There are people who are utterly galled by the good fortune of others. Then there are those who feel uplifted by it, walking away with a smile on their lips, and a song in their hearts (preferably something in the vein of The Beatles). Stella McCartney's sane, human response to a life that has been anything but ordinary is some kind of model of how to thrive in the lowering shadow of a legend.
It's easy to say that, at 40, McCartney has it all: the fabulous legacy (the product of one of music's most famously loving and lasting unions, between her mother, Linda, and her father, Paul); the handsome, accomplished husband (Alasdhair Willis is a design guru in London); four adorable children; and a fashion business that has grown by leaps and bounds, creatively and commercially, since she founded it in 2001. But you have to balance that against the loss of her mother to breast cancer in 1998, an emotional catastrophe that brings her to tears even now. And considering the insane pressures and prejudices that are attached to her name, having it all seems less a birthright and more a hard-won trophy.
McCartney works hard for the money. It helps that when she signed her deal with Gucci Group (now PPR Group) more than 10 years ago, she had the smarts to demand that it be an equal parternship. It's an ethically minded business, founded on her mother's vegetarian principles, which makes her something of a Trojan horse in the luxury-fashion industry, more so because her collections—Spring's short, supersexy graphic prints being a case in point-press so many of-the-moment buttons.
This year sees McCartney hoisted high as creative director of Team Great Britain for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, overseeing every single look that every single athlete will wear in competition. Thankfully, she has a gift for high-performance athleticism. There's her longtime Adidas collaboration to attest to that. There was also the show McCartney staged during London Fashion Week this past February, where she presented a special collection of eveningwear with an extravagant display of supermodel hyperkineticism. Bodies were thrown every which way like gorgeous rag dolls. It was one of the most unhinging, exciting things I've seen in years. It was also a valuable reminder that the art of surprise is one of fashion's most valuable assets.
We sat down over lunch a few days after her London show to talk about life's other surprises.
TIM BLANKS: One thing I love about fashion is that there is still this capacity for amazing surprises. Do you feel like that about what you do?
STELLA MCCARTNEY: My biggest surprises in my everyday job have to do with the challenges of trying to be slightly more responsible as a brand. My big surprises are when I say, "That fair-trade knitwear we did last season in Peru, I want to do it again," and someone else says, "Okay, it rained for two months and that factory sat on a mountaintop and it doesn't exist anymore."
BLANKS: What's your response to something like that? You find another way to do it?
MCCARTNEY: It's normally out of your hands. To use that exact example, we did organic fair-trade sweaters one year with that factory, and the sweaters were a big success and everyone loved them. So then we were like, "Okay, we'll do a new style next year with you guys," and something happened where they just couldn't deliver. They couldn't handle our production needs. You just have to be very agile. When you're trying to have moments of responsibility in the fashion industry, it's not as easy as just doing the same old handbag every season with the same old factory in the same old materials.
BLANKS: So it's a battle between good intentions and realistic expectations.
MCCARTNEY: Yeah, exactly. For me, that's modern. It's how life should be. I'm reacting to realities. You just don't try to pretend that life doesn't have its ups and downs. I think that the fashion industry, like a lot of industries, has a way of falling into patterns. Our company has to react in a more proactive way because of what we believe in, and I find that really interesting. The interesting thing for me is that you learn. And for me that's what fashion should be about. You should be changing every season and learning, and to me that's what becomes modern and exciting about it. It's not just about the shape of a sleeve or the silhouette of a skirt.
BLANKS: Is it easier now than when you started?
MCCARTNEY: You would think it's always easier than it really is. Rule number one: We're not perfect. That's the most important thing to get across. Each season I naively think, Oh, it's gonna get easier and easier. But, you know, it's very much driven by the economy. So one season I can say, "Where's that organic yarn that I used last season?" And next season I'll hear, "Oh, that place went out of business because nobody ordered that organic yarn apart from you."
BLANKS: Can you see long-term solutions?
MCCARTNEY: Yeah. You have to be hopeful that people will be more educated in how they buy things, and hopefully more luxury brands will start to think that way on a longer-term basis. But it's not all about that for me, you know? For me it's about just doing the best that we can. My job at the end of the day is to design timeless, desirable, beautiful products. It's not about just designing a bunch of organic jumpers. I have a balance within the brand. If you try to create something people enjoy, and it happens to be made in a responsible way, then that's when you can really strike an incredible balance.
BLANKS: It feels to me that there's been a shift over the years towards just quietly getting on with things, where once there was a lot more noise. But did you feel at the beginning you had to try hard to be noticed, maybe even shock people?
MCCARTNEY: Maybe. I didn't feel that I needed to do anything intentionally. I was just younger and a little bit more irreverent, and I was quite "fuck you." You know, I was quite angry at the beginning of my life.
MCCARTNEY: I guess I felt the eyes. It was just . . . I don't know. What do I think? I haven't had a great deal of time to reflect on it. I just think it was the irreverence of youth, and I was just a London girl who was really trying not to pay too much attention to everyone else's issues.
BLANKS: But given that you were brought up so well—
MCCARTNEY: Yeah, what happened? [laughs]
BLANKS: I mean, you hadn't grown up in public, but that whole thing inevitably intruded. There was no way around it.
MCCARTNEY: I find it interesting now to think about. I probably didn't have permission to be a fashion designer because I had a famous set of parents, even though I'd done the exact same training as every other fashion designer I'd known. I didn't grow up in public, as you say, but people knew who my dad was when I came out. I mean, I didn't go, "Hi, my dad's Paul McCartney."
BLANKS: But everyone else seemed very happy to do it for you. I'm wondering if that's what you meant when you said you were angry.
MCCARTNEY: I wasn't massively angry . . . It probably looks great on paper, the fact that I was angry. But what's the right word for how I was? Maybe defensive is better. I'd had a lot of my life before I became a public fashion designer. I mean, imagine everyone in this restaurant is your school, and everyone knows who your mom and dad are, and they know something about you and you don't really know anything about them or who they are. So you get a little bit defensive and you sort of want to go up to them and say, "Hi! Who's your mom and dad?"
BLANKS: But I never felt you pulling back from those associations. You always seemed to head straight into it.
MCCARTNEY: It's more when I was at school. But I was a fairly sociable girl, I guess.
BLANKS: Was there ever a moment where you thought, Actually, this is a useful thing in my life?
MCCARTNEY: No, I never intentionally thought to use it. At the same time, I didn't shy away from it. I was just kind of quietly up-front about it. My first show, I used famous models, and my thinking about that was other people in my situation would probably use those models if they knew them, so why would I go out of my way to not use them? Because I did think maybe I should not do that. But in the end I decided that's a bit strange—I'm not doing something I would naturally do because I'm worried that some people are going to make a negative judgment about me. So I didn't knowingly promote it, but at the same time I did try to react to it in a realistic way, which is that sometimes it helped, and sometimes it didn't.
BLANKS: But now this fabulously ironic situation has arisen where Paul is your dad, rather than you being his daughter.
MCCARTNEY: I wouldn't go that far. I think that people are probably just more used to me now. My mom's dad always used to say it was important to have staying power. And I've always really believed in that. My main thing with the brand, and as a human being, is to have staying power. To not disappear.
’m very proud of building a business without using animals. And, hopefully, changing people’s perception
of how you can do luxury fashion. —Stella McCartney
BLANKS: When you have your own family, you find your parents become your peers. Has that changed your attitude to your dad over the years?
MCCARTNEY: You know, I accept that he is a dad, too, and he has five children now, and I accept that that's a lot of kids. I guess I do have empathy. And I have a lot of curiosity as to how my mom and dad did it and how that changes as you grow up. I have more questions for him now that I am a parent and I have more understanding of it.
BLANKS: Do you make a point of asking those questions when you're with him? My dad died when I was young and I think about all the things I never got to ask him.
MCCARTNEY: Well, I think about that with my mom. Obviously, being a woman, I've probably got a couple more questions for her than I do for dad. I feel like a different person since my mom passed away, like I'm driving a ship with my husband alongside me and we're leading these four children into unknown waters. And at the same time, I have this other little family that is Stella McCartney Limited, and I'm on a journey with them as well. I feel like I'm in the thick of it. I mean, the eye of the storm. Sometimes I'll get into the bath with all my kids and they'll look at me and say, "Oh, it's just us! It's just our family in the bath!" And I remember that feeling, when it was just our family. It's such a powerful moment. I grew up with the six of us, and now our family's got six, so I'm very aware of the numbers and the way it slots together.
BLANKS: Do you think you've re-created your own childhood subconsciously?
MCCARTNEY: Probably . . . Subconsciously, yeah. I mean, a lot of people do tend to re-create the balance of their family.
BLANKS: And you grew up on a farm when you were a kid. Now you've got one, too.
MCCARTNEY: It's my favorite place to be. In a field on a horse, with my kids on little horses behind me. We rescued three ponies from New Forest [in Hampshire, England]. They round up the wild ponies and they auction them for dog food and everything, so we rescued three, and that's what they ride. We're having to break them in. They're really cute. They're wild and hairy and this little [Indicates a horse that's knee-high to a grasshopper] . . .
BLANKS: Where does the riding thing come from with you?
MCCARTNEY: My mom. She rode [in dressage competitions] when she was younger. My mom was obsessed with horses. She and dad rode all the time. He still does.
BLANKS: Can you see the changes Alasdhair has made in you?
MCCARTNEY: Oh, every day I see them. He's an amazing man. I'm very much in love with him.
BLANKS: Do you feel it was anything as banal as him taming you?
MCCARTNEY: Oh, yeah, he might have had a moment of that. . . [laughs] Was I that wild? When you find the person that you settle down with, I guess you mellow. They are taming you, aren't they? Or you're taming them. For me, it was a moment of surrender. You just sort of accept the next day of your life.
BLANKS: Were you surprised?
MCCARTNEY: Yeah. I find everything surprising. But I don't think I put a great deal of thought into the process. I do go with the flow a bit. There's a side to me that recognizes sometimes life has its own path. Perhaps I wasn't surprised by Alasdhair and me. If anything I was just very responsive to it.
BLANKS: Was it love at first sight?
MCCARTNEY: It was pretty close to that. We definitely had chemistry pretty early on. I mean, we met and then we were on a date that evening.
BLANKS: How much time do you actually spend away from home?
MCCARTNEY: I had a four-day rule when I first had Miller [her oldest son] and then it slowly went to three days and two days. I get really agitated when I'm away from the kids for too long. I'm excited to have gotten to where I can take the kids with me now sometimes.
BLANKS: But now that the business is so global, aren't there many more demands?
MCCARTNEY: Yeah, work's pretty full-on right now. But 2012 was always going to be a big year for us.
BLANKS: When Lee [Alexander McQueen] died and when John [Galliano] imploded, people blamed the overwhelming pressure of their jobs. Do you believe that's what happened?
MCCARTNEY: I'm sure there were many factors. I don't think anyone can give an exact reason. Yeah, there's a lot of pressure in our industry. We all feel it. But I think there's a lot of pressure in a lot of industries. Sometimes the fashion industry can get a bit kind of isolated and it's all "Oooh! It's so relentless!" But I don't see our industry as the only one like that. But I do think that personality comes into play a lot. I also try not to take myself too seriously. When I feel myself getting nervous and stressed and self-absorbed, I try to just go, "Oh, come on."
BLANKS: And what makes you feel like that?
MCCARTNEY: Moments when you feel the pressure. For me, the pressure is when you employ a lot of people and you have family that you want to look after. I felt it on my first show. It obviously didn't go at all well, and I felt very responsible for all the people who had invested time and energy. That was more my disappointment than any personal feeling. At the same time, I'm just so happy and proud when we have rave reviews like we did recently. I very much believe—I'm not particularly good at it-that you can't just believe all the good stuff. If you believe the good stuff, you've got to believe the bad stuff, too.
BLANKS: Do you read your own reviews?
MCCARTNEY: Sometimes. I prefer them if they're good.
BLANKS: When you were young, and Paul would read something that somebody said about him, did his reaction to things make any impression on you?
MCCARTNEY: Yeah, but like any parent, you know? I don't think my dad really read his reviews. We never bought newspapers, ever. Ever. I don't buy the newspapers now. So I have to say we grew up really isolated from that side of our life.
Maybe in a bubble. You had moments when it was all in your face, and then most of the time it really wasn't part of the daily routine. It was just Dad's job. He would come home, he'd made a song, you would listen to it, you liked it, you didn't like it, it went on an album, the album got released, it pretty much charted instantly, we pretty much always saw him on the telly—it's just what happened. My dad jokes that when I was young we were in Scotland and he was on telly and I turned around and I'm like . . . [laughs] "You're Paul McCartney!" It was a bit weird. And I remember another time when I said to him, "Dad, put that song in the charts, make it go to number one," and he was like, "It doesn't work like that." So I think we were always connecting the dots since I was a kid.
BLANKS: But was there ever a moment when you were into something else and he'd play his music and you'd be all, "Dad, that is so . . ."
MCCARTNEY: Embarrassing? Yeah, but you know, the thing is, I've always had quite a high level of respect for my parents. Also, you'd listen to it so much that you just got it. It's like seeing the same dress every night. Your mom's a fashion designer and she brings home the same piece of knitwear, and so your opinion of something evens out because you're seeing the same jacket every day.
BLANKS: With your own kids, are you conscious of keeping things from them? Or would you rather they knew the world?
MCCARTNEY: What was that line in The Descendants? "You give your children enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing." My husband and I looked at each other during that film and we were like, "That is the ultimate." I don't know, maybe I'm overly paranoid that they're gonna be spoiled. But I want to keep them going as kids for as long as I can. I want to keep them innocent and free.
BLANKS: The Olympic Games is a big part of your year, and it's not just an incredible professional endorsement, but it's the first time anyone has attempted what you're doing.
MCCARTNEY: Yeah, no designer has worked with the entire team before. Between the Olympic and the Paralympic teams, that's 900 athletes, which is thousands upon thousands of products. The magnitude of that is way out of my comfort zone. What's most mind-blowing about it is I'm serving the nation a bit, serving the team, trying to bring them together.Blanks: Some of them have very special needs.
MCCARTNEY: Well, all of them have very special needs. They're all trying to win gold medals.
BLANKS: I imagine the Olympics are a pinch-me moment. What are your others?
MCCARTNEY: Babies, marriage . . . Losing my mom. That was a punch-me moment. I think the moment that I'm very proud of is building a business without using animals. And, hopefully, changing people's perception of how you can do luxury fashion.
BLANKS: You feel you have?
MCCARTNEY: I might before I die . . . [laughs] I don't think I have, no. But I think I am definitely in the process of doing something very different from other luxury brands. I did always say I wanted to infiltrate from within. That was always my reasoning behind going into partnership with a luxury group that uses a lot of leather in their products. I'm also a real believer that just doing a little something is really a lot better than doing a lot of nothing.
BLANKS: Do you believe in destiny?
MCCARTNEY: I don't know. I'm a great believer in going with the flow. But I believe in luck, too. I feel very lucky. But at the same time, I do work hard. I think deep down I'm spiritual, but there's nothing I practice. I can do a bit of TM [transcendental meditation] when I remember to. And I went through a period of doing yoga, but it was Ashtanga, and it was much more hardcore than chilling out.
BLANKS: When you think about your dad going off to India with the Maharishi [Mahesh Yogi] in the '60s, it makes you realize how trendy a lot of it is.
MCCARTNEY: I know. Did you see Martin Scorsese's George Harrison documentary? I was like, Wow, they really got a lot of flak for that.
BLANKS: What did you think of the film?
MCCARTNEY: I loved it. Martin Scorsese is a genius. Olivia Harrison is a fucking cool chick. I wanted to cry when Dhani [Harrison, George's son] was reading out George's parts. I thought it was really a beautiful tribute to an amazing man. It's really important that people know more about George, because obviously he didn't get as much attention as the others.
BLANKS: You think they'll ever do one for Ringo?
MCCARTNEY: Yes . . . [laughs] Definitely. I thought Ringo was really cool in it!
BLANKS: Is there a children-of-The Beatles thing?
MCCARTNEY: Yeah, we're all family. We're all related deep down.
BLANKS: And a children-of-children-of-The Beatles thing?
MCCARTNEY: I don't know about that. We haven't done that quite yet. They're all too little. But there will be. We just need to all get together. But there's definitely enough children of children of Beatles. Ringo's daughter Lee [Starkey] just had triplets. Jay [Starkey], her brother, has got four boys. Dhani will have children soon, I'm sure. He's like the little brother.
probably didn’t have permission to be a fashion designer because i had a famous set of parents, even though i’d done the exact same training as every other fashion designer i’d known. —Stella McCartney