Stella McCartney is a designer, a businesswoman and an environmental activist, but of the three, she says, fashion will always come first. “It has to, you see. Because the only way for me to start the conversation I want to start is by making a product that you want to buy and that you are going to spend your hard-earned money on. If the product is rubbish, then there is no conversation to be had. If I don’t have a successful business, then I’m an environmentalist who happens to be Paul McCartney’s daughter, and that is a conversation which lasts about three seconds. No one is going to come back for more of that chat.”
Last month, McCartney became one of the most powerful independent voices in fashion. She bought out the 50% share of her company that had been owned by the luxury giant Kering to become sole owner, a move she describes as “a crucial patrimonial decision”. An estimate by a Citigroup analyst put the label’s sales at around €260m (£226m) last year, a figure that, when combined with a lucrative Adidas partnership, makes Stella McCartney a significant brand, but still a minnow compared with Kering’s flagship names, Gucci and Saint Laurent. Instead of being a minor Kering label, Stella McCartney is now a proud indie. When you consider that, for a new generation of millennial consumers, the Beatles are receding from pop culture into the history books, the move means that Stella, at 46, has assumed control not only over the destiny of her brand, but over what the name McCartney stands for in the 21st century. “Owning my name changes my mindset,” she says. “It’s about legacy. My grandfather [Lee Eastman]’s motto was ‘staying power’, and I’ve always been about the long-term.”
McCartney is at the V&A in London for the launch of Fashioned from Nature, an exhibition opening on Saturday that tackles the complex relationship between fashion and the natural world. In other words, the very axis McCartney has been obsessing over for two decades. She was an outlier when she launched her cruelty-free, sustainably minded brand in 2001, but has found the centre of gravity shifting in her direction. “When I was younger, just saying you were vegetarian at someone else’s dinner table wasn’t often a pleasant conversation. So I learned early on how to navigate those conversations and I learned early on that there were ways of introducing a different mindset.”
Her own glossy image – in a classic camel sweater and elegant white trousers worn with very high-heeled vegan court shoes she is, as always, lightly tanned and subtly blow-dried – is a world away from what she terms the “crochet your own sweater and carry a hemp handbag” cliche of eco-fashion. She combines a fiery outrage at fashion’s environmental footprint – “1% of clothing is recycled! Only 1%. I mean, what are we doing?” – with a relentless upbeat passion for beautiful clothes.
“I come at fashion with lightness of heart. I shot my last ad campaign in a landfill site for a reason, and to make a point, obviously. But the models looked happy, there was lightness, there was colour. My messaging is not the kind that is going to make you panic or feel rubbish about yourself or not sleep at night, because I don’t think that achieves much.” McCartney and her family – husband Alasdhair Willis and four children Miller, 13, Beckett, 11, Bailey, 10 and Reiley, 7 – live in London but spend weekends in the Worcestershire countryside, where she rides her horses and tends her garden. “Everything comes from nature. I mean, where does colour come from, if not from nature, from the changing of the seasons? Every fabric we use is emulating something from nature. Nature is … oh man, it’s magnificent, isn’t it?”
Many of fashion’s great artists have been obsessed with nature. Christian Dior was a knowledgable gardener who channelled his passion into pieces such as his 1952 Vilmorin dress, hand-embroidered by the house of Rebe with thousands of tiny daisies. Alexander McQueen dressed women in dresses of razor clam shells, headdresses of antlers and shoes modelled on armadillo hooves. But the relationship has a dark side, from the fur trade to the monumental environmental impact of a global fashion industry that expends the Earth’s resources on clothes that are surplus to requirements. A survey of 2,000 British women by Barnardo’s last year found that the average piece of clothing was worn just seven times before being thrown away.
The Stella McCartney pieces chosen for the exhibition reflect the contrasting emotions swirling around clothes and natural beauty. A catwalk outfit from last year features a horse print from the Stubbs painting Horse Frightened by a Lion, referencing the love of the countryside, of animals, and of horses in particular that McCartney inherited from her mother, Linda McCartney, still a constant presence in Stella’s world 20 years after she died. In another display case, the Mylo Falabella Prototype 1 is a handbag created in collaboration with the biotechnology company Bolt Threads, using a groundbreaking alternative to leather made from mycelium, which is the root structure of a mushroom. (“Please don’t call it mushroom leather, will you,” pleads a V&A spokesperson wearily. “Mycelium is completely different from mushroom leather.
From what feminism looks like on the red carpet to how to dress ethically, fashion finds itself in the eye of the moral storm. The primacy of individual choice is the ideology of our age, and what we wear is the most public manifestation of that. It has become fashionable among prominent designers to make a moral stand and renounce fur: Donatella Versace last month joined Gucci and Michael Kors in proclaiming her brand fur-free. McCartney is happy to see this shift, although, from where she stands, it has taken too long. “Fur … it’s so medieval,” she sniffs. A personal ideology that was rooted in animal rights grew into “being mindful of the impact that fashion has on the environment, and became a conversation about this industry being the second most destructive industry that there is. And once you are aware of that, as a lover of nature and of life, you can’t ignore that.”
Fashioned from Nature is the latest in a procession of fashion-related museum shows, with an Azzedine Alaïa retrospective at the Design Museum and the V&A’s take on Frida Kahlo’s wardrobe and image hot on its heels. Central to it, says the curator, Edwina Ehrman, is the need “to get away from the idea that sustainable fashion should look quirky. We need leaders like Stella McCartney, who can tell scientists what the future needs to look like.”
An exhibition is always telling a story about the era it is staged in, as much as about the past. Fashioned from Nature spans a time period from 1600 to the present day, but it is a very different show than it would have been even a decade ago. Awareness has grown exponentially around the environmental impact of the fashion industry, which produces greenhouse gas emissions of 1.2bn tonnes a year, larger than that of international flights and shipping combined. To tackle this, “we need to completely rewire the hierarchies of fashion”, says Ehrman. The mindset by which a dress made up of rare materials imported from far-flung corners of the globe is the first to be put in a museum is finally being challenged.
Those who scoff at the notion that the modern consumer might be made to read a shirt label and be impressed by, say, flax – a sustainable fibre because, when grown in the right climate, it needs no irrigation – should be encouraged by the clean eating movement, argues Ehrman. “The way the modern consumer behaves around food – reading the label, taking pride in knowing about ingredients, wanting to identify as the type of person who is knowledgable and makes informed choices – shows what is possible.” But for this to happen requires us “to reconnect with fabric, and fabric has been forgotten in modern fashion, which is all about surface and decoration. If we feel fabrics again, engage with our clothes on a tactile, sensual level, we might start valuing them sufficiently to be motivated to sew buttons back on, or hems back up.”
The emotional trigger of ethical fashion has long belonged to animal rights. McCartney’s refusal to use leather and fur is the one fact everyone knows about her. Many of the most startling exhibits in Fashioned from Nature are those for which animals have grotesquely suffered: a pair of Brazilian red-legged honeycreeper birds made into earrings, their tiny bodies dangling like pompoms, would have been a prized accessory for a fashionable woman of the late 19th century. A dress made in the 1860s features embroidered “flowers” with the petals made up of about 5,000 iridescent green beetle wings, most of which would have been harvested from live beetles.
But as awareness of animal rights pushes fur towards being a footnote in fashion history, fast fashion has become the focus. The poor record of workers’ rights in the production of fast fashion, its convoluted supply chains, environmentally reckless dye processes and short wardrobe life make cheaply produced garments the villain of the modern fashion piece. The circular economy is the buzz phrase in the industry – McCartney recently partnered with the RealReal, a resale company, to encourage shoppers to keep clothes in circulation by selling them on. But the issue cannot be tackled on a meaningful scale until it engages with the consumer who has neither the budget for designer fashion nor relatives dropping off piles of hand-me-down cashmere.
There is just one high-street garment in Fashioned from Nature, a dress made from recycled ocean plastic from H&M’s Conscious range. McCartney’s elegant ethics are beyond the budget of most people. She says she wishes more people “would save up and buy one thing at Stella McCartney instead of the 20 things they buy from a fast-fashion label”, but I am not convinced that most family budgets work like this. McCartney’s label takes another step upmarket this year with the opening of a new London flagship, on which she has been working “like a bat out of hell”, situated, symbolically, on Bond Street. (Her previous store was just off London’s main luxury drag.)
What’s more, her name has been mentioned as a possible wedding dress designer for Meghan Markle. “I read this morning that you are designing the royal wedding dress,” I say to McCartney as she is preparing to leave. She laughs and raises a sceptical eyebrow. “Oh, you did, did you? You’re hilarious. How many designers have you said that to today?” That’s not a denial then, I point out. “Well, you didn’t actually ask a question.”