Stella McCartney: "The fashion industry is so old-fashioned it's embarrassing"

Stella McCartney tells Digital Editor Olivia Phillips how the fashion world’s finally catching up with her...
Stella McCartney: "The fashion industry is so old-fashioned it's embarrassing"
Stella McCartney SS19

I've disappointed Stella McCartney. It’s not a dream scenario to be in, especially since I am a genuine fangirl, and not to mention it is quite literally my job to cultivate synergy between myself and whoever I’m interviewing in order to make them feel comfortable enough to reveal things that… well, they may have never revealed before. Also known in the biz as A Good Interview. There’s something of an art to it, but it’s also not rocket science. And I seem to have screwed it up in the first 30 seconds.

“Have you been to The Sustainable City yet?” I ask Stella, wide-eyed, disproportionately congratulating myself on what is a pretty basic question in the grand scheme of things, but still, one that needed to be asked to the world’s leading designer of sustainable luxury. “No, I haven’t heard about it,” she replies honestly. I spring into action, eager to please and proudly waxing lyrical about Dubai’s one-of-a-kind achievement. “Ooh well there are bio domes and water recycling and a running track and solar-powered villas and electric buggies… it’s unbelievable! It’s amazing! It’s zen! My friend lives there!”

“Why don’t you live there?” Stella asks, pointedly. She’s raised such a good question that I’m completely stumped. “It’s… er, quite far from work?” I offer, feebly. It’s a pathetic justification if I’m honest, and one that succinctly represents so many of our cop-outs when it comes to why we’re not all far more conscious about our consumption. And honestly, even I’m tired of the excuses. And I’m not the one who’s been championing change for 18-plus years.

“I need to be honest, part of me feels an element of deep frustration that I have committed my entire life’s work and sacrificed a lot to try and practise a better business model in my chosen field, and that I was so ridiculed,” she explains. “I mean… what, a vegetarian luxury-fashion house? When I went to Chloé in Paris and was like, ‘I’m not going to do leather,’ nobody had ever done that before. And nobody has ever done that since. Not using leather has the biggest impact in my brand on my environmental profit and loss. Not using animal glues is the most positive thing we do environmentally.”

Now, however, Stella has every right to sit smugly on the throne of I-told-you-so, as so overwhelming is the current tsunami of both interest in and creation of sustainable fashion. She isn’t, though. There’s no time for that. And, frankly, she’s got bigger fish to fry – or perhaps the veggie equivalent. Tofu?

SS19 Stella McCartney

I’m interested to hear if she thinks all this sustainable bandwaggoning is authentic, or purely a marketing stunt – and more to the point, if that really matters if the outcome is beneficial regardless?

“I don’t think it matters, as long as it happens and it sticks around.” It’s a fair point. Stella adds, “People ask me, ‘Aren’t you annoyed you’ve been doing this from day one? Aren’t you really angry that now it’s fashionable and everyone’s doing it?’ And yes, it’s a bit frustrating when you’ve got people pretending to do things. You know it’s not heartfelt and it’s going to last a season because it’s a one-off PR campaign. Yeah, it’s a little transparent to me, but I don’t mind because at least that the one season they embraced one element of sustainability was a better season than the one they didn’t. Some things are better than nothing.”

SS19 Stella McCartney

I guess that’s the point when you care about something so deeply. It’s irrelevant whose lightbulb moment comes first or who gets the credit. It’s about genuine, meaningful change. And it really does seem that – occasional industry gimmick aside – consumers are now demanding it.

But why now? It’s not like we’ve not been told before that the fashion industry is the second-most harmful in the world. Or that only two per cent of clothing gets recycled. Or that most of it ends up in landfill anyway. This is not new information, so why is it only now that this mindful dawn seems to finally be approaching?

SS19 Stella McCartney

“The survival instincts of the next generation in the way they live and conduct themselves have kicked in. They have more access to information, they want to look after the planet for their kids… but really, the fashion industry is only now turning slowly in the right direction because it’s unavoidable. It’s a topic of conversation in every area of our lives. We eat better, we drive better, we live in sustainable cities… because otherwise it isn’t sustainable. We can’t keep using the same materials until we self-destruct. It’s not modern. The fashion industry is so old-fashioned, it’s embarrassing. I mean, yeah, you can customise something or you can do a drop here or a pop-up there… but it’s so trivial compared to the real conversation. Really, if you want to be truly modern in any industry you have to change it. You can’t just tweak the silhouette or put a manifesto on a T-shirt. You have to change stuff for real.”

Pow! What a message. What a wake-up call. And not just to those who are environmental-damage refuseniks, but also to each of us who function in the kind of social media echo chamber where hashtivism and clicktivism sometimes threaten to overpower tangible progress. Yes, we’re more aware now and yes, we demand more transparency from our brands, but how much are we really voting with our feet – or our dirhams – when it comes down to it? Is it all just a bit performative?

“Either way, people need to hear it,” Stella continues. “It’s such a swamped world we live in. There’s a barrage of new celebrities, brands, stuff every single second you open your eyes. The only way to stand out in a crowded room is to have some kind of individual point of view. I’m lucky enough that I just had that anyway. What my belief system is became my point of difference in the industry. I have authenticity, which is what every other brand on the planet wants now. So they’re going to have to start doing something they care about.”

I ask if sales are up, assuming that the sustainability movement has had an impact on customers buying Stella McCartney. “Not necessarily, no,” she answers. “The majority of people probably don’t know this is what we do. I’ve met a number of people who say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that wasn’t made out of leather!’ I really like that because you shouldn’t have to sacrifice style for sustainability. At the core of everything I do, I am a fashion designer and I have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my competitors from that point of view.” 

So design always comes first, then? “Yes.” Always? “Yes, because you don’t need to be punished for your ethics. People still associate the words environmental or eco in fashion with being sort of hempy, organic-y, gritty, granola-y. It’s word association. It’s not our product though, is it? I’m a vegetarian and I still want to look kick-ass and if we don’t create desirable, well-made, beautifully luxurious products that are on-trend and cool then what’s the point? It’s landfill anyway.”

There’s a small pause. “Should I become a politician, do you think?” Stella laughs. I tell her I would vote for her – and I mean it. She has built one of the most recognisable, successful, covetable and kind brands in the world. She’s proven thousands of naysayers wrong. She’s created everything from Meghan Markle’s wedding-reception gown to Team GB’s entire Olympic kit. She’s working with the UN on a fashion-industry charter for climate action. She has an OBE, a men’s range, a perfume range, a bridal range, a kids’ range (and, er, four kids), and a lingerie range – including free mastectomy bras for those in need. She has quite literally rewritten the rules for how brands – both inside and outside the fashion industry – can conduct themselves. So, yeah, if Stella McCartney was to go into politics, I would back her big time.

I ask – out of all the above – what she loves most about what she’s created. “I think just the whole sense that you can have it all in fashion.” She’s certainly proved it. So why has no other brand really risen to join her? “Because it’s really, really, really hard!” she exclaims. “It’s taken me years to source and develop things and as much as I get to design a beautiful handbag, I have to solve the problem first. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t have hope. That’s what I’m proud of – giving another option to the industry. It needs it.”

Photos: Lauren Maccabee and courtesy of Stella McCartney