Stella McCartney is back with a boldly transparent look for spring 2021—and we’re not talking about see-through clothes. “Like many of us, I found myself asking deep questions of myself and of the brand,” she says in an Instagram post on the self-reflection that the pandemic brought to all of us. “What is our meaning, our purpose?”
Well, the design work that came out of her intense period of reflection is launching on 8 October with a digital show and a lookbook—it’s breezy Stella, shot in the open air—but what’s equally to the point is what she’s talking about on Instagram. “I arrived at a set of value systems, an A to Z of what I think we stand for at Stella McCartney, which in a sense, is a manifesto,” she relates. “The spring 2021 collection adheres to this set of rules.”
She starts to spell it out: “A for Accountable, C for Conscious, O for Organic, V for Vegan.” Letters illustrating the brand’s commitments have started to pop up on her Instagram feed: Cindy Sherman embodies E for Effortless, Linda McCartney represents L, and a William Eggleston print denotes T for Timeless.
Meanwhile, on September 26, she underscored her mission by publishing the Stella McCartney Eco Impact Report for 2018/19, announced by former executive secretary of the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres. It opens with a declaration that, “We remain committed to transforming the fashion industry,” followed by a clear, non-jargony holistic disclosure, set out in graphics and maps of McCartney’s operational costs to the natural world: slightly down from €8.22m in 2018, to €8.21m in 2019.
The introduction pledges “to slow down, while accelerating our push towards circularity and regenerative, nature-based solutions.” It sets new compliance standards for suppliers, states its intention to protect workers’ rights, and concludes with a rallying statement: “We believe it is our duty to use our voice and our platform to bring attention to critical topics and to share our progress. While we have made significant progress over the past 10 years, we know we have more work ahead of us. We are invigorated and hope that others in the industry—and world—will join us in pushing for a brighter world.”
McCartney spent an hour sharing her thoughts about designing and rethinking fashion in a conversation on Zoom from her home in London—a far cry from the 30-second quote that would usually come out of the traditional McCartney after-show hustle in the gilded halls of the Palais Garnier. Here’s what she said….
What’s been your observation of this big sudden switch from physical shows to a situation where designers and houses are suddenly experimenting with new ways of communicating fashion?
To me, it kind of illustrates how old-fashioned the industry was. It really does highlight that we work in such a specific way, and have created this machine that’s like no other industry. The industry is in such a strange place—but I’ve felt like that for a long time, obviously. We’ve just settled into a rhythm that we haven’t questioned or challenged enough.
The positives for our industry are that we wake up, smell the coffee and question how we’ve been doing things for hundreds of years. Ask what’s the good part, and what can we reevaluate, shake up and change for a more modern industry? Obviously, I’d connect that with sourcing materials and how we work, but also in the way we present. Everyone in the industry has been talking about how wasteful we are in general, how expensive, excessive. There are some things maybe we could shed, and lighten our load a bit.
So how did you decide to get the collection across?
I don’t feel we’re the kind of house that creates some epic film, a huge production—we’re a bit more effortless than that. But at the same time, I didn’t want to do a runway show in a building. I wanted to be outside. So we made a show-esque film, which is a continuation of my theme of juxtaposing love of nature with the artists’ work in the alphabet manifesto I’ve made. We shot it at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, a stately home that has continued down the generations, but has this amazing injection of contemporary art in the landscape — an Anish Kapoor exhibition, there are Rachel Whitereads, James Turrells—a whole host of works placed in the gardens and house.
Can you give me some examples of the progress you’re making towards sustainable practices— and how it actually looks in this collection?
All of the collection is 100 per cent organic denim and jersey. With regard to content and sourcing, we’re pushing ourselves to do better this season. But OK, yes: It’s summer, so let’s start with Stellawear pieces — they’re swimwear and shapewear all in one. It’s about being able to go into the water and dry off super quickly, and just carry on with your day, wearing it as a body. It’s a brand-new piece of technology, made with Econyl, which is created from recycled plastic bottles and other nylons. Because of the seamless, sculpting engineering of the yarn, there’s zero waste.
We’ve figured out that by using Econyl, we’ve prevented 10 tonnes of new nylon going into the industry. It’s really exciting when you can start to put figures on what you’re replacing. And because the pieces are multipurpose, it kind of empowers women to use more, buy less.Photo: Courtesy of Stella McCartneyPhoto: Courtesy of Stella McCartney
That’s so interesting! That you’re thinking about building in long-term use for customers…
T for Timeless [laughs]. That’s how I regard the British, Savile Row-inspired tailoring I’ve done since the beginning. I like the idea of the trousers we made this season with deep double-box pleats, with a slightly more slim-line three-button jacket—a bit more 1990s in that respect, so the bottom is exaggerated. When I wear a suit, I transform into another part of myself. I know if I put that on, I’d fall into a different kind of posture, even.
I like the attitude, with the slides…
I want to tell people that the flip-flop is made of 50 per cent waste material. When we were designing it, it was like, make it bigger, fatter—that’s the fun part—but I see the technology as an equal achievement to fashion.
With everything we make, there’s such a strong technical side when you’re always working to make it better every season for the environment. If you’re lucky, each season you have access to a new supplier or way of doing things… It’s something that moves and shifts, every day and month. I love that technology brings another element of newness every time.
I guess that would be V for Vegan shoes? You’ve also spoken about upcycling as a sustainable strategy…
I’m a bit obsessed with getting rid of waste. Waste not, want not. During lockdown, we made dresses and cycling shorts from lace we had from previous collections. They were swatches, samples, laces we’ve had left over in the warehouse, so we patch-worked them together into little athletic dresses. It’s repurposing, recycling, but I don’t think you’d honestly know. They’re limited edition; we’ll just use up what we have.
The design also links with the fragility we’re all looking at the moment, whatever gender we are. We’ve all got to get up every day and tell ourselves not to be anxious and afraid, and that we can all get through this. But at the same time, there’s a fragility we’re all facing.
You’re making a good point there: to be relevant, fashion really does have to be in sync with the times we live in. It has to serve needs, otherwise it’s just more useless stuff. What else have you been responding to?
I’m in an emotional industry. I design clothes to make people feel better about themselves. That’s why I became a fashion designer! What also happened in this period was the crucial idea of staying mentally and physically fit, to get through what we’re all trying to get through on a daily basis, globally. It’s been so interesting, seeing a lot of people being more athletic, out there in the city—taking the time for themselves, using any spare time to be outside. Keeping themselves alive, if you like.
I have my Stella Adidas collaboration, but I hadn’t really touched on sport in the Stella runways recently—so it felt like the right time to come back to that idea of athleticism and femininity; the two coming together. There’s a lot of BMX and skater-inspired collection work; a mix of materials and various cut-lines creating quite a strong silhouette. Surf dresses, which are very sculptural, body-formed and short. A kind of energy and edge for summer. I wanted it to feel spirited and uplifting.
There’s a line in your Eco Impact report that really stuck out to me, that you have “stubborn optimism.”
I’m a glass half-full woman. Look, I’ve been having a conversation that’s slightly alternative and a bit challenging for my entire life. And if you don’t come into that room with optimism, and a solution-driven smile on your face, then what are you? Someone telling people the world’s going to end.Photo: Courtesy of Stella McCartneyPhoto: Courtesy of Stella McCartney
I admire that you’re holding yourself accountable for sharing information and educating people about sustainable progress, while also being transparent about disclosing and discussing where you need to improve yourselves.
I can’t say it enough: We’re not perfect at Stella. There’s an element of just trying to do your best. I really do believe that doing something’s better than nothing; if we all make tiny shifts, that will be positive. I don’t think that people want to be told they have to change their habits. I prefer to be encouraged into a different way of thinking via information.
It’s great that we’re having these conversations now because that’s all we can do, really—provide the information in a digestible way. To bring out the best in people. It would be a nice time to be kinder to each other, and encourage that in our industry.
There’s been so much talk over the past months about it being reset time for fashion. Do you think that will stick?
We need to come back with some change. I’ve decided I will reduce what I produce, make it clearer and better.