behind the label's success was and still is her talent for designing from life, for life—McCartney takes design cues from the needs of the everyday woman. Specifically, her role as homemaker plays heavily into her work. At the end of her Spring 2011 RTW show, following chic pantsuits and grown-up denim play outfits, she sent out shifts and blazers featuring an oversized botanical print of lemons an orange—a nod to retro decorative aprons. Drawing from her life, rather than rehashing the psychedelic ‘60s or some sort of "warrior woman" fantasy, allows McCartney to keep her designs modern and engaging.
In the last few years, McCartney has situated her brand at the crux of directionality and functionality. She has a talent for internalizing popular trends and injecting them with her signature offhand sense of ease—offering her brand a sense of integrity while still challenging with newer competitors. McCartney's 2016 Spring/Summer RTW collection followed in this vain offering a range innovative knitwear utilizing computer-enabled techniques. Her layered tanks, polo shirts, and tube skirts demonstrated a rekindled interest in bright stripes, checks, and transparencies, along with a stronger emphasis on comfort. The collection indicated McCartney's gradual transition to more androgynous and athletic designs, eventually giving way to McCartney's inaugural 2017 menswear collection. The collection consisted of casual and luxe sportswear garments, in addition to a few sartorial offerings inspired by McCartney's apprenticeship with Edward Sexton. An array of zip-up cargo pants, boxy jackets, striped pajama tops and sporty drawstring trousers, roughly 45% of the collection is made from environmentally-friendly and used materials.
Her recent collections have put a far greater, more literal emphasis on sustainability, a factor that eponymously-inspired her earlier work. For McCartney’s Spring 2018 RTW show, the invitations came with a roll of "trashion bags," recyclable bin liners with the designer's logo printed on them made of recycled linear low-density polyethylene. The bags served as a message her to green-leaning ethos: "Fashion show invitations should be strictly digital in 2017, but this was a gesture in the right direction," she stated. In the same announcement, McCartney shared her new strategic relationship with luxury online sale destination, The Real Real, to foster future consignment. For years, McCartney's endeavors in this area were mostly reserved for bags and shoes—as evident in the widespread popularity of her Falabella bags—however, McCartney began expanding into sweats and knitwear as well. Utilizing a new material—Skin-Free Skin, she calls it—McCartney is able to recreate the supple-looking effect of leather on pieces like a clingy black twist-front top or a pair of relaxed caramel-colored trousers.
In a recent report published on November 28th, 2017, round-the-world sailor and environmental campaigner Dame Ellen MacArthur called for a systemic change in the way clothing is produced and consumed. The report exposed the scale of the waste and how the throwaway nature of fashion has created a business which creates greenhouse emission of 1.2bn tons per year—larger than that of international flights and shipping combined. More than half of "fast" fashion is disposed of in less than a year. McCartney backed the report condemning the industry as, "incredibly wasteful and harmful to the environment." With the conversation about sustainability in the fashion industry becoming far more prominent than it once was, it seems McCartney is using this opportunity to take a much more outspoken stance.
Despite sustainability being particularly "on-trend," Stella McCartney hasn't received the same coverage it once did. Some argue that the growing public attention to sustainability and ethics in fashion weakens the label's competitive edge, or that many of McCartney's designs are not ambitious enough. Nonetheless, Stella McCartney is in a perfect position right now—she is fully enveloped in a genuine movement that she helped pioneer, and her long-standing involvement is more prevalent than ever. While the label struggles to remain relevant, occasionally failing to find a voice in the volatile chaos of fast trends, McCartney's refreshing attitude towards design will always make her appealing. Demonstrating tremendous concern for both how the customer feels when they wear the garments and how the garment affects the environment defines the uncompromising nature of McCartney as a designer—she isn't designing for anyone else other than herself, and it seems she wants to keep it that way.