Stella McCartney's journey from outlier to leader: 'I was the eco weirdo'
It has taken 20 years, but the fashion industry is finally starting to see value in the designer's cruelty free, environmentally sensitive approach. And she's not nearly as smug as she could be
Fashion designer Stella McCartney introduced a sustainable mission in fashion 20 years ago. Photo: Stella McCartney
It’s funny to think, when I first started out on this journey 20 years ago, I was the outsider or the 'eco weirdo',” says fashion designer Stella McCartney.
Despite celebrating two decades at the helm of her eponymous label, which has always championed a cruelty-free, environmentally sensitive approach, McCartney is the first to admit it has been a less than straightforward journey.
“I was the one being told I couldn’t have a successful luxury brand if I didn’t use leather or fur. I’m not going to pretend it’s been an easy ride.”
Stella McCartney made sure her fashion label took a stance against fur and leather back in 2001. Photo: Stella McCartney
Raised by famous parents who embraced vegetarianism and a cruelty free lifestyle, McCartney made sure her fashion label took a stance against the use of leather, fur and polluting production methods. Today, these conversations are centre stage, but in 2001, it was a very different story.
“Trying to source materials that were better for the planet, 20, 10, even five years ago, required a lot of research, but that was our priority and we were willing to put in that time and effort,” she tells The National.
Having long been viewed by her peers as something of an outlier, and having been mocked for refusing to engage with practices she saw as cruel, outdated and unnecessary, McCartney might be forgiven for relishing her “I told you so” moment, as others now scramble to follow her lead. Yet, even here, she takes the view that customers are the true drivers of change.
“Today, sustainable materials are somewhat more accessible, meaning more brands are taking advantage, which is fantastic – it’s all about supply and demand, and I think you’re now the outsider if your brand isn’t thinking in this way.’’
Major brands are joining McCartney's lead in being fur free, including Armani, Chanel, Prada, Versace and Gucci, in a shift that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. And as consumer willingness to turn a blind eye to poor animal welfare wanes, entire countries are outlawing fur farms, with France, Germany, Norway and Belgium having all committed to phasing out the production or sale of fur.
“More and more luxury brands, departments stores and even cities are going fur free," says McCartney. "Brands are doing sustainability capsules and consciously using more sustainable fabrics, and magazines now do dedicated sustainability issues, which I think is so important, because I always say education is key."
A look from Stella McCartney's spring/summer 2022 collection. Photo: Stella McCartney
Being a figurehead for a more sustainable fashion industry would be meaningless without creating goods that people actually wanted to buy. Enter the Falabella bag, which McCartney launched in 2010. Named for the horse of the same name, it is made from vegan leather and edged with a distinctive, diamond cut chain. Initially released as a slouchy tote bag, it now comes in everything from a small cross body to a half straw version that doubles as a shopper, and a tiny, on-trend micro. The power of its success is not lost on McCartney.
“One thing I’m incredibly proud of, and somewhere I think I really set the bar high is our Falabella handbag. We first introduced it back when luxury brands wouldn’t dream of creating a vegetarian handbag.”
A bestseller for more than a decade, it also proves that customers are prepared to spend money on non-leather accessories. “There’s absolutely no need to kill animals to create a handbag that people love,” McCartney says.
“We worked out that we have saved approximately 300,000 to 400,000 cows because of our Falabella handbag sales, not to mention the amount of greenhouse gasses spared from all those cows. I hope other brands look at this and realise that you don’t have to compromise on design or profits, just because you’re working in a different way.”
McCartney recently released a gender-neutral line, called Shared, which further celebrates a willingness to think beyond the norm. “While my collections have always been a dichotomy of feminine and masculine energy, inspired by my parents’ shared wardrobe as I was growing up, I really feel that today’s youth are naturally open-minded and fluid with gender. I think it’s beautiful how they inclusively celebrate individuality, non-conformity and free thought, and are using their self-expression to affect social change – to create the world they want to see, collectively rising up in the face of the climate crisis and global social unrest with a real punky attitude.
“I love how they approach life and style with an activist perspective, demanding sustainability from brands; this is so aligned with our values at Stella McCartney,” she says.
As part of upholding those values, McCartney recently attended Cop26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Glasgow in the UK last month, where she called for an outright ban on fur and leather.
“I still don’t think many people truly understand the devastating impact that animal agriculture has on the planet. Not only is it horrifically cruel, animal agriculture is behind 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and is driving the deforestation of vital ecosystems like the Amazon. Leather production is also a human rights issue, poisoning tannery workers, often in developing countries,” she says.
To help lead the shift away from such practices, since 2017 McCartney has partnered with the non-profit platform Parley for the Oceans, to use its thread made from recycled ocean plastic in, among other things, her Ultra Boost trainers for adidas. In March, she debuted a range of clothing and bags made from the vegan fabric Mylo, created by start-up Bolt. An entirely new type of material, it is “grown” using mycelium, the underground root structure of organisms such as mushrooms.
A Stella McCartney bag made from mycelium leather. Photos: Stella McCartney
“To me, Mylo is such a game changer. Swapping real animal leather for innovations like Mylo could have a colossal impact on the industry. Right now, the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. The sooner we come together as an industry and embrace innovation, the sooner we can seriously start to align with the climate targets that we need to hit in line with the Paris Agreement, limiting global warming to 1.5°C.”
Having recently opened a new boutique in The Dubai Mall, McCartney explains how even here, every effort is made to practice what she preaches. Described by McCartney as “wonderful”, the new space is inspired by the brand’s London Old Bond Street flagship, and incorporates a number of innovative features.
“We designed the new Dubai Mall store using low-impact luxury materials and made every effort to work with handmade and sustainably sourced materials. My favourites have to be the bespoke shredded paper walls, which we created using leftover local newspapers – this is the first time we have done this. I also love the papier mâché wall panels we created with local paper waste and also the Bonnevari mannequins we have, which are fully biodegradable and made from a bioplastic material made with 72 per cent sugar cane. The mannequin paint is also made solely from renewable organic substances.”
Backstage at the Stella McCartney spring/summer 2022 show. Photo: Stella McCartney
As well as being a successful business woman and activist, McCartney is a parent to four young children, and as such, is mindful of the everyday realities of trying to live in a more sustainable manner. Yet, she believes effecting positive change is easier than some might think.
“There are very simple, small steps that everyone can take that can have a huge impact on the environment. I work with my family on an awareness campaign called Meat Free Monday, so the idea is that if everyone just gave up meat one day a week, it’s the equivalent of giving up all of our transport for an entire week. Reducing your meat intake or stopping eating animals all together is possibly the best thing you can do.
“The fact is, with rising populations and growing middle classes, the demand for meat and leather goods is just going to increase, and this demand simply can’t be met using the land and water it takes to raise cattle,” she says. “We need smarter, more sustainable solutions to killing animals, for the sake of food and fashion.”