Stella Performance

With her career thriving, Stella Mccartney muses on fashion and family.

The longtime residence of Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, situated just off the main road in the hamlet of the Springs, a stone’s throw from East Hampton, is a modest affair, more indicative of the painter’s meager finances than of his artistic clout. The photo shoot taking place on the lawn between the wood-frame house and studio suits the no-frills setting: a photographer curved over the camera directed at his pretty, fresh-faced subject; a trio of alert assistants ready to bustle yet with little to do, though one keeps a discreet eye on a nearby bench strewn with a few pieces of clothes and a pair of women’s handbags. After noon, the property is open to visitors, and while those few milling about look above reproach, you never know.

Typically, taking magazine pictures in public attracts considerable curiosity. But this shoot is so low-key, and the subject—who may or may not look familiar to the people about to ditch their shoes and don disposable foam slippers for the honor of walking on Pollock’s paint splatters in the studio—acts too low-maintenance to be a real celebrity.

Yet a celebrity Stella McCartney is, she of the famous fashion house and legendary lineage. As an editor, one can think of few subjects willing to step in front of the camera of a major photographer without a top-tier hair and makeup team at the ready to conceal, highlight, enhance and fluff. But on this cool summer day, McCartney herself has applied a few cursory flicks of the mascara wand and now dutifully tousles and pulls back her hair as per Craig McDean’s request, a skill perhaps inherited from her mother, who routinely self-beautified—including those distinctive punkish haircuts. Earlier in the week, there had been some confusion about the hair and makeup, so McCartney decided to dispense with it. “It seems silly to have your makeup done out here,” she says, pointing vaguely to her surroundings, which she had suggested as a meeting place. (She’s warm and engaging, but not enough to open the doors of a family residence for pictures.) She has, however, temporarily traded in her beachy flat sandals for sexy purple platforms, even though McDean is taking ultratight shots. At five months pregnant, McCartney has no intention of doing a trendy “bump” portrait. The shoes will “make me feel foxier,” she says. “You know when you’re having your pictures taken, and you’re in flats…”

Foxy shoes a body’s length outside the frame yet no hair and makeup pros—that’s Stella McCartney. It’s precisely the attitude she captures with her clothes: fresh, relaxed, sexy in a no-big-deal way. Her terrific fall collection radiated modern sensuality with its big volumes, short lengths and current of sportif chic. But McCartney bristles politely at the notion that her look projects a new, young glamour. “That isn’t a word that I would use, or aspire to,” she says. “For me, it’s more of a natural confidence, naturally sexy. My idea of beauty is women who are comfortable with themselves, who are not trying too hard.”

That’s a description that well suits McCartney. After more than 10 years of fame in her own right, she still disarms anyone who expects double diva-dom from this icon progeny and major fashion designer, and those who know her say the grounded demeanor is no mere act for the press. She’s quick with a thank-you note and to inquire about the children of acquaintances, remembering details of ages and interests. As for her friends, she goes all out. “Stella’s the kind of friend who calls me on the anniversary of my dad’s death,” says Gwyneth Paltrow. “When I was pregnant with my daughter, she said to me, ‘You sort of eloped, so we never got to do anything. Why don’t we go to my house in the country for the weekend?’ When I got there, all my high school friends were there. She had plastered my room with pictures from growing up, and she organized amazing games.”

Domenico De Sole, who during his tenure as CEO of Gucci Group signed McCartney to do her own collection, recalls meetings at his house in London when she would make tea with his wife. More telling, he says, is the way she behaved beyond the boss’s line of vision: “We have a huge facility [in Navaro, Italy] that made ready-to-wear for the Gucci Group. Everybody would come to tell me how much they enjoyed working with Stella and how gracious and kind she was. I’m not talking about the CEO of the operation; I’m talking about the seamstresses, the people in the shop.”

“Why wouldn’t I be nice?” McCartney queries. “My mom and dad were kind of famous for being nice.”

Which is not to say Sir Paul and the late Linda McCartney raised a pushover. Professionally, Stella, 35, is fiercely determined and deliberate, with a clear sense of direction. She’s proud of her business, and from the start she insisted on doing things her way. “We’re quite a responsible brand,” she says, referring to her hard-core anti-fur and -leather stance and her decision to keep her firm, and thus her employee roster, based in London.

De Sole, who put her under contract at Tom Ford’s urging, remembers a tough, savvy negotiator who, despite her youth and relative lack of accomplishment, refused to budge on one point in particular—the rights to her name. It didn’t hurt that her legal advice came from high-powered entertainment lawyer John Eastman, aka Uncle John. His ironclad dictum: “It’s not about the money. Always have an out.”

“I grew up with a name in my life, and I know the importance of that name,” McCartney says. “The whole thing in the negotiations was giving away any part of that name, and the possibility of losing that name, so it wasn’t an option. I think having my uncle involved, because that’s his job and, you know, that’s all you’ve got at the end of the day is your name, isn’t it?”

And your values. A pioneering animal-rights activist in a fur-obsessed profession, McCartney is far from shy about “sharing information.” Years ago, she famously sent out a video depicting fur-trade atrocities to her designing peers to the clear annoyance of some; one, she recalls, even told her to “shove it up my a–.” She praises Ralph Lauren as a designer who doesn’t do fur, but she struggles to come up with another such kindred spirit within the fashion ranks. “Ralph rocks!” she shouts out with a smile, and then stops to agree with her own proclamation. “He does, though, anyway. He’s reached a certain level.”

The fact that so few designers have seen the humane light astounds her, even making her at times “ashamed” of her profession. Asked how she would react if her children grew up feeling differently, she says she’ll throw them a bone. “Of course I’ve thought about if they wanted to eat meat, and you have to just let them do it,” notes the devoted vegetarian. “My parents were always like, ‘If you want to, you can.’ I think a lot of it is about being educated and having information and the reasons for not eating meat.” But if one chose to slip into a fur? “I can’t imagine my kids wanting to wear fur. I just can’t imagine them being that mean and horrible and evil.” And though she delivers the line with a slight laugh, one gets the distinct impression it’s no joke.

McCartney’s passions seem rooted in something other than vanity—her family (the baby due in November makes number three, sibling to brother Miller, two, and sister Bailey, eight months), her company, animals, protecting her privacy and sharing whatever personal information she chooses on her terms. Today, despite suggestions that this would be a guarded interview, those terms are fairly liberal. (The non-negotiable exception: Sir Paul’s second marriage.) The shoot over, McCartney has slipped into a cropped navy jumpsuit roomy enough for an onlooker to wonder is she or isn’t she, and shields her already freckled face under a straw hat. She looks adorably utilitarian, like any well-heeled young Hamptons matron who might drop by the fruit stand on the way home to the kids. She suggests lunching in Amagansett Square, a short scoot away from the Pollock House where, it turns out, various family members do yoga, and she knows just where to grab a bite. She orders “a number six—with no chicken” and heads for one of the picnic tables outside.

“I’ve been coming here my whole life,” McCartney says. Every August Paul and Linda McCartney would transplant their brood of four children to Scotland and East Hampton for two weeks each. (On holiday and at home, Linda, a well-known professional photographer, frequently turned her camera on her own, building a wonderful archive of snapshots, including those featured in this story, that reveals the deep family intimacy.) East Hampton remains a retreat for “the American half” of McCartney’s family, a group loaded with cousins who, while growing up, at first played and then partied together here and are still close today. As a girl McCartney loved the beach parties with kegs and going to the Talkhouse, where “they’d have Muddy Waters and amazing people play, and you’d just go in.” And, like countless long-term Hamptonites, she recalls resenting the arrivistes: “One summer you had to pay to get in, and there were queues, and we were just devastated.” Once at a party, when a boy asked McCartney to dance, she declined and then felt as if she had made a terrible faux pas. “He was actually asking me for a dance, whereas in England guys would be like, ‘Do you wanna dance?’ and it was more casual. Here it was posher.”

Posher? “I guess the American side of my family are posher, obviously, than my English side, because my English side are Liverpool, and here they’re, like, posher.”

It was thanks to the posh side that McCartney first developed her interest in art. Her maternal grandfather, entertainment lawyer Lee Eastman, whom she grew up wanting to impress, represented De Kooning and possessed a major collection of Abstract Expressionists. Thus she thought the Pollock House made sense for her portrait, though as it turns out, the only sense of place in McDean’s picture comes via the light.

“We grew up with [art] around as kids,” McCartney says. “I remember once we were having dinner at my grandpa’s apartment in New York, and he had a huge, massive De Kooning on the wall in the dining room. As children, we used to have to go and eat in the kitchen and the adults would have dinner in the dining room, and this one time we were all allowed to have dinner in the dining room and my brother—you know how kids, like, push back on the table?—pushed back and went, bash, right into this massive De Kooning. Everyone just went completely silent.” Happily the canvas survived without damage, and McCartney’s interest in art continued. (Despite going to fashion school, she wrote her college thesis on De Kooning.) She and her husband, Alasdhair Willis, have “a bit of art—Gary Hume, a really nice Bill Viola video piece and an Ed Ruscha,” and, one senses, even more, but she considers possession dropping vulgar. “And we have a couple of Picassos and a couple of De Koonings,” she mocks, indicating that flaunting is just not the family way.

McCartney’s inclination to play down her good fortune goes back to her school days, when missing the bus meant a ride to class in a fancy car. On those occasions, she says, “I’d crouch, and I’d hide.” In fact, the McCartney children sometimes enrolled in their various schools under the surname Martin (co-opted from their nanny, Rose). Inevitably, however, discovery would come, usually with some embarrassment. McCartney recalls that at Ravensbourne, a college she attended prior to Central St. Martins College of Art, someone passing by interrupted a conversation she was having and asked, “Where is she? Where is Stella McCartney?”

“It always happened at school when I first started, and then people just got used to it,” she says. At least once, a schoolmate attempted empathy. “Don’t worry, I know how it feels,” she told the teenaged McCartney. “My dad’s the vicar in the local village.” “It’s all relative, you know?” the designer muses. “[It was] the country. The vicar is kind of valid in that kind of environment.” Still, the icon’s daughter acknowledges moments of wonder at her father’s stunning historical import. “I am incredibly proud,” she says. “I think, Oh my God, he is one of the few living icons. I’m struck by that quite often but not in an obsessed way. I mean, he’s my dad; it would be weird if I was like ‘Oh wow’ all the time. But I’m not blind. To have true staying power in his industry and be one of the few living people of true talent…. Nowadays, anyone can be a celebrity. He has fame rather than just celebrity, and it’s sort of deserved, I guess.”

Not surprisingly, pedestrian celebrity impresses McCartney not a whit, nor does she court it for herself, though as a girl she flirted with pursuing a music career before coming to the realization that she’s “not an entertainer.” Currently she lives in London with Willis and their growing family. Several years ago, he resigned as publisher of Wallpaper to start a furniture company, Established & Sons, and though the couple try to avoid too much design shoptalk at home, some such conversation is inevitable, as it would be “in any healthy marriage.” When it comes to critiquing each other’s work, they are “delicately honest.”

As for the stress of combining motherhood with a career, McCartney’s not complaining. “It’s hard being a working mum, but it’s hard being a working dad,” she says. “I had Miller two days before my show, and I think the DJ was the first person to see him, because we had to finish up the music….You never feel like you’re doing anything 100 percent, do you? You feel like you’re not being a 100 percent mum, and you’re not being a 100 percent worker. But you have to think to yourself, You know what? It’s all fine. I’m a great mum, and I’m a great worker.”

In the latter endeavor, McCartney is at the top of her game. After a decade of tireless work, super-scrutiny and no small amount of criticism, some bordering on the vicious, she has earned card-carrying membership in the exclusive club of the world’s most important designers. In addition to her Stella McCartney ready-to-wear, accessories, organic beauty line, and a lingerie collection set to launch next spring, she designs a red-hot collection for Adidas that has an ingenious marketing ploy—it adds a sport each year. (In August she released an emotional statement denying published reports that Adidas had used kangaroo leather in her collection.)

McCartney is a designer whose success developed over time, during which she learned to focus her talent with intelligence, perseverance and a strong work ethic. When as a student she realized that her St. Martins experience had emphasized creative development at the expense of actual skills, she apprenticed herself to a Savile Row tailor, and she has retained that keen sense of self-education. “Stella has put a lot of time and a lot of energy into researching what makes a brand successful, and you can see all of those elements,” says Bergdorf Goodman fashion director Roopal Patel. “She definitely is curious and interested in asking questions.”

Yet she’s not interested in trend mongering. “I’m probably more of a Ralph person who’s just going to do my own thing,” McCartney says. “I like to be in the magazines and [for] people to look at the clothes and to be fashionable, but I’m not obsessed with it.”

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.’”

Though McCartney concedes that today’s microscopic tabloid scrutiny no longer allows for such abandon, she believes enjoyment is still the better part of fashion, for consumer and designer alike. Right now, her career goal is both basic and huge: to develop staying power, a goal stressed by her grandfather when she was young, and which she so admires in that rockin’ guy Ralph. And though the popular wisdom may say such longevity is an aberration in a profession that celebrates youth over experience, McCartney begs to differ. “My God, this is a forgiving industry,” she says. “In what other industry [do] you have people who are 80 who are really on top of their field? The young designers, they’re all knocking 40. Give me an example [like that] in the music industry, in the arts. Fashion is so forgiving of age. I mean, it’s amazing.”