Woman In Vogue: An Audience With Stella McCartney

Selfridges continued its love affair with all things Stella McCartney last night, hosting a conversation between the designer du jour and British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman.

For all its billing as a casual tête-à-tête on comfy chairs, the evening bore the polished hallmarks of wristbands and champagne waiters – evidence, perhaps, of the slick Stella PR machine in motion.

The venue, however, was intimate enough – Selfridge’s Ultralounge functioning as a cloister-like library, with dedications everywhere to the written word, from typewriters to walls bedecked with books and more books – which was rather fitting, considering the subject of the evening’s talk has traditionally been something of a closed one. For all her fame, Stella McCartney can never be accused of being a media darling – celebrities wear her clothes, but she is not somehow a celebrity designer, disdaining the spotlight and preferring to let her creations speak for themselves. It is, however, perhaps McCarney’s annus mirabilis as Selfridges, pulse ever on the zeitgeist, have evidently acknowledged, creating an entire ‘World of Stella’ in-store to showcase the many strings to the McCartney bow – womenswear, sports, children’s, lingerie and finally fragrance.

With her profile at an all-time high how does she cope, Shulman asks, with being recognised? Fame, however, is in her blood – her father and his bandmates practically spawned single-handed our modern concept of celebrity. The daughter of Paul McCartney reminds us that she ‘grew up with one of the most famous people in the world. So really, I’m not that interesting.’

Much has been made, and rightly so, of the Herculean feat that is running what can only be now described as a fashion empire, whilst being a mother of four. Family and childhood is clearly deeply important, and a thread that runs through all collections. Shulman makes rather nostalgic mention of her own first McCartney piece – a sky-blue Fair Isle jumper – and McCartney concedes that her earliest collections were inspired by memories of Scotland as a child.

Her own family creep into her work too – she admits to harassing her long-suffering team at the start of each season with a fixation upon the same old t-shirt of her husband’s, on which she longs to base a piece of her own.

But how does she feel, Shulman wonders, about the high street copying her creations? ‘Flattering and irritating’, she muses, and indeed her relationship with the high street is a two-way exchange, having enjoying successful collaborations with the likes of Gap and H & M, that have significantly raised her profile. Recent exposés of similar high street brands have revealed various abuses and examples of terrible misconduct and immoral practices, particularly in Third World sweat-shops. Scrutiny these days is unavoidable – and Shulman queries how McCartney keeps her own house in order. The designer insists she is ‘very stringent’ and that the supply chain is studied ‘on a daily basis’. ‘We monitor like crazy.’

The Vogue editor congratulates the label’s dedication to finding non-animal fabrics that actually translate into authentic, wearable fashion – ‘your fake leather just doesn’t seem fake!’. McCartney owns up to being something of a ‘glutton for punishment’, intimating that there is an inherent, weary masochism in the quest to seek out leather alternatives. It is certainly a road seldom travelled by the fashion industry, and there are no shortcuts. Her demand, Stella maintains, far outstrips supply, and there can be a total drought of specialist manufacturers from one season to the next. But she thinks it has set her apart, and she relishes being different from the labels of her peers.

The designer admits that a long-standing obsession with vintage has informed many of her collections down the years, and insists it’s finally ‘out of my system’, with her focus re-trained simply and pragmatically on ‘what women want and need in their wardrobe’. She hasn’t entirely turned her back on whims and romance though – drawing inspiration these days from the ‘abstract’ and the wider world; anything from films to ‘the colour of a leaf’ spotted whilst riding in the country.

With the snowballing of her success has come new responsibility – a much larger team for a start: ‘I enjoy working with people. I don’t isolate myself’. And, inevitably, the chaotic exodus to bigger premises, having outgrown the last – ‘junk everywhere!’

Dressed in super-sharp tailoring and a simple silk shirt, McCartney was charismatic, gracious and relaxed – and the combination proved a winning one. She held the room. Part of the fascination with the woman behind the brand are the contradictions, the conflicts of anima and animus, that somehow co-exist within. Stella McCartney was born famous, but doesn’t do fame. She skips across the globe for work, swapping Barcelona for Miami for Rome and yet gets ‘grumpy’ after just one night away from her kids. Her entire business is built upon the fable of the city; the store openings and fashion weeks; the high street capsule collections; the penchant for tailoring (she studied three years at Savile Row) – but grew up in the country and can be found, off-duty, riding horses and shearing sheep.

Her graceful, feminine dresses are adored by celebrities who ply their trade on dressing ‘pretty’: Liv Tyler, Thandie Newton and Kirsten Dunst, and still she dives deep into proper, high-performance sportswear to escape ‘all those My Little Pony pinks’. Most of all, she’d love to dress Jodie Foster, but is ‘chuffed’ that Meryl Streep has started to wear McCartney – two celebrities that are not known for girliness, but a tougher sort of androgyny. Older women, then: she’s interested in ‘women and their brains, of all ages’. Indeed her love of sportswear, her toughness, has trickled, slowly but surely, into her catwalk collections; it provides that ‘edge’; a democracy or a leveller if things get ‘too fancy on a Parisian runway’.

As we suspected, then, balance is the key. In her new fragrance, L.I.L.Y, she’s wearing her heart on her sleeve – lily of the valley reminds her of her mother, but despite this she’s fiercely practical, finding a way to market an ‘unfashionable’ flower, and one that only blooms for three fleeting days a year, to a mass audience.

McCartney seems canny and confident, almost Midas-like, right now, and I have no doubt of her deftness of touch. L.I.L.Y is light but deep, the floral sweetness tempered by the raw earthiness of truffle and moss. These are crowd-pleasing components bound to engender commercial success, and there is something compellingly maternal about the scent; fitting in light of it being a maternal tribute (Linda I Love You).

Audience questions are wrapped up (a forest of hands, many disappointed). McCartney engages in a wriggling pantomime of anxiety to leave like child kept back at school – ‘Oooh, am I allowed to leave now?’ and we are reminded of the four kids awaiting her entrance over the threshold (where apparently she is wrestled to the ground). However, I spot her still working the room half an hour later: a testament indeed to the conflicting demands and constraints placed upon working women.

The image I came away with of this woman in particular was a many-armed Hindu goddess, or Aladdin’s Genie juggling entire planets with panache. McCartney was introduced at the beginning of the evening as having had ‘Stella-fied’ Selfridges; with a host of galaxies in her grasp, it seems stellification isn’t far off. And judging by her Sphinx-like smile as she exited to applause, she knows it too.