I sat down with Stella McCartney before the MSPCA-Angell fundraiser at Saks Boston to talk jumpsuits, women in business, and what it will take to make real fur finally go out of style.
STELLA MCCARTNEY ARRIVED in Boston earlier this week, fresh off of an evening at the Met Gala with a sequined, jumpsuited and tatted Cara Delevigne on her arm. Accompanied by an international entourage of pretty and polished Young Things, she put on quite the show at Saks Fifth Avenue, where 100% of the $100 ticket fee went to the MSPCA-Angell, a cause close to the designers heart.
The third floor of Saks was transformed into a sunny cobblestone vista, complete with an overflowing flower cart, a bar decorated with vintage objets, and a true-to-scale building facade, against which Boston University’s Dear Abbies sang while models played musical chairs on a circular stage. Guests noshed on - what else - vegetarian bites as Ms. McCartney was quite literally engulfed by a crush of fans vying for a selfie (this writer included, I confess). She hardly had a moment to enjoy her own show, which was a striking presentation of several pieces from the Pre-Fall 2015 collection, where faux fur accented outerwear, vests, and updated versions of the famous Falabella.
For the fundraiser, McCartney looked strong in a silk jumpsuit of her own design. In fact, a quick Google image search (thanks, J Lo) of Stella McCartney will turn up countless photos of the designer decked in beautifully cut jumpsuits, and there’s a reason for that. “It’s quite an interesting, slightly androgynous piece to wear, which I always really enjoy,” she explains. “I feel empowered. I still have my femininity, I don’t feel too masculine or too abrasive. I feel in control wearing a jumpsuit.”
Luckily, that sense of control is channeled into her line, where jumpsuits are a staple. “I’ve been doing jumpsuits from day one. This is where the psychology of being a woman designing for women comes in, because I know how I feel when I’m wearing a jumpsuit.”
This season’s offerings are, as always, impeccably tailored, but noticeably more easy and playful than past seasons, from the superhero printed dresses and separates to the 70’s silhouettes of denim overalls and dresses with cheeky, upper-abdomen cut-outs. In other words, McCartney is saying “No more” to normcore.
“I felt that women’s fashion was very stiff and overpowering, a little bit lacking in emotion, a little bit sterile,” she says. “Women were being dressed by the houses rather than dressing themselves and I just wanted to breath some kind of freedom into the collections and give a real lightness of movement and fluidity and bring the femininity of summer back.”
That distinct effortlessness that is so often attributed to her collections each season isn't an easy feat. “I think that sometimes there are trends where the materials can get a little stiffer and they can get quite easy to work with, so we’re returning back to more pleats and fluidity and a lighter color palette.”
SPEAKING OF MATERIAL, McCartney, a lifelong vegetarian, eschews fur and leather, opting instead to develop alternate materials in-house. Even as a design student she stayed away from animal-sourced fabrics, so when it comes to staples like shoes, she relies on the experience, eyes, and hands of her team. “The girl I work with on my shoes comes from a leather background. We work so hard to come up with a good alternative, and I’m always asking her ‘Is this like leather? Does it feel right?” I always have to trust her and her touch and her knowledge because I really have never worked with leather.”
But, she points out, at the end of the day it’s up to the product to stand out and speak for itself, and not to merely mimic a material that’s more traditional.
“It’s just also a mindset - do you need it to look like leather?” she challenges. “Why leather shoes anyway? We don’t wear them to cross continents; they serve a very different purpose now than they originally did. It’s important to rethink how we think about materials. We need to be slightly retrained, always, as animals.”
It doesn't help that we’re in a period in fashion right now where sunglasses are framed in snakeskin and everything from key chains to Birkenstocks is covered in fur. And, the fashion industry tends to play hot potato with a lot of big issues, tossing responsibility for things like eating disorders and lack of racial diversity back and forth between editors, designers, agents, and anyone in the crosshairs. But in McCartney’s opinion, the responsibility for the shift away from using fur, leather and suede falls to consumers just as much as designers.
“It always disappoints me that it comes back around and really every single fashion house uses fur - there are very few that don’t. I think there has to come a day when the fashion industry has to be slightly more answerable. They all know it’s wrong but they have an excuse. So it comes down to the consumer,” says the designer. “The fashion industry - especially the luxury side of fashion - doesn’t really give the consumer enough credit, they’re slightly sort of elevated away from them. But I think the reality is that if women don’t wear furm they won’t make it.”
Downmarket consumers can turn to brands like Free People and Reformation for eco-conscious and animal-friendly collections, but in luxury, McCartney stands alone. “It’s normally niche or start ups, which is great because it has to be the future. But sadly where I’m at in luxury and with my contemporaries it’s more of a one-off or a story. It is slightly irritating that not many other companions in that area, it just seems bizarre to me. To take it into the business in a more sustainable way would be nice.”
While it hasn’t stopped her house from growing to a top-earning brand in the Kering portfolio, shunning skins and fur is still considered risky. Even with McCartney leading by example, it’s not hard to see why other luxury brands haven’t adopted an animal friendly philosophy yet; it all boils down to profit margins, and prestige. One can imagine that if Hermes, for example, stopped using alligator and instead opted for high quality PVC, they could no longer command upwards of $30,000 per bag, thus driving down earnings and potentially tarnishing the line's heritage. Which, in the endless game of the chicken and the egg, brings it back to the consumer.
“There needs to be a marriage between a more conscientious consumer creating the demand or lack of demand and the houses having some sort of moral responsibility to take that away from their business model,” McCartney says.
DESPITE THE LACK of exotic furs and expensive leathers, Stella McCartney is still a luxury label - with luxury price tags. And with the incredible amount of architecture, design, and thought that goes into each collection, it’s no surprise that the end result is a far cry from fast fashion. “That’s really important to me, the quality and the timelessness of design. We’ve always had those conversations - should we do a diffusion line, should we do a second range, but actually we’d rather bring pieces in that people can save up for and maybe they don’t get 15 pairs of pants they have one that lasts you forever,” she explains.
McCartney has had a few high-profile forays into lower price ranges, like collaborations with H&M and Adidas. But for the naturally savvy businesswoman, the decision to mostly stick to what she knows - luxury - may be one of her smartest moves yet, and one that’s protected her brand in a maelstrom of industry A.D.D. Consider lines like Marc by Marc Jacobs and Saturday by Kate Spade, created to appeal to the ever elusive - and ever valuable - tween and teen consumers, thought to one of the most powerful demographics by economists. Both lines have since shuttered. Elsewhere, designers like Michael Kors and Coach have gone public thanks to second, cheaper lines, flashy logos, and design that is decidedly more junior, but the prestige of their brands have suffered tremendously in the effort to reach into shallower pockets.
“I’d rather buy vintage than buy fast fashion. I’d rather go to the charity shop - that’s what I always used to do. When I was growing up I got an allowance, and I would go to the designer sales or I would go to High Street, but I couldn’t afford this stuff [luxury], so I get it, and when I design I’m very mindful of the price points. But I do believe in quality and the correct sourcing and manufacturing and with that comes a price tag,” McCartney says.
“It’s a hard conversation to have because young girls or people that want fashion, why shouldn’t they have it? But I stand in a place where I want to provide a variety of prices in my house but I want it to live on quality and I believe in fashion being precious, something that you have memories attached to.”