to story (from The Observer).
Sunday May 18, 2003
It is half past six on a Wednesday evening, and I am sitting on the floor of Stella McCartney's VIP room, staring into a goldfish bowl. The designer herself has just breezed in (cropped Prince of Wales trousers, vintage Chinese blouse, fabulous pink slingbacks) to find that her old pet has new company. Within seconds she is on her knees, tickling it through the glass. 'Aren't you pretty!' she coos at the frilly fins, before being told that the new fish is also male. 'Ooh! Drag queen!' she exclaims, then blithely ignores the information. 'What shall we call them? Harold and Maude? Sid and Nancy?'
Stella McCartney's own-label shop near Bond Street has been open for three weeks, but Thursday is the official launch party. When I ask her about the event, she says it's just a question of making sure everyone can fit in the building (there are three enormous floors), then she catches herself and scoffs: 'Then again, I should be so lucky, if even four people turn up!' The modesty is false, of course: Stella knows she has invited 150 more people than she's strictly allowed, and as we speak there are workmen outside, pasting sheets of purple PVC to the front window so that paparazzi won't be able to snap any of the celebs who are expected to come.
Ever since she took over the house of Chloé in 1997, Stella McCartney has been the toast of the A-list. She hangs out with Kate Moss and Sadie Frost, has dressed her friends Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson, and designed Madonna's top-secret wedding dress - as well as being her maid of honour. Now that she has her own label, in its third season, her time, she says, 'is just chopped up into tiny little pieces'. 'But it's OK,' she shrugs. 'Got a job. Better than nothing. I'm lucky that I'm working ...'
Stella is keen to show me around. She takes me through the clothes and decor, pointing out the complicated inlays on different pairs of trousers - beads, fine gold chains or puckered chiffon, and woven ribbons that have been slightly burnt at the edges to give a delicately damaged effect. She runs her hands over the marquetry patterns in the wooden walls, explaining that she wanted it to look like a winter forest. 'That's for my mum, really,' she says, pointing to a bird in the grain, 'because my mum loved hummingbirds.' She closes in on patterned pins and dangling trinkets, as if they were intimacies that needed careful introduction. 'There's so much love in this room,' she sighs, 'it's probably silly of me - people probably come in and never notice ... Look, this is nice' - she reads out a little motto carved in wood: 'I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that.'
Stella McCartney's face is a clean, sun-kissed circle, with round blue eyes shining out under a strawberry blonde pony tail. Her whole life, or at least her heritage, is something she carries around for all to see, whether she likes it or not. When she first became known as a fashion designer, people assumed that the daughter of Paul and Linda McCartney was only being given the breaks because of her famous name. Karl Lagerfeld, whose job she took over at Chloé, complained that the company should be hiring a big name, 'and they did, but in music, not in fashion'.
In spite of the inevitable association, and concomitant pressure, however, Stella has a lighter time of it, in a way, than some of her siblings. Her sister Mary is a photographer, like their mother, and her brother James is a musician, like their father. At least she isn't working in the same field. 'Yes,' she says, 'that was very intentional, from day one. I knew very, very early on that I wouldn't do music, because I thought it was too good a story, really. And I have to say I was very surprised when I started doing design that anyone made the connection with my family. But I think it was a turning point: now anyone's a celebrity, it's easier to be one, and there's more pressure on famous people full stop.'
I ask her if she remembers John Lennon dying - she would have been eight at the time - and she says she does. That was the moment when her father had an electric fence put around their Sussex home - did she perceive it as a warning about the perils of fame?
'Well, I didn't really realise who my dad was at that age, so I just knew that this guy who was one of the most important people in our family had died. That's how I took it. It wasn't like, "Dad, you're a Beatle too, we have to worry about security!"'
And what would she wish for her own children, if she plans to have them?
'I'd do it exactly the same. Hopefully I'll be living in the country if I'm lucky enough to have kids, and they'll go to normal schools and nobody will know about them, unless they decide they want to be known about. You know, it's funny for me that this always comes up,' she says, a little sadly. 'I don't know if it takes away from what I do a little bit. I look at these rails and I think, I wish we were talking about the clothes instead of John Lennon.'
So we talk a bit about the clothes, about her new perfume (due to go on sale in September) and her 'vegetarian shoes'. She's feeling happy about this last collection, especially since there was so much pressure on her in her first. Critics were quick to say Phoebe Philo, Stella's old friend and right-hand woman, who had stayed behind to become head designer at Chloé, was the real wizard behind the Stella McCartney curtain, and that McCartney's solo debut paled in comparison. There was talk of a rift between the two women, a subject on which Stella keeps famously shtoom. 'It was pretty hard-core,' she says of that period. 'But I feel like the collections are getting better. I feel like I'm pushing it a bit more, like it was easier for me before to just sort of go, "Oh, this is a T-shirt".' Subtly, she puts the knife in to the Chloé look, separating herself from the youthful endeavours with Philo that made her name. 'I think because I was introducing that style of things it was easier to get away with slightly easier designs.'
Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, has pointed out that McCartney is significant because there are very few famous female fashion designers. Does she feel she is blazing a trail?
'I've no idea,' says Stella. 'I'd love to think so, but I wouldn't presume I was doing anything of that sort of weight. I think probably younger kids think, "Well, if she can do it I can do it", which I hope they do.'
The woman Stella imagines herself designing for now is someone who 'wants to feel good about herself, and wants to feel sexy, slightly clever, that there's more to what she's wearing than meets the eye. A confident woman. I think confidence is what makes a woman modern. To be a classy bird is a big deal. My mum was very classy, so I'd like to think that I could have ...' Her sentence trails off. When Linda McCartney died five years ago, Stella lost a muse as well as a mother. 'I think the energy that she had and the kind of person that she was is a great reminder of keeping it real, of being true to yourself, and of more important things than fashion,' she says, 'But I do all different sorts of women,' she resumes. 'I do a sassy, naughty woman, and I do a businesswoman, and then I do a little funny girl. The Stella McCartney woman is quite complicated, I guess.'
She certainly has more than one dimension. Stella McCartney speaks with all the playful enthusiasm of a young girl. At one point, as she is debating what to wear to her party tomorrow, I take a glorious burgundy dress from a rack. Why don't you wear this, I ask. 'That won't fit me!' she laughs, as if it were obvious, 'They're for models, darling!' It turns out everything in the room is a sample - in other words, size minus 10. And Stella seems strangely detached from the mechanics of actually buying the clothes. Though she speaks about how flattering it is that women should choose to wear them, especially since such expensive decisions are not taken lightly, when I admire a pair of turquoise satin shoes she says: 'Get them! How much are they?' I don't know, I say, they don't have a price on. 'Hm,' she frowns, as if she were an ordinary frugal shopper, 'never a good sign, is it?'
Yet she is well known for her hard-nosed business sense. When she was first approached by Chloé, she said she would only be interested if it was the top job - and at the time she was barely out of college. She's always had it written into her contracts that she won't work with fur or leather. The deal she brokered for the launch of her own label in April 2001 allegedly left her backers at Gucci quaking. One of her nicknames is 'Stella Steel', and she informs me that one of her friends was reading the Guinness Book of Records while sitting on the loo one day and found her in it. 'I thought the Guinness Book of Records was for like the biggest lemon, or the biggest bubble you can blow, but apparently I'm in there for being the fastest rising fashion designer or something.' She thinks about this and gets a bit miffed. 'And I haven't even been inducted! I should get a medal or something, shouldn't I?'
The conversation inevitably returns to her association with fame - I have to ask her about Madonna and co, but what I really want to know is whether the celeb-y image is a fair representation of the way she lives her life. 'It's not really. I've got a balance - you know, I've got a lot more unfamous friends than famous friends. But it's just something that sounds good, isn't it - I mean, who would you rather hear about, my friend Joanne or my friend Madonna?'
Well actually, I say, your friend Joanne. I'd like to hear about your life as you see it - there's no point in my asking about people who aren't really part of it just because I've heard of them. 'Well,' she tells me, 'my friend Joanne is coming tomorrow night and she's staying at my house. And she just asked me if she could borrow some clothes, and so did my friend Jane, so we're going to sit and try on all my clothes before we get ready. I've known them for about 15 years.'
How often do you get to see each other given your busy schedule?
'We all just understand each other. I'm not the kind of friend who can sit and chat for three hours on the phone, or writes letters - I don't even really email. But I do have a lot of contact with my friends.'
Her responses aren't antagonistic, but they are resigned, and there's no mistaking the fact that she's being put through paces she has traced a thousand times before. Her parents, her impending marriage to magazine publisher Alasdhair Willis, her controversial step-mother: she is guarded about all of these. 'What wedding?' she will say, in a voice as sweet as pie, knowing that tabloids have been speculating on the date and venue for the past year. Even just checking facts, to make sure mistakes are not repeated - like whether she lives in Notting Hill or Belgravia (the former), and whether she has really bought a dilapidated church to house her studio - feel to her like interference. She says she'd rather not draw attention to all that, in case people stand outside with pea-shooters.
When I ask about Heather, the step-mother she is rumoured to despise, Stella pretends not to know which one I mean - her sister Heather or her father's wife. I say Heather Mills, and she gets up from the sofa with all the efficiency of a maiden aunt about to embark on a bit of dusting. 'Come on,' she says briskly, 'this interview's not about that.' And off she goes to have her picture taken.
By eight o'clock the following evening, the launch party is in full swing: a bank of photographers outside the door, several black-clad people with clipboards and headsets, and a sprinkling of dour-faced policemen all the way down Bruton Street. The hazy silhouettes of several hundred people can be seen through the PVC-covered shop window.
Fashion doyenne Isabella Blow is standing near the entrance in what appears to be a paper hat. Valentino glides through the ground floor, not a russet-coloured hair sprayed out of place. Mary McCartney snaps pictures with her Leica, while Sam Taylor-Wood and Jay Jopling flit around the stairwell. Tracey Emin is posing as a gargoyle in a doorframe. Mario Testino has taken up residence near a life-sized ice sculpture of a unicorn, which, in the course of the evening, begins to drip on the assembled guests (Stella is obsessed with horses). Sadie Frost is up in the VIP room with Stella, along with so many models that the bowl of luxury chocolates on the coffee table has found an alternative use as an ashtray. Someone, knowing that actual consumption of such things is impossible, has stubbed out her cigarette in it. All over every floor are recognisable people whose common denominator is that they are much thinner in real life. Some guests even appear to have spotted Madonna. She came in, drifted through, and immediately left through the back door. We know this because certain insiders spent the rest of the evening in the security office, playing back the 'where's Waldo?' moment on the CCTV tape. Mr and Mrs Macca, though on the guest list, are not here.
Somewhere in the crowd are Joanne and Jane, the friends mostly likely to remain when the sheen on the glamour wears off. I slip out of the party just as a state of emergency has been declared upstairs: the triumphant glistening ice sculpture is melting too fast, and threatening to fall through the ceiling.