The road hasn’t always been easy. Given her personal pedigree, McCartney would have arrived in fashion with considerably more fanfare than your average design-school grad, even if the model casting for her degree show at St. Martins had been more low-key. “The press was there because Paul McCartney’s daughter was having her degree show with Kate and Naomi,” she says. “I didn’t foresee that happening, which was just pure stupidity.” Still, early on she charmed with her combination of blue-eyed postadolescent wonder, prettily cool clothes and Brit It girl edge. After a brief flirtation with designing under her own label, she signed with Chloé, in 1997, following no less a luminary than Karl Lagerfeld. Though her stint at the house proved successful, the collection really took off after her departure, when the reins were handed over to her classmate, good friend and first assistant, Phoebe Philo. “I’m not a hugely bitter kind of person; it’s not in my character,” McCartney says. “But I was a bit like, ‘Mmm, wish that had been me’—like anyone would be. But I wasn’t bothered. Phoebe was my friend. I was happy for her.”
McCartney had laid the groundwork for Chloé’s winning boho sorority-girl signature, so the industry was completely unprepared when, for her first show under her own label for Gucci Group for spring 2002, she showed a hard, dressed-down, sexed-up affair that crossed over from racy to raunchy. The reviews were scalding. Looking back, McCartney acknowledges a too-aggressive approach, although she maintains she never aspired to a tough, rock-chick sensibility.
Over time, McCartney has kept the spunk while reinterpreting the feminine-masculine counterpoint of her early work with increasing subtlety and sophistication, the evolution indicative not only of the natural maturation from edgy kid to chic young woman but also of a creative talent that had to find its voice as the world watched.
When asked who personifies her relaxed, sensual aesthetic, McCartney cites neither Paltrow, Liv Tyler nor any other famous friend. “My mum—I think that she was very beautiful,” she responds. “She had a great, amazing, natural sense of style. She did stuff for herself, and the way she wore clothes was very much a reflection of the person she was.”
Linda McCartney was a woman who could and did do for herself at a time when celebrities were not all prepackaged to stylist-induced perfection—which is not to say that the old days were judgment-free. “She got killed, Mum; she got slaughtered for the way she looked sometimes. She used to cut her own hair, always: She’d go like that, and go like that—” McCartney motions with imaginary scissors—“for this crazy hairdo. She always used to do her own makeup. She used to wear odd socks, like argyles, that were different lengths, different colors. She was quite a little bit irreverent: She was a little bit punky, my mum, and I love that—a little bit kind of, ‘Screw you,’ which I think is important to have. She didn’t conform…she had a good sense of, ‘Enjoy it.’”